Northern Ireland

Politicians unite to back Muckamore families' call for public inquiry into abuse scandal - as former First Minister insists it's in 'public interest'

DUP leader Arlene Foster has backed calls for a public inquiry into the Muckamore hospital abuse scandal
DUP leader Arlene Foster has backed calls for a public inquiry into the Muckamore hospital abuse scandal

FORMER First Minister Arlene Foster has intervened in the Muckamore Abbey Hospital abuse scandal by writing to the top civil servant at the Department of Health about the need to "prioritise" a public inquiry.

The DUP leader's correspondence, seen by The Irish News, states that such an inquiry into "systemic failures" at the Co Antrim facility "is in the public interest" and urges Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly to act.

The letter, dated July 1, is one of six sent by Northern Ireland's main political parties to Mr Pengelly over the past month, in which they back calls made by a pressure group - made up of families whose loved ones are Muckamore patients - for the establishment of a fully independent inquiry into abuse allegations.

Three months ago, there was an outcry after the department's legal team said it did not believe "it is in the public interest" to order a public inquiry "at this time".

However, Ms Foster writes: "You will be aware of the families' quest for public inquiry and I wished to place on record my view that such an inquiry is in the public interest.

"I am concerned that any delay will frustrate answers and appropriate learning from what, on the face of it, appears to be systemic failures. Supporting the Action For Muckamore group and their injured relatives, I would be grateful if you could give their request appropriate prioritisation."

The hospital is currently at the centre of the biggest criminal adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland, with a specialist team of PSNI detectives probing 300 reports of ill-treatment of vulnerable adults with severe learning disabilities.

To date, a total of 19 staff - mainly nurses - have been suspended after physical and emotional abuse of patients was reportedly captured on CCTV cameras over a six-month period in 2017.

Mr Pengelly has repeatedly said he does not have the legal powers to order a public inquiry and referred it back to Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

However, solicitor Claire McKeegan, who made a formal written request to the department for an inquiry earlier this year on behalf of the Muckamore families, said she believes the onus is on Mr Pengelly to act, stating that it is " is not just a requirement of the overwhelming public concern relating to this case, it is a requirement of the Human Rights Act 1998."

Ms McKeegan said she believed the letters issued by the political parties, including Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and Green Party, to the department's permanent secretary were "extremely significant".

"The view from the department that a public inquiry is not in the public interest at this time doesn't reconcile with the political parties who are elected and accountable to the electorate," Ms McKeegan of Phoenix Law said.

"The permanent secretary should urgently review this decision in light of the recent correspondence."

Ms McKeegan said she has been instructed by the families to review judicial review proceedings in the event of the department "withholding an inquiry".

Dundonald man Glynn Brown, who heads up the Action For Muckamore group and whose son was allegedly assaulted as a Muckamore patient, last night said he was "pleased" by the cross-party support.

"Ordering this public inquiry is a legal necessity to protect the most vulnerable people in our society and to identify the systemic failings so that important lessons are learned - from the top down," he said.