Northern Ireland Executive appoints permanent Commissioner for Victims of Institutional Childhood Abuse

In addition to establishing the HIA Redress Board, the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act 2019 (the 2019 Act) also somewhat uniquely provided for the establishment of a permanent Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse.

Section 22 of the 2019 Act states that the principal aim of the Commissioner “…is to promote the interests of any person who suffered abuse while a child and while resident in an institution at some time between 1922 and 1995.”

Recruitment for the post commenced in June of this year and the job specification made it clear that applicants needed to have actual experience of working with victims and survivors.

On Tuesday this week the Northern Ireland Executive confirmed that this role has now been filled. They have appointed Ms. Fiona Ryan.

Prior to taking up her role as Commissioner, Ms. Ryan was the chief executive of Sonas which is the largest provider of frontline services to women and children experiencing domestic abuse in the greater Dublin area in the Republic of Ireland and prior to that she was a former chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland. Her appointment is for a five year term and she starts in her role on 14 December.

One of the first issues that Ms Ryan will have to deal with (if it has not been resolved before she takes up office in December) is the thorny matter of compensation for 500 or more victims and survivors of institutional abuse whose names and data were leaked by the Interim Commissioner in May this year. This leak was covered in an earlier blog.

In September, the Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia) group reported that it was “outraged” by the level of financial compensation being offered to compensate them for the breach of their data protection and privacy rights.

Margaret McGuckin, who was one of the founding members of Savia, urged  those affected by the data breach to reject the offer being made at that time; she said that a class action was to be taken by the 501 people who were identified by the data breach and “Our advice is that they should ignore this offer and let our solicitor and other legal firms taking up cases to deal with this.”

She went on to say that “The damage done by that leak cannot be calculated. There are people who never told their partners, their children, their wider family or their neighbours about what happened to them when they were children in those institutions. These people deserve far better than the measly sum they are now being offered in relation to this breach of their privacy.”

When announcing Ms Ryan’s appointment the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill also provided some insight into the work of the HIA Redress Board. She confirmed that 579 applications to the HIA Redress Board have had payments of redress made since it opened in March. A total of £2.5 million has been paid out to applicants, with the panel having made determinations of £4.1m so far.

Katrina Gray, Partner

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