The chairwoman of a Stormont investigation of mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries has resigned due to ill health, it has emerged.

Norah Gibbons was the independent chairwoman of the Northern Ireland Executive's inter-departmental working group based in the Department of Health.

It had asked academics from Queen's University in Belfast and Ulster University to examine by the end of this year the operation of the institutions between 1922 and 1999.

Both the homes and the laundries were excluded from the terms of reference of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI).

Fourteen months ago its chairperson, Sir Anthony Hart, recommended that redress should be paid to former residents of children's residential institutions.

However, the collapse of the power-sharing executive has delayed the establishment of a payments scheme.

Last January, Ms Gibbons tasked the Queen’s University and Ulster University specialists with writing an account of the institutions where adults resided by interviewing former residents and combing government and institutional records.

Patrick Corrigan, the Northern Ireland programme director of Amnesty International, confirmed that he had received an email yesterday from a NI Department of Health official stating that a meeting with the inter-departmental committee scheduled for today had been cancelled due to the resignation of Ms Gibbons for health reasons.

"Our thoughts are with Norah Gibbons and we wish her a speedy and full return to health," Mr Corrigan said.

"Women from mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland have told Amnesty International that they suffered arbitrary detention, ill treatment, and the forced adoption of their babies - criminal acts in both domestic and international law," he told the Press Association.

"Meanwhile, more and more clerical abuse victims are coming forward to reveal their suffering at the hands of abusive priests and gross failures by church and state authorities.

"Serious allegations of abuse must now be met with investigations with the necessary hallmarks of independence, effectiveness and transparency," Mr Corrigan said.

"Victims have long called for public inquiries into these serious abuse allegations. They deserve to be heard."

The resignation has also led to the cancellation of meetings with survivors scheduled for today.

Eunan Duffy who was born in the Marian Vale Mother and Baby Home in Newry before being taken from his mother against her will and placed for adoption has been calling for a public inquiry into allegations that residents of the homes and laundries were abused.

"I cannot believe that, after a year of waiting to meet with government officials who are making key decisions about our lives, the chair has resigned and the meeting has been cancelled," Mr Duffy said in a statement.

He added: "We are now calling for a fresh approach, one where the victims are listened to."

Women who were forced into institutions in Belfast and Newry after becoming pregnant have claimed that up to the 1980s, newborn babies were being forcibly taken from their mothers and given up for adoption by nuns.

But because they were adults they did not fall into Sir Anthony Hart's public inquiry into child abuse in institutions.