#OTD in 1980 – Kincora Scandal | ‘Boys suicide bids brought Kincora scandal to light’. Three staff members of the Kincora Boys Home, Belfast, were charged with acts of gross indecency.

The Kincora Boys’ Home was a boys’ home in Belfast, that was the scene of serious organised child sexual abuse, causing a scandal and attempted cover-up in 1980, with allegations of state collusion. The Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry began examining allegations relating to the Home on 31 May 2016, including claims that there was a paedophile ring at the home with links to the intelligence services; Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said that all state agencies would co-operate with the inquiry.
On 20 January 2017, the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) concluded that the abuse which took place at Kincora Boys’ Home was limited to the actions of three staff members, and did not take place with the collusion of the state or intelligence services. The head of the HIA suggested that it was a matter of urgency that the victims be compensated up to £100,000.
In 2016, Gary Hoy, a former resident of Kincora lost a UK Supreme Court challenge to the powers of the HIA, which could not compel the UK security services to hand over documents or testify. Clint Massey, another former resident, likewise stated in 2015 that due to the scope of the allegations, the HIA was inappropriate and instead Kincora should be investigated by the Goddard Inquiry. Richard Kerr, a former resident of the institute for boys rejected the remarks made by HIA, specifically that the abuse was “limited to 3 staff members” and in February 2017 started a legal challenge to the veracity of its investigation.
The home was set up in 1958 by the local health authority to provide full-time accommodation for boys of working age (15-18) who faced an abusive or otherwise compromised home life. The Home closed in 1980 following the exposure of serious wrongdoing by staff and others, which started shortly after it opened.
The abuse first came to public attention on 24 January 1980 with a news report in the Irish Independent: “Fitt to raise ‘cover up’ in Westminster – Sex Racket at Children’s Home”. It was reported that no prosecutions had taken place, despite allegations of abuse first surfacing in 1977 and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at Belfast’s Strandtown and Donegall Pass stations giving the Director of Public Prosecutions a report detailing allegations of boys being sexually abused and prostituted, and naming prominent businessmen as being involved. On 3 April 1980 three members of staff at the home, William McGrath, Raymond Semple and Joseph Mains, were charged with a number of offences relating to the systematic sexual abuse of children in their care over a number of years; they were all convicted. Mains, who had been the warden, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, Semple, an assistant warden, to five years, and McGrath was jailed in December 1981 for four years.
Allegations were later made that the RUC had been informed of the abuse at the home for years previously, but had not moved to prevent it. In his 1999 book The Dirty War, Martin Dillon claims that McGrath, who was also the leader of an obscure loyalist paramilitary group called Tara, may have been employed by MI5 since the 1960s and was being blackmailed into providing intelligence on other loyalist groups.
Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church which he founded in 1951, was accused of failing to report McGrath’s abuse to the relevant authorities. He initially denied ever being advised by his informant, a church member, Valerie Shaw, that it was taking place. Paisley later gave other versions acknowledging learning from Shaw about McGrath’s homosexuality.
During this time, it was alleged by the satirical current affairs magazine Private Eye that high-ranking members of the Whitehall Civil Service and senior officers of the British military were involved in the sexual abuse of boys in Kincora.
In response to increasing coverage in the media, the Eastern Health and Social Services Board decided to institute a policy of not employing “homosexuals” in any caring roles. Some people working in other homes, who weren’t alleged to have participated in abuse, were discovered to be homosexual and dismissed. The policy was later overturned by the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services.
A “private inquiry” was set up in January 1982 by James Prior, the Northern Ireland Secretary, under the Commissioner of Complaints, Stephen McGonagle, to deal with these allegations. However, it collapsed after three of its members resigned because they felt that the RUC had failed to carry out an effective investigation.
Debates on Kincora were held in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 22 March and 9 November 1983. In January 1984, another inquiry, under Judge William Hughes with W.J. Patterson and Harry Whalley, was set up by James Prior.
Judge Hughes’s Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels submitted its 355-page report on 31 December 1985. Amongst its 56 recommendations, which related mostly to the operation of children’s homes and child care regulation, was one (46) that every criminal allegation made by a resident should be referred to the police. Another (4) was that the legal position regarding the exclusion of homosexuals from employment in residential child care should be established although (p. 294) the committee concluded that “the weight of opinion is against a policy of exclusion”.
The news story in the Irish Times that there was a prostitution ring operating from the Kincora home (paras. 5.23–28) was stated to be unwarranted and sourced inaccurately to a witness who was never resident in Kincora and who had been abused by his uncle. That witness said (p. 200) “I have no knowledge of any important or influential men involved in any sex with me or any other boys.”
Hughes concluded presciently (p. 342) that, “The events giving rise to this Inquiry…can no longer be regarded as exceptional. They must perhaps be recognised as earlier symptoms of a general malaise permeating the United Kingdom.”
Joshua Cardwell, an east Belfast Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI) councillor and Stormont MP who formerly chaired the Belfast Corporation Welfare Committee responsible for children’s’ homes, died by suicide in 1982 after making a statement to the RUC in March over Kincora.
Cardwell told the police of one conversation with the Belfast Town Clerk who had mentioned an imprecise allegation of homosexual conduct, but said that no complaints had ever come his way (p. 70). The Hughes report concluded (p. 93), “There is no evidence that Councillor Cardwell took steps to prevent an investigation or suppress the matter. Nor is there any evidence that the Ministry of Home Affairs became aware of allegations or rumours of relating to homosexual misconduct at Kincora.”
In April 1990 a writer called Robert Harbinson (also known as Robin Bryans) stated in the Dublin-based magazine Now that Lord Mountbatten, Anthony Blunt and others were all involved in an old-boy network which held gay orgies in country houses on both sides of the Irish border, as well as at the Kincora Boys’ Home. Harbinson sent letters and postcards to the rich and powerful in British establishment circles but once the postcards began to circulate there were complaints to the police and Harbinson was warned that he would be prosecuted for criminal libel. An example of his letter-writing style is copied here.
The Belfast News Letter reported that files on Kincora were “conspicuously absent” from the routine January 2013 release of 1982 government papers by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) under the 30-year rule.
In July 2014 former military intelligence officer Colin Wallace said that any new investigation into the abuse at the home should have access to information from intelligence agencies. Wallace said that he received intelligence in 1973 that boys at the home were being abused, but some of his superior officers refused to pass on information. He also said that the Terry and Hughes inquiries did not examine evidence relating to the intelligence services.
In August 2014 another former intelligence officer, Brian Gemmell, said that he also had been ordered to stop investigating allegations of abuse at the home. He said that he learned details of what happened in the home while gathering information on loyalists. He was told he was running two agents who had close links to the home. As well as telling him not to investigate, the senior officer told him to stop running an agent. He had spoken out anonymously before, but dropped his anonymity because he wanted the allegations to be investigated again.
It was alleged that extreme Ulster loyalists who were members of a paedophile ring committing offences at the Home were being blackmailed by MI5 and other branches of the security forces during the Troubles. In 2015 campaigners were trying to have Kincora included in a wide-ranging inquiry to establish whether the security services prevented action on the abuse so they could compromise some of the perpetrators.
Until 2015 there had been no court hearing about the alleged cover-up with British state involvement, a cover-up alleged by victims to have lasted decades. An Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales was being set up at the time following revelations of widespread abuse in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations; the government intends to keep Kincora out of this process and within the remit of the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) only. The Northern Ireland victims wanted a similar inquiry into their case, with fuller powers to compel witnesses to testify, and require the security service to provide documents, then available to HIA. On 17 February 2015 the High Court in Northern Ireland listed a full judicial review into the decision to keep Kincora out of the wider inquiry, which was heard in the first week of June 2015.
On 20 January 2017, the HIA chairman Sir Anthony Hart dismissed claims that MI5 or any other British government agency had any role in covering up the reports of sex abuse which had occurred at Kincora and instead placed the blame on the poor investigating and reporting by the local police.


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