The question now is not whether it happened, but how much of it went on. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the Westminster child abuse inquiry: corruption at the heart of the state?

Will the child victims of powerful abusers ever get justice – or just another cover-up?

What’s the price of political stability? Over the past week, long-standing rumours that senior members of the political establishment abused children in the 1980s have finally been broadcast in the public domain, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has announced an inquiry. “Frightened survivors of child abuse deserve the truth,” said Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has spoken up for those survivors, addressing the House of Commons.

So do the rest of us. If it is true that, at the highest levels of Westminster, the abuse of young people has been covered up by those who might have helped the victims see justice, it will go beyond scandal and will demand a response beyond outrage. It will demand that we examine, as a nation, what has become of our political culture and who it exists to protect.

It is already beyond question that powerful politicians such as the late Cyril Smith MP and well-connected celebrities such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile – who was close to the royal family and to Margaret Thatcher, lunching with the then prime minister at Chequers – were allowed to abuse young people with impunity for decades. It is plain fact that Smith raped young boys in establishments to which he had access, including the Knowl View special school in Rochdale. Efforts by staff members to bring the matter to police attention were repeatedly frustrated.

It is known, too, that Savile, Harris and other once-respected public figures preyed on children for many years and that their victims were too frightened to come forward until recently. It is becoming clear that the rape and abuse of boys and girls was a tacit privilege of the elite in the Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher years, enabled by the silence of those invested in their success and those intimidated by their power.

The question now is not whether it happened, but how much of it went on. The question is who knew about it, and who helped to ensure that survivors were not
believed, that evidence was suppressed. The question is: if abandoning children to rape, violence and abuse is the price of preserving public faith in the establishment, what sort of establishment have we got, and what is our faith worth?

It is also known that in 1983, a batch of files pertaining to child sex abuse at the highest levels of state, now known as the Dickens dossier, was handed to Leon Brittan, then home secretary. That dossier has gone missing, along with 114 other relevant files, shown to various home secretaries. I have been told that other papers may have been removed from files that are still available.

Where is that dossier? Where are those 114 missing files? And, most importantly, how can a state that prides itself on operating one of the most efficient and invasive surveillance networks in the world manage to lose seemingly every scrap of evidence that might have implicated its own leaders in sex crimes against children?

I spoke to a politician close to the case. It was confirmed to me that allegations of child abuse by Cyril Smith and many others had circulated for decades. With every such story, more of the same pattern emerges: public-sector and care workers bring their concerns to the authorities and they are ignored or turned away. Evidence goes missing. Cases are brought forward but then dropped by prosecutors without explanation. Frightened child victims grow up into traumatised adults. Peter Hatton-Bornshin, abused at the Grafton Close Children’s Home in Richmond, which has been linked to the current inquiry, took his own life in 1994 at the age of 28.

The long list of abuses and obfuscation is part of a mosaic of corruption that has been exposed over the past half-decade, brushstroke by brushstroke, lying under the solid floor of the Palace of Westminster.

The broader pattern takes in the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 to 2011 as well as the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking and other press abuses by the Murdoch media group. As decades of dust and selective amnesia are scraped away, a picture begins to emerge. It is one of a political culture that accepts corruption and abuse as the price of stability. It is a picture of a political culture that would rather harbour criminals than hold itself to account.

What happened at Grafton Close? What happened at the nearby Elm guest house in Barnes, south-west London, that notorious “boy brothel” patronised by diplomats and spies? Most of all, what makes a person feel that his power entitles him to abuse children, to assault young girls and boys, not just
with impunity, but with the luxury of access to the very institutions designed to protect the vulnerable – hospitals, care homes, orphanages? What kind of culture harbours politicians who believe the privilege of office extends to privilege over the bodies of the young, poor and powerless?

The public deserves the answers to all of these questions – not out of lewd fascination, but because if a political class cannot and will not hold itself to account, then its mandate to rule disintegrates. If justice is to be served, there must be a full public inquiry, similar to those overseen by Lord Hutton and Lord Justice Leveson. We deserve to know what was done by members of the establishment of the 1980s that created the society in which we live today, just as the victims of historic abuse deserve justice.

Unfortunately, a full inquiry would bring headlines associating the Conservative Party – on whose watch, in the 1980s, all of these allegations first came to light – with paedophilia and subterfuge in an election year. Is the integrity of the establishment worth that much? The answer will determine what sort of nation we are, and what sort of nation we wish to become.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.