Apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse – Ministerial statements

Date published: 11 March 2022

Ministers Michelle McIlveen, Conor Murphy, Nichola Mallon, Robin Swann and Naomi Long have today offered a public apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.

A minute’s silence was observed in the Assembly chamber during the public apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse
A minute’s silence was observed in the Assembly chamber during the public apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse

Speaking in the Assembly Chamber at Parliament Buildings, the Ministers said:

Minister Michelle McIlveen

I am here today, together with my Ministerial colleagues, to apologise to you, victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse; on behalf of the State.  To apologise for the systemic failings and systemic abuse documented in the late Sir Anthony Hart’s Report and Findings.

Today we say that we are sorry.

Whilst in the care of the State you were made vulnerable – we did not ensure all our residential homes were filled with love and safety. We did not ensure these homes were all free from hunger and cold; from mistreatment and abuse.

It was the State’s responsibility to do that, and it failed you.

We neglected you, rejected you, we made you feel unwanted. It was not your fault. The State let you down. 

When you spoke to us, you told us what this apology needed to say.  You told us that the apology had to include the five elements important to making a sincere or meaningful apology.  Elements which Professor Anne-Marie McAlinden outlined in her report on apologies and institutional child abuse.

You told us that you wanted to hear:

  • acknowledgement of the wrong;
  • acceptance of responsibility;
  • expression of regret;
  • assurance of non-repetition; and
  • an offer of repair or corrective action.

That is what we are going to do. My colleagues and I will each focus on one principle in turn in offering you our sincere apology.

I want to acknowledge the wrong that was done to you, which has been investigated and reported by Sir Anthony.

Sir Anthony found evidence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, and unacceptable practices by institutions and the State, and failings in their duties towards those children in their care between 1922 and 1995.

To those of you sitting in this chamber - in rooms across Parliament Buildings watching this live – or, in your own homes – or, in other venues - to those watching in other countries – Australia, Ireland, Great Britain and beyond; we acknowledge your pain and suffering.

We recognise that, as adults now and survivors of historical institutional abuse, you carry the effects of that suffering and its continued impact on your daily life.

And we apologise to you for the trauma inflicted upon you as children whilst in the care of the state. We are sorry.

We acknowledge that this has been a long journey for you. Back in 2009 you first lobbied the Executive to do something concrete about allegations of institutional childhood abuse in Northern Ireland. 

It was on 20 January 2017 that the Historical Institutional Abuse Report was published, which detailed widespread systemic failings in the care of children in institutions over a 73-year period.

We acknowledge that, since that date, you have experienced many more lows, and that on many occasions you felt that you were being cast aside and ignored.

We acknowledge that the three years when there was no Executive further added to the delay and stress that you experienced. For that, we are sorry.

Now, in 2022, we acknowledge the State’s failings.

These failings took place in Justice and Health facilities as well as in voluntary institutions; during times of local government, and during periods of direct rule.

While you have told us that some individuals did provide very good care, we know that others were cruel.  That they were sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive towards the children for whom they were responsible.

We know that some institutions providing residential care were responsible for allowing systemic abuse to occur.  By providing inadequate numbers of staff, by recruiting unsuitable staff and by not providing proper training.

In addition, we know that institutions and individuals often failed to follow up on allegations made by children in their care; and failed to initiate formal criminal investigations.

The Hart report was crystal clear. 

The State failed to protect children in its care from abuse that could and should have been prevented or detected.

The State did not take the necessary steps to ensure that all children under its care were cared for in the way they should have been. 

The State did not always carry out its statutory responsibilities to regularly inspect the residential homes to ensure that the facilities were adequate in terms of staffing, numbers of children, facilities, care and welfare. 

Nor did the State regularly visit these homes to meet children, to satisfy itself that their welfare, wellbeing, and education needs were being met.

Today, we acknowledge the impact on you.  The impact on your physical and mental health and wellbeing; on your identity and where you came from; on your educational experience which was inadequate; on your life opportunities; and on the impact on your families.  

There remains no excuse or defence for any abuse, action, or inaction, that resulted in the harm caused to you.

It was wrong.

Today, we as representatives of the State say that we are sorry. 

We are sorry that the State’s systems failed to protect you from abuse.

We are sorry that the State did not protect you from those who abused their power.

When we asked what you needed to hear in the State apology – some of you told us that – “it is about being believed when we tell you what has happened to us as children.”

You were not believed.

We are sorry that you were not believed.

The State has listened to you and the State believes you.

We are truly sorry.

Minister Naomi Long

We apologise to you today in the Assembly Chamber – a fitting and proper venue.

This is where our laws are made, where we – Ministers and those responsible for governing – are held to account. We are united in our acceptance of responsibility.

No-one can undo the past; nor can we undo your past.

However, we – as law makers and policy makers – can commit to doing everything we can within our power – to make the right laws, the right policies and the right guidance; and to provide the right support services for those who need it.

We acknowledge your desire to make sure that future generations of children will never have to suffer the abuse you experienced – we echo that desire and it is our job to make sure that does not happen.

The late Sir Anthony Hart rightly welcomed the ‘courage and determination’ of victims and survivors.  Your courage and determination led to a report that made government and society reflect upon how it treated its most vulnerable and on the harms they endured.

Some 13 years after you first came to Parliament Buildings, the courage and determination of all of you means that you are sitting here today listening closely to what is being said.

We pay tribute to your courage and determination, and to your staying power. 

When children are taken into care, they should be safe.

When children are brought into the criminal justice system, they should be safe.

You should have been safe in Local Authority Homes. You were not.

You should have been safe in the Voluntary Homes. You were not.

You should have been safe in Juvenile Justice Institutions. You were not.

Sexual abuse and physical abuse were the two main areas of complaint received by the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. The Hart Report detailed in graphic terms account after account of widespread sexual and physical abuse. 

We know that it might be difficult for some victims and survivors to hear detail of the abuse.  But some of you have told us that it is important that we acknowledge, identify and take responsibility for the specific abuse that you suffered while in institutions.

There were children who were sexually abused by staff, male and female; and by visitors. The perpetrators, as recorded by Sir Anthony, included employees, members of religious orders, and priests; there was also peer on peer abuse and abuse by former residents. Institutions, both state and voluntary, failed to stop the abuse.

Children suffered in the most vile and unimaginable ways; with life-changing and lifelong consequences for many of the victims. The damage experienced by many is not in the past but is a heavy burden they have continued to carry into adulthood, into day-to-day engagement with society, and into relationships. It is a burden that continues, to this day, to have an impact on victims and on their families.

There were children who were physically abused to such an extent that it amounted to assault.  The sometimes random nature of physical abuse, and the variety of implements used, were intended to exercise control over children and instil fear.       

There were other children who witnessed such abuse. Sir Anthony Hart stated that the experience of seeing excessive physical force used against other children, coupled with the fear of being subject to random violence, was almost as damaging.  In some cases, perhaps, more damaging, than the actual physical chastisement.

There were many other forms of abuse that were widespread and cruel, including:

  • children who were isolated, made fun of and shown-up in front of others because of bedwetting;
  • young females on the brink of puberty uneducated in the ways of the menstruation and sexual health or provided with inadequate feminine hygiene products;
  • children being referred to by a number and having their identity taken away;
  • excessive housework, chores and industrial-type work;
  • the practice of bathing children in Jeyes Fluid;
  • the use of physical restraints;
  • bullying; and
  • the removal of birthday gifts and presents of toys, clothes, sweets – depriving children of the softer and more tender aspects of a child’s upbringing. 

For all of this, we are very sorry.

Many of you suffered abuse in voluntary institutions, where the state failed in its duty of care. The state also failed in its duty of care for those who experienced abuse in the juvenile justice system, and as Justice Minister I want to say something about that in particular.

In the juvenile justice system, facilities were often under-staffed, and staff were not properly trained.

This led to children, already vulnerable, absconding from care, and being put at further risk.

The lack of consistent formal inspections meant that boys and girls did not receive the care they deserved. As a government, and a community, we all must play a role in the protection of children from abuse.

Today, there is a completely different approach. Your persistence and determination have shaped the changes that mean we now provide a safe environment for our children and young people. 

We focus on the welfare of the child and we work to divert children from the criminal justice system at the earliest possible opportunity. 

Youth custody is delivered in a purpose-built centre that is designed to keep children safe and secure. 

Young people in the current Juvenile Justice Centre are supported to continue their statutory education. We do this to help them when they leave the centre. 

Staff are appropriately trained and vetted, and the design of the building and its systems ensures that contacts with children are effectively tracked and recorded. 

The way we do things today is to protect our children. 

We did not always do that in the past, and for that we are truly sorry.

Minister Nichola Mallon

We stand here today as one, offering our deepest regrets that the State did not protect you from abuse.

What happened to you as children was laid bare in the Hart Inquiry and Report. 

The Report’s findings shone a light on a dark, harsh and bleak period of our past - across those Institutions where Sir Anthony’s investigations found systemic failings and abuse. 

We understand that no apology can make up for our failings, and the pain that you as victims and survivors have endured as a result.  But we hope that our clear and outright acknowledgement will bring some relief.

We know that many children suffered greatly as a result of being separated from their families.  Some experienced neglect and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hand of those who were supposed to care for them. We know that many of you were exposed to a harsh environment. 

That environment had a lasting emotional impact on those exposed to it, including a lifelong feeling of guilt. That is wrong. None of this was of your doing, and none of this was your fault. 

The guilt and shame of what happened is not, nor has it ever been, your burden to bear. The burden belongs only to us; those who should have protected you.

We deeply regret that many of you were separated from, or did not know, you had brothers or sisters when you were growing up. It is hard to comprehend the impact of this separation from those you were closest to, from those who loved you. We deeply regret how this affected the rest of your life, your trust in others and your sense of identity.

We acknowledge the importance of gaining access to historical records to help find family and kin, as we know that this is a key aspect of knowing who you were, who you are now, and how you became the person you are today. We hope that those who are still searching for records may find truth and peace.

We must never forget the harm caused to child migrants, and the distress caused to families who were broken up by the child migration scheme. 

Children left our shores and were promised a better life, but for many the optimistic future they deserved never happened. 

The Hart Inquiry found that the State was indifferent to the practice of the voluntary sector of sending child migrants to Australia.

It failed to fully inform itself as to what was happening once it became aware that children as young as four were being sent abroad.  

It failed to make any enquiries whatsoever as to the fate of these children.

It failed to make any representations to the British Government about the operation of the child migrant scheme.

Being torn from your family roots and transported, on many occasions alone, to the other side of the world is hard to imagine today. We deeply regret that this happened to you, and that you did not receive the care and attention you deserved.

To all those former child migrants and their families, to those of you here today, and those of you across the world - we say today that we are sorry.

We know that no apology can repair the pain you suffered, nor can it undo the impact this had upon you and your loved ones, but we hope that being supported to reclaim your identity, reunite with your family and receive support and services may help you trace a path to a more peaceful life.

Your lived experiences became part of the first Inquiry of its kind in Northern Ireland or Great Britain.  As a result, the State has learned much to help inform our policies on safeguarding of children; and on keeping today’s laws and guidance up-to-date, designed with children at the front and centre of our work.  

We pay tribute to your courage in making this contribution for the benefit of those who came after you. We acknowledge and regret that the interests of children were not always front and centre of our work.

For that, we are truly sorry. 

Minister Robin Swann

Today, we acknowledge your courage as victims and survivors.

You have taught us much in government – we had much to learn.

We want to acknowledge all of you who had the courage to speak up and highlight the most horrendous abuse – abuse that no child should have to endure. This was often done at great personal cost. 

What happened to each and every one of you was wrong. It should not have happened and it is critical that every possible step is taken to ensure that nothing like this happens to any other child in the care of the state – ever again.

There are many, many victims and survivors who are equally courageous but who - to this day – for their own very personal reasons have not spoken openly about the abuse they suffered – including to their own families. Those same individuals may be listening quietly to this broadcast from their own homes, still carrying a heavy burden that they have had to bear alone. Your experiences were equally painful, equally horrendous and equally condemned. We want you to know that supports are available for you to access in your own time and your own way – confidentially – if that is your wish.

We must also pay tribute to those who have supported victims and survivors – some of whom are sadly no longer with us. To those who provided support along this long and difficult path and were there to help victims and survivors when it was needed most - we applaud you.

We also want to acknowledge those who advocated on your behalf; those who helped you share your experiences; or sought accountability; or pushed for a statutory inquiry to ensure that your voices were heard.

We are truly thankful to those victims and survivors who came forward to the Hart Inquiry to share their experiences. We can only imagine how difficult it was for many of you to find the courage to come forward; and you have told us just how painful giving evidence to the inquiry was for many of you – in some cases opening old wounds - compelling you to relive the harrowing experiences of the past.

Thank you, all of you who were able to share your experiences through the Inquiry, and in other ways. 

The Hart Inquiry rigorously investigated.

The Inquiry found evidence of systemic failings to a greater or lesser degree in the majority of the institutions and homes it investigated.

Failings were also identified in the structure, governance, staffing levels, staff training, funding, and strategic oversight of institutions.

The Hart Inquiry examined in detail the legislative and governance structures within which residential institutions operated. 

It found the lack of inspection amounted to a systemic failing by the Department of Health and Social Services to ensure some homes provided proper care.

That failing meant government failed to ensure some homes were complying with what the law required of them – laws that were in place for good reason – and more importantly that children were not receiving proper care. 

For that we can offer no excuse. It was wrong. It should not have happened and we are sorry. 

Today, across all health, educational, and youth justice environments children’s welfare and their protection is paramount and non-negotiable. 

You, and people who have come before you, who have had the courage to bring to light issues of abuse, have shaped the robust safeguarding measures in place today; measures that now provide the safest possible environments for our children and young people. 

Safeguarding and child protection procedure and practice have been strengthened significantly in Northern Ireland since 1995.

The 1995 Children Order brought extensive change to the law governing the care, upbringing and protection of children. 

Importantly, the Order places an emphasis on the assessed needs of the child and seeks to ensure that, where it is consistent with safeguarding and promoting a child’s welfare, children should be cared for within their own families.

Today in Northern Ireland, more than 3,500 children are looked after by Health and Social Care Trusts. The majority - more than 80 per cent - are cared for in family settings - by foster carers. The majority of foster carers are now kinship carers meaning that children are looked after by family with the support of the state. 

Within our Children's Social Care Services, 6 per cent of children are now living in residential care.  

Children’s residential facilities have moved away from large impersonal institutions to smaller, more homely settings. 

The Order, recognising children's vulnerability in residential settings, has led to a greater emphasis on supporting and training staff, whilst safeguarding children through staff vetting, monitoring, and inspections.

We also have significantly better checks and balances in place.

A process for reporting and investigating serious adverse incidents has been in place since 2004 and provides a clear, regionally agreed approach to the reporting, management, follow-up, and learning. A statutory system of case management review also exists to ensure that we learn from the cases of children when things go wrong. That is the responsibility of a statutory safeguarding partnership – the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland established in 2011.

An inspectorate, which operates arms-length from the Department of Health – the RQIA – is also now in place with statutory powers to regulate our children’s homes and other settings where children are cared for and to take enforcement action where it is considered necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children.

As Ministers, alongside organisations – both statutory and voluntary and the community, we must continue to work together to ensure children are protected to the fullest extent, in particular when under our care.  

Systemic abuse should never have happened – we are truly sorry that it did happen and we commit fully to ensuring that it will never happen again.

Minister Conor Murphy

We understand the importance of today’s apology.

We also recognise that it has taken too long for you to hear it. We acknowledge that the delay in progressing this recommendation from the Hart report has further added to the stress that you experienced. For this, we are sorry.

We pay tribute to the persistence of those who have campaigned for justice and those who have been dedicated to supporting victims and survivors, including all the victims’ and survivors’ representative groups; SAVIA, Survivors North West, Rosetta Trust, Survivors Together and Campaign for Survivors of Abuse.

You, and all victims and survivors, deserve nothing less than full acknowledgement of the harm inflicted on you as children, and the suffering you have endured throughout your lives as a result of our failures.

You deserve to be supported in the right way, as recommended by Sir Anthony Hart.

The appointment of a Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse, and the health and wellbeing support services delivered by the Victims and Survivors Service, in partnership with the WAVE Trauma Centre and Advice NI, are all intended to make sure you are supported. Today we commit to continue working with you to ensure these services meet your needs.

While no amount of financial redress can ever make up for the pain you have endured, we hope that it can in some way provide reassurance that your suffering has been recognised and acknowledged, and allow you the possibility of moving forward with appropriate support. 

You deserve a redress process that is sensitive to your needs.   

We listened to your experiences of the Redress process.  We hope that changes coming from the Independent Review will make the Redress journey a much more victim-centred process. 

We will continue to hear your voice.

We should have heard your voices as children and we did not.

We all agree on the need for the child’s voice to be heard.

In 1995 the Children Order recognised this, and there is rightly a priority placed on the views of children in decisions being made about them. 

Courts must consider the wishes and feelings of the child when making an order to place the child in care.  And there is a requirement for Health and Social Care Trusts to consider the child’s wishes before providing accommodation.

Children in care must also have the necessary support to express their views, and specialist advocacy arrangements are now in place, delivered on a regional basis.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People has a role to advise government on the policies, legislation and services it provides for children and young people; to monitor how these services are provided; and to hold government to account where the Commissioner believes that not enough is being done.

The law now demonstrates our commitment to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people. And we will continue to do everything in our power to make sure our children are protected.

Whilst we are focused on supporting people now, we are very conscious of those no longer with us.

Indeed, we are very mindful today of the many victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse who have died. Sadly, they did not live to see the justice, or have the acknowledgement, they deserved.  

Today we remember them, and we offer this apology, along with our sincere sympathies, to their families.

We recognise that the experience of every victim and survivor is different.

Many of you have told us that you were able to overcome your painful past and that you went on to have a happy life.

However, we also know that countless people have lived with the pain and trauma over many years, and continue to suffer.

We hope that today’s apology can contribute in some small way to your healing.

As Ministers, we offer this apology to you from our hearts. Freely, openly, and sincerely.

We know that not every survivor wants an apology and we respect that. No apology will change what happened to you, nor right the wrongs of the past. 

We are also mindful that this will be a difficult, emotional and traumatic day for many of you, and you may need to take time to reflect on what we have said today.

The apology we offer you is unconditional.

We should have protected you and we did not. We are sorry.

You were harmed by those who should have cared for you. We are sorry.

You told the truth, yet you were not believed. We are sorry.

We are responsible. And we are so very, very sorry.

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