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Northern Ireland survivors Alison Diver (left) and Margaret McGuickin at a Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse meeting in Belfast.Darren Kidd /

Even as it continues to struggle with deep sectarian divisions, Northern Ireland is launching a probe into another dark corner of its history.

A government commission is set to bring to light the long-suppressed history of abuse at orphanages and children's homes that included forced confinements, canings, beatings, bullying and sexual assaults. The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry will hold months of public hearings next year with hundreds of witnesses expected to detail horrific accounts of brutality. Victims were inspired to demand the probe after a similar review in Ireland uncovered decades of child abuse at more than 250 church-run institutions.

In Northern Ireland, officials say thousands of children may have suffered mistreatment in dozens of Catholic, Protestant and state-run institutions during a 73-year period from the creation of the province in 1922 until 1995, when the orphanages were reformed.

One victim is Kathy Devlin who now lives in Montreal. Her hope is that the inquiry will force the government and those who ran the homes to "actually acknowledge that there was abuse" and apologize.

In the late 1950s, Ms. Devlin and her younger brother were sent to a home in Londonderry called Nazareth House. She recalled being treated like an animal, routinely left hungry and cold. Her brother nearly died of pneumonia and she developed chronic bronchitis.

"It was sort of a time in my life when you are supposed to be learning," she recalled. "For me it was basically a wasteland because we were ignored intellectually and physically. It's something that you remember but you try to put at the back of your mind because it's not happy memories."

Ms. Devlin isn't sure if she will testify when the inquiry begins public hearings next year. But she hopes the inquiry will force the government and those who ran the homes to apologize and "actually acknowledge that there was abuse."

Conditions in the orphanages started to become known after the investigation in Ireland began in 2000. But some advocates for the victims say the government has failed to provide help and, despite the creation of the official inquiry, is still not facing up to abuse at the notorious Magdalene laundry institutions for unmarried mothers.

Ms. Devlin is one of 300 people who have come forward so far with allegations. The inquiry has started a publicity campaign through advertisements and media interviews across Britain, Australia and Canada.

"There may well be a number of individuals now living in Canada who may have experienced abuse in institutions of this type in Northern Ireland and we are very anxious to reach out to them so that they know that we are here, know the work that we are doing and are able to contact us if they can," said Sir Anthony Hart, a retired judge who chairs the inquiry's three-member panel. Their travel costs to come to Northern Ireland to testify will be covered, he added, and investigators could be sent to Canada if enough people come forward to tell their stories in public or confidentially to investigators

The approach taken by Canada in investigating its residential schools abuse is being studied as a possible model.

Northern Ireland had roughly 170 of these homes over the years but most disappeared long ago leaving few records behind. For now the inquiry is focusing on 35 facilities including one workhouse, four government-run training schools, 14 homes managed by local councils and 16 run by Catholic orders and Protestant non-profit groups. "There are potentially many thousands of children who might have been affected," said Sir Anthony who added that inquiry staff will provide the names of the institutions next month.

The inquiry has been criticized for dealing only with victims who were under the age of 18, which excludes hundreds of people who alleged were abused by clerics and women who were sent to Magdalene laundry-type institutions, where unmarried pregnant women were coerced to give up their babies and forced to work in harsh conditions. There were about a dozen Magdalene-style facilities in Northern Ireland up to the 1950s.

"They [victims] feel what they suffered as young adults was abuse and the state also has a responsibility to investigate what happened to them," said Patrick Corrigan the director for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland who has been campaigning to broaden the scope of the inquiry. The government has said those issues will be dealt with later and that it was important to start with child victims.

Sir Anthony said the inquiry's mandate is broad, and it will review allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, which includes humiliation, bullying and lack of proper care such as withholding medical treatment or food. It may recommend an apology, a tribute or some form of financial compensation when it reports its findings in January, 2016.

There is also a separate "acknowledgment forum" in which victims can provide confidential information to a four-member team who will investigate the claims and include some of the information in the inquiry's final report.

Others, such as Margaret McGuckin, want support services now for victims. She spent four years pushing for a public inquiry into abuse at orphanages and she now runs a group in Belfast called Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. "We get no support from the government – no funding," she said in a recent interview. "I have no qualifications or anything – all I had is a listening heart."

Ms. McGuckin can certainly relate to the people she is helping. She, her sister and her two brothers were taken from their home in the late 1950s after welfare officials decided their parents were unfit. "We all got separated," Ms. McGuckin said. She was three years old at the time. "It was brutal. It was a brutal regime. Leather belts, bamboo canes. That was their way of controlling us. Just like cattle."

She spent eight years in the home and the experience scarred her deeply. The family never recovered and remained detached. One brother was sexually abused and is now in a psychiatric hospital. Ms. McGuckin said she recently discovered that her mother came to the home once and asked to see her daughter. "She was pushed away by them people and they handed her a cross, a little small cross," she said.

Allison Diver spent much of her childhood in and out of church-run homes in Londonderry because state officials deemed that her parents – both alcoholics– couldn't look after the family. She said she has only recently begun to talk about what happened – about being locked in cupboards, being beaten so hard it left her with hearing problems and suffering repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. She links the experience to the way her her adult life spun out of control too after she married an abusive husband and struggled to raise five children while battling depression and anxiety

But since she has come forward to the inquiry, the police have tracked down the priest and are pursuing a criminal investigation. She is also preparing to testify at the inquiry next year, even though it will bring back awful memories.

"It has been really, really hard," Ms. Diver said from Belfast where she moved a few years agoafter leaving her husband. "But at least they might do something."

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