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Secretary of State responds for first time to call for public inquiry into Muckamore abuse scandal

Secretary of State Julian Smith
Seanín Graham

SECRETARY of State Julian Smith has responded for the first time to calls for a public inquiry into the Muckamore Abbey Hospital abuse scandal, saying he is "mindful the decision is one for a restored Executive".

Families of affected patients at the Co Antrim facility last night expressed their disappointment but vowed to continue their campaign for justice.

In a letter seen by The Irish News, Mr Smith acknowledges the alleged abuse of vulnerable patients by staff at Muckamore is "very serious" and that he "completely understands" the "public outrage" and mounting pressure for an inquiry.

He also references a meeting he held last month with Dundonald man Glynn Brown, the father of a Muckamore patient who allegedly suffered appalling mistreatment by staff, and said Mr Brown made a "compelling case".

"We can all agree that the alleged abuse suffered by patients there is alarming," Mr Smith writes.

"This is a setting in which the most vulnerable in our society should have been protected from harm, not exposed to it."

However, he notes the ongoing police investigation and action taken by the Belfast health trust, which is responsible for Muckamore and has suspended 36 staff.

"I am mindful that the decision to hold an inquiry is one for a restored Executive. I have asked my officials to look into this matter. Careful consideration will need to be given to the extent to which any inquiry could run alongside the police investigation," Mr Smith added.

Mr Brown described the Secretary of State's response as "extremely disappointing" given the collapse of Stormont.

While the Department of Health has not ruled out an inquiry, it has stressed it is a "decision for a minister to take".

"We know this is the biggest adult safeguarding investigation of its kind since the inception of the NHS, it needs a public inquiry," Mr Brown said.

"Detectives have told me they have now identified 150 incidents of alleged abuse of my son Aaron - that is more than triple the number the trust told me last year.

"I have absolutely no confidence in the trust's handling of this matter, the entire system needs to be examined from top down."

The correspondence was sent last week to solicitor Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law, who is acting for more than a dozen families of Muckamore patients.

Ms McKeegan also attended last month's meeting along with Mr Brown's MP, the DUP's Gavin Robinson, at which they insisted that an inquiry can take place in tandem with the PSNI probe by initially focussing on the "systemic" failings.

She cited the "significant example" of the Hillsborough tragedy, where the two ran simultaneously.

"We made it clear to the Secretary of State that the public inquiry does not need to await the outcome of the PSNI investigation which could span many years. The law demands a prompt and independent investigation," she said.

"Not only have the families been waiting to find out what truly happened but the public also wants to know how despite procedures being in place for safeguarding, hospital management and governance, such vulnerable people could have been treated so badly for so long."

The lawyer confirmed last night she is now planning to initiate judicial review proceedings, challenging the failure to implement a public inquiry.

"The patients' families demand a full examination of all organisations that let them down. This could include the PSNI, the RQIA, the Department of Health and the Belfast health trust."

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