THE biggest public inquiry into child abuse ever held in Britain is to begin its first public hearings in Northern Ireland today.
300 witnesses will provide evidence in the inquiry which will examine cases of historical institutional abuse that took place in 13 residential care homes in Northern Ireland.
The witnesses include former residents alleging they had been abused as children, those who were in charge of the institutions, government representatives and health and social care officials.
Sir Anthony Hart QC will chair the proceedings with the inquiry expected to last for 18 months.
The treatment of children being investigated includes claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and also childhood neglect over a period of more than 70 years.
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) set up by the Stormont Executive is examining the allegations of abuse that took place between 1922 and 1995.
Some of the 13 institutions being looked into were run by state authorities, many were staffed by voluntary organisations and the remainder were run by the Catholic Church.
434 people, so far, have contacted the inquiry to allege they were abused. 20 of whom are from the Republic and more than 60 are now resident in Australia.
The reason for the large numbers of applications from Australia is a result of British government child migration policy that sent children from institutions in Northern Ireland here.
There are two stages to the inquiry.
The first part involves an Acknowledgment Forum where victims and survivors of the abuse can discuss privately what happened to them as children resident in these institutions.
The inquiry’s Acknowledgment Forum has already received 263 applicants.
The second stage includes a statutory inquiry offering victims and survivors an opportunity to describe their experiences directly to the statutory inquiry through its legal team and, if required, at public hearings.
Proceedings will open today with a short address from Sir Anthony Hart QC. This will be followed by an address from Christine Smith, senior counsel to the inquiry, outlining a general overview of the structure of the inquiry.
The HIA inquiry is independent of government and has the power to require witnesses to give evidence.
Whilst it does not have the legal power to find anyone criminally guilty, it can pass details of any evidence that it receives regarding a crime to police.
Until Wednesday the inquiry's legal team will provide a general overview and will outline the proceedings and the issues they are expected to address.
The first stage of public hearings will then focus on allegations made against two specific Catholic children's homes in Londonderry.
Nazareth House Children's Home in Bishop Street and St Joseph's Home in Termonbacca were both run by the same order of nuns - the Sisters of Nazareth.
The inquiry will reconvene in public in Banbridge on Monday 27 January.