Leading article

Overwhelming case for independent Muckamore Abbey inquiry

Public concern over the treatment of vulnerable patients at Muckamore Abbey hospital has steadily increased as devastating revelations about the Co Antrim institution have surfaced on a regular basis over recent months.

There can only be enormous sympathy for the relatives of individuals with serious learning difficulties as evidence confirming their worst fears about the ordeals inflicted on their loved ones has relentlessly accumulated since the initial Irish News investigation last summer.

When it emerged over the weekend that the suspensions of seven Muckamore nurses had been lifted because proper processes were not followed by officials, the anger expressed by some of the families will have been widely shared.

The father of one patient who suffered shocking experiences at the hospital said he had been left with no confidence in the Belfast Health Trust and branded its handling of the crisis as `shambolic'.

It has already been established that his 22-year-old son, who is unable to speak, was repeatedly abused by staff in Muckamore's Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit.

While the parent said he accepted the decision on the suspensions made by a High Court judge, and agreed that the rule of law must be upheld, he maintained that there had been glaring deficiencies in the way the trust had prepared for the case.

In what is clearly a significant intervention, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has now called for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the care of patients residing at Muckamore.

It is the RCN which both represents the nurses at the centre of the abuse allegations and launched the legal challenge to the suspensions imposed by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

There can be no doubt that the absence of a Stormont health minister for over two years has caused major difficulties for senior administrators across the sector.

The secretary of state, Karen Bradley, has also given little indication that she feels able to play a direct role in resolving the issues linked to Muckamore, which are already being probed by the PSNI with the support of the London-based National Crime Agency.

However, the escalating scale of the scandal at the hospital in general and the latest legal developments in particular demand that at the very least the type of independent inquiry envisaged by the RCN should follow without delay.

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