Historical Abuse: Survivors being used as 'blackmail tool' says campaigner

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

image copyrightPA
image captionJon McCourt (centre) said some victims feel they are being used as a leverage tool in talks to restore devolution

Historical abuse survivors feel like they are being used as "a blackmail tool" in NI's political talks process, a campaigner has said.

But Stormont's collapse stalled the process.

Jon McCourt, of the Survivors North West group, said some victims feel they are being used as a leverage tool in talks to restore devolution.

"Victims and survivors are seeing this as being used for leverage to drag a coalition of the unwilling around the table," Mr McCourt said

He added: "In other words we are a blackmail tool for the secretary of state to use to force a government around a table at Stormont and we are not going to be used for it."

Mr McCourt said he was "ashamed that Karen Bradley has the brass neck to call herself secretary of state."

image copyrightPA
image captionMrs Bradley sent a letter to victims' groups on Tuesday

BBC News NI has seen a letter from the secretary of state, which was sent to victims' groups on Tuesday.

In the letter, Mrs Bradley suggested putting HIA payments as an item in the Stormont talks process was the "quickest possible way to bring this issue to a resolution".

"Unfortunately we cannot simply take forward legislation without addressing the consultation feedback," Mrs Bradley said in her letter.

"Urgent consideration needs to be given to the views expressed during the consultation."

We are a blackmail tool for the secretary of state to use to force a government around a table at Stormont, and we are not going to be used for it."
Jon McCourt
Survivors North West

Mr McCourt's views were shared by others representing survivors.

"It is utterly appalling that, yet again, the survivors are being used as leverage to pressure the political parties into an agreement," Claire McKeegan, a solicitor who represents some of the victims, told BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"The reality here is that this is yet another political decision where the government will cherry pick issues which it will deal with... and yet when it comes to the survivors of institutional abuse ... the government just will not take steps."

It comes a day after the Executive Office published responses to a public consultation on HIA redress.

The consultation received 562 responses. However, the Executive Office said it has completed its analysis of them.

Mrs Bradley added that she has also written to Mr Sterling to ask him to include HIA matters in the current round of Stormont talks.

He is chairing the working group looking at the programme for government.

image captionLast week, the Head of the Civil Service David Sterling said the historical institutional abuse issue "transcends politics"

"The current talks are the best opportunity for these complex issues - such as the total redress payment - to be discussed by local politicians," she added.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said the secretary of state believes "the quickest and best route to deliver for victims and survivors is to include this issue as a priority in the talks process".

"This has a timeframe to make progress by the end of May," it added.

The HIA inquiry was set up by Stormont leaders to investigate allegations of abuse in children's residential homes run by religious, charitable and state organisations.

'Shameful betrayal'

It was chaired by Sir Anthony Hart and its remit covered a 73-year period from the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1922 through to 1995.

The inquiry made a number of recommendations including compensation, a memorial and a public apology to abuse survivors.

Since the inquiry ended two years ago, 30 survivors of historical institutional abuse have died.

Mike Nesbitt, a former victims' commissioner and Ulster Unionist Party leader, said Mrs Bradley was pushing him to "breaking point".

"There is not on penny in this year's budget for redress of historical institutional abuse victims," he told BBC Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show.

"[UUP leader] Robin Swann will contact the secretary of state and 'say get on with it in Westminster', and he will contact the other four main party leaders and say, 'contact the secretary of state'.

"I have dealt in one way or another with the last 13 secretaries of state and she is the worst by a country mile."

Mrs Bradley said she will also meet the chair of the HIA inquiry, Sir Anthony Hart, in the coming days, as well as a number of victims' and survivors' groups next week.

Amnesty International has described the latest development as a "shameful betrayal of abuse victims, who have been let down time after time".

Last week, Stormont's political parties echoed calls from David Sterling and victims' groups for the secretary of state to take immediate action on HIA compensation.

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