A potentially years-long public inquiry into widespread allegations of abuse at a Northern Ireland hospital has begun in Belfast.
The Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim, which treats people with severe learning difficulties and mental health issues, is at the centre of a major police investigation into allegations that patients were abused by staff over a period of years.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has arrested 34 people, and eight have been charged with offences. More than 70 staff have been suspended as a precautionary measure.
The investigation has been described as the UK’s largest ever police investigation into the alleged abuse of vulnerable adults.
Separate to the police investigation, the statutory public inquiry has got under way.
Families of patients were among those attending the first day of public hearings at the Corn Exchange building in Belfast.
Glynn Brown’s son Aaron has autism and severe learning difficulties and was a resident at the hospital.
He described events at Muckamore as “the worst adult safeguarding scandal in UK history”.
Speaking to Sky News, he said the family’s battle for answers had been an “uphill struggle” but added that “it was for my own son, and if you don’t fight for your own family, you’ll fight for nobody”.
“We’ll be hoping for a rigorous inquiry which covers the failures and the incompetence, and that appropriate action will be taken against those who are involved.”
Families of the alleged victims say the proceedings will be “harrowing” with many, including Mr Brown, expecting to see graphic CCTV footage of their loved ones being abused.
Mark and Marjorie Sharp’s 36-year-old daughter Laura was a resident at Muckamore Abbey from 2001 to 2018.
They allege she suffered serious physical abuse at the facility, but “couldn’t take her out of the place because there was just nowhere else to put her”.
Due to their daughter’s severe behavioural issues, the couple say they couldn’t meet her healthcare needs at home.
“I hated myself for keeping her there,” Marjorie told Sky News. “I would’ve fought tooth and nail to get her out of there, if there’d been anywhere else that would’ve taken her.”
The Sharps say they are pessimistic about hospital management being held to account by the inquiry.
“I don’t have much confidence,” said Marjorie. “Learning disability discrimination is at the bottom of the pile of discriminations. They’re still second-class citizens. I’m not getting my hopes up at all.”
‘Inquiry will be harrowing experience’
Veteran barrister Tom Kark QC will chair the inquiry, which victims’ support groups anticipate will last for several years. Mr Kark was previously counsel to the 2010 inquiry into avoidable deaths at Stafford Hospital in England.
Speaking ahead of today’s public hearings, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann said he trusts the inquiry will provide the answers needed.
“I have no doubt that the inquiry proceedings will be a harrowing experience for all those affected by the abject failure of care at Muckamore. It will also be deeply distressing for everyone who works in health and social care in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I believe it is appropriate today for me to publicly reiterate my previous apology on behalf of the health and social care system to all the patients and families who have been so badly let down.
“As I stated in September 2020 when I announced my intention to establish an inquiry, patients and families need more than apologies.
“They deserve the truth on what has happened and how it was allowed to happen. I trust that this public inquiry will provide the answers that are required.”