New health minister urged to order public inquiry into Muckamore Abbey abuse allegations
A LAWYER acting for families of Muckamore Abbey Hospital patients has urged the new health minister to order a public inquiry into abuse allegations - six months after the former Ulster Unionist leader backed the move.
Claire McKeegan wrote to Robin Swann following his appointment at the weekend, seeking an "immediate inquiry" into the "quality of safeguarding" at the Co Antrim facility.
The solicitor urged Mr Swann to act, saying: "It would be an important message for safeguarding patient health were you to make this decision your first major political announcement as minister."
However, in a statement released last night, the UUP minister said he "will not be making any announcement" until he's "had the opportunity to meet with patients and their families".
"They have a right to answers on what went so appallingly wrong, how the abuse happened and what is being done to prevent anything like this happening again. Any process that is put in place to provide these answers will clearly have to take cognisance of the ongoing major PSNI investigation," Mr Swann said.
The North Antrim MLA was one of five representatives from the north's main political parties who endorsed the establishment of a public inquiry last summer after the Department of Health said at the time it was "not in the public interest" .
The hospital is at the centre of the biggest PSNI safeguarding investigation of its kind, with 1,500 suspected crimes related to alleged abuse of vulnerable patients.
A total of 40 staff have been suspended following viewing of CCTV footage by detectives while there's been four arrests.
In correspondence sent by Mr Swann last July to Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly, he describes his "increasing alarm" at the "disturbing allegations".
He wrote: "These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and I am sure that you too have been shocked by many of the alleged abuses. As such, my Party supports the calls for a public inquiry into the matter."
He adds: "I absolutely believe if we had a functioning Executive and local minister in place then in all likelihood we would have already had a public inquiry announced and underway into the serious failings in care at Muckamore."
Mr Pengelly cited the absence of a minister and police investigation as reasons that prevented him from acting.
But Ms McKeegan of Phoenix Law claimed an inquiry can run in tandem with the PSNI probe by examining the "systemic" failings, saying the department's position "flies in the face of public interest".
"As each day passes, the quality of evidence is likely to fade and the ability of any inquiry to get to the truth is likely to diminish," she said.
She referenced a confidential investigation into abuse allegations on a Muckamore ward in 2012, which was leaked to The Irish News last year.
"This underlines the need for an investigation in how the systemic issues arose and how...alleged abuse and assault were allowed to continue in Muckamore even after a police investigation."