Victims of historic abuse in Northern Ireland have expressed confidence that the region’s new Secretary of State will deliver stalled compensation payments.
Julian Smith held several meetings with different campaign groups at Stormont on Friday to discuss the controversial delays to promised redress.
Campaigners emerged from the meetings in upbeat mood, praising Mr Smith’s approach.
Victims had demanded the resignation of Mr Smith’s predecessor, Karen Bradley, having accused her of stalling on the Westminster legislation required to compensate victims.
Redress payments recommended by a Stormont-commissioned inquiry into historic institutional abuse, chaired by the late Sir Anthony Hart, have been on ice for over two-and-a-half years due to the collapse of the devolved institutions – and the Government has been under intense pressure to sanction the outstanding payments at Westminster.
Dozens of victims have died without receiving compensation that was recommended by the wide-ranging inquiry that reported just before devolution imploded in January 2017.
A redress scheme, in which victims would have been paid between £7,500 and £100,000, was one of the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry (HIA).
Campaigners expressed hope that the legislation would now move forward, potentially as soon as September, after their discussions with Mr Smith at Stormont House.
Margaret McGuckin, from lobby group Savia, had been one of Mrs Bradley’s most trenchant critics.
Her assessment of Mr Smith was markedly different, hailing him as the “man for the job”.
“It was just wonderful to meet a man who is up to speed on where we are at and his determination to get this finished for us all,” she said.
“He seems to be up to date on all the work we have been doing over the years, he knows all about that.
“I think he knows we will not tolerate any nonsense or any more stalling tactics. I think he has seen enough.
“His personality was different, I felt we were made fools out of (before), that they weren’t taking us serious. He’s his own person. I don’t think he’s a yes man. I think he’s the man for the job and I think he will finish this appointment. He will do everything possible. He really listened to us all.
“You can hear in our voices here, I think everybody here is more pleased and I just hope it doesn’t go belly-up, because that wouldn’t do again for all our people who have had their hopes built up so many times over the years.”
Mr Smith said securing the redress legislation was his priority, as he committed to monthly meetings with victims’ representatives going forward.
“I think the Hart report reveals the most devastating indictment on how children were cared for,” he said.
“It is absolutely my priority to ensure we do deliver on the Hart report. I have written to colleagues in London and Westminster to try to get this moving as quickly as possible.”
Ms McGuckin, a high-profile campaigner for abuse victims, revealed she had been planning to announce she was stepping down from her role prior to the meeting with Mr Smith.
“Just yesterday I was going to let you all know today at this press conference that that was me finished with it all,” she said.
“But I can’t let my people down where there’s an open window of opportunity and I will continue until all these guys get their redress. I sent a message around yesterday to certain people that I couldn’t take any more.
“To put a dress on and pretend to be okay but I am falling apart too, my own health was suffering, I was just stressed out, near a breakdown with it all, encouraging everybody and trying to carry everybody and building them up and their hopes and always getting knocked back again.
“So it did affect me badly and that is why I am so happy today that Julian Smith is in this job and I do believe we are coming to the end of it.”
Jon McCourt, chair of the Survivors North West group, also gave a positive assessment of his meeting with Mr Smith.
“The Secretary of State has said that he has already made approaches to Parliament looking for a slot for this legislation to go forward,” he said.
“It is his intention to push this to the top of the list.”
Marty Adams, from the Survivors Together group, said: “I found him very welcoming and a warm reception.
“We had a very positive meeting and we came away in a more upbeat mood than we did with the previous secretary of state.
“A lot of issues were raised and we can only hope that the issues raised produce fruit in the weeks ahead. It was a very positive meeting all round.”