Northern Ireland news

Institutional abuse campaigner hails 'magical' compensation bill

Margaret McGuckin and Ron Graham, from Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, outside the Court of Appeal in Belfast earlier this week. Picture by Mal McCann

AN institutional abuse campaigner has hailed a "magical" day in parliament after MPs passed a long-awaited bill to release compensation.

Victims had feared there would not be enough time for the legislation to be passed before the House of Commons is dissolved today ahead of next month's general election.

But it passed within minutes yesterday following cross-party agreement.

Margaret McGuckin, of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia), said the bill was testament to survivors' tenacity.

"It was just endurance and having hope and conviction and honesty," she said.

"We never gave up."

Ms McGuckin said the "magical" compensation will go some way to helping impoverished, ill and elderly victims.

"There are so many people waiting on this happening," she said.

The bill will:

- set up a redress board to deliver a publicly-funded compensation scheme for an estimated 5,000 eligible victims.

- allow interim payments of £10,000 to victims, until the board issues a full decision.

- prioritise payments for the elderly or those in severe ill health.

- lead to the appointment of a statutory commissioner for victims, whose job will be to fight for their needs.

The family of a victim who has died can also apply for compensation.

Secretary of State Julian Smith said the Northern Ireland Office is working closely with the civil service to ensure the scheme can be set up as soon as possible.

He said the "fact that so many victims and survivors have died is one of the tragedies of this period" and officials were exploring whether applications for compensation could be submitted before the redress board is established.

The secretary of state paid tribute to victims' groups including Savia, Survivors North West and the Rosetta Trust, praising their "humanity and resilience" and said it had been "humbling" to work with them.

He said Jon McCourt of Survivors North West had carried a battered copy of the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry report to every meeting with politicians and civil servants for the last "three long years".

Mr Smith read a statement from a child migrant sent to Australia, who told inquiry officials before he died that "I have a nightmare every night of my life".

"I relive my past and am happy when daylight comes," he said.

He added: "I have always wondered what it would be like to have a family, a mother and a father and brothers and sisters. I never got the chance to find out because I was sent to Australia."

Mr Smith said the bill cannot undo the abuse done to victims but it will show them that action has been taken.

He also praised the work of HIA inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hart, who died earlier this year.

Labour MP and Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound praised Mr Smith for "one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard in my 22 years on these benches".

He added: "We must place on record, our determination that this (institutional abuse) should never happen again".

The Commons heard many interventions from DUP MPs including Nigel Dodds, Ian Paisley and Jim Shannon.

Mr Shannon said the abuse bill was an issue "which unites us all" but was "bittersweet" for victims.

Politicians across the north, including Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey, Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon and Green Party leader Clare Bailey, also welcomed the compensation bill.

Solicitor Claire McKeegan, of Phoenix Law, who represents the majority of abuse victims, said it was a "pleasure and a privilege" to watch the bill pass.

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, said he is "determined we will do everything possible to bring closure to HIA victims and survivors as quickly as possible".

Interim victims' advocate Brendan McAllister said yesterday was "a day when politics worked for vulnerable people".

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