I was initially very reluctant to make any comments about the Mairía Cahill case because I did not know the ‘facts’ of the situation and did not want to contribute to any hurt already felt by an alleged sex abuse victim or indeed people who had just been acquitted by the courts. However, I think that case and the way it has been portrayed in the media, particularly in the South of Ireland, raises a whole range of questions, about the media, as well as about the actual allegations of sex abuse and how they were handled or mishandled in the past.
First of all I should say that it is my view that the substantive issues raised by the Mairía Cahill case need to be investigated independently. Just because someone makes accusations against others doesn’t mean that the accusations are correct, particularly when they are being denied, however, that doesn’t make them incorrect either. That is why we have supposedly independent policing agencies and courts in most societies, to try and tease out the ‘facts’ when accusations are made.
However, statements have been made in the media and by politicians and the public as if ‘facts’ have been established. Most of these have condemned republicans without evidence outside the disputed word of the accuser. However, statements have also been made, particularly on social media which have condemned the alleged victim. Emotions have been raised, people have taken sides, political allegiances have fuelled political motivated attacks and the ‘truth’ seems further away than ever.
Hearsay, rumour, gossip and indeed allegations don’t constitute ‘fact’. In this particular case, it’s a pity that the allegations of sexual abuse weren’t raised at the time they happened, and that they weren’t raised with people trained to deal with such issues. It’s also a pity that once raised the young woman didn’t continue with the case against her alleged rapist through the Court.
It is also a pity that despite the peace process we still have a police force and a DPP who appeared more interested in charging people with membership of an illegal organisation rather than dealing with the allegations of sexual abuse. It seems to me that as long as this remains the case, it will be difficult to deal with historic hurt/injustice. It will also be difficult to get cooperation on truth recovery related to other events during the conflict in the past. This prolongs the suffering of many victims and survivors and their quest for truth and some element of closure.
It seems to me that in this particularly case there are three main accusations which need to be dealt with. One is that a young woman was sexually abused by a named republican. The second is that when republicans ‘investigated’ this they compounded the hurt of the victim. The third is that the sexual abuse was covered up for some reason by republicans, in this and in other historic cases. It seems to me that ALL of these issues need to be addressed. How to address them in a non-partisan fashion which everyone can trust and buy into is a big difficulty however.
Remember that a conflict existed in this part of the world for at least 30 years and for large parts of that period neither side was particularly interested in the suffering of victims. Remember also that most people, including republicans and indeed policing agencies were ignorant of what to do in cases of sexual abuse, during most of the period of this conflict, 1968-98.
In the South of Ireland it was not until the 1980s that widespread allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and in institutions began to appear publicly. Up to this point, the state took little responsibility for oversight of institutions or in dealing with investigations of abuse. This has changed slowly over the years. There still isn’t a Sex Offenders Register for the whole island of Ireland however, and it wasn’t until June 2001 that legislation in the South came into force (the Sex Offenders Act) compelling certain convicted sex offenders to make their location known to Gardaí. It is also still that case that there is little follow up in relation to such offenders once convicted. The question thus emerges, what would Taoiseach Enda Kenny do if he was provided with the addresses (in the unlikely event that they would be known by anyone alive today) of people allegedly exiled to the South by the IRA in the 1970s, 80s and 90s for ‘alleged’ sex offences. If his state is currently doing very little in terms of follow up with sex offenders within its own jurisdiction it seems unlikely that he would do an awful lot.
Even today, despite all the allegations of institutional abuse, oversight of such institutions in the South is scant by a state which still refuses to take responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. The Louise O’Keefe case earlier this year illustrates that dramatically. This was is a woman who was abused at school but the state refused to take any responsibility for this or pay compensation to her. She won a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights in January of this year, one which the state fought tooth and nail to oppose. http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/OKeeffe%20v%20Ireland.pdf/Files/OKeeffe%20v%20Ireland.pdf.
In August 2014 Louise O’Keefe asked for a meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss her case. Apparently she is still waiting. http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/abuse-survivor-louise-okeefe-seeks-meeting-with-taoiseach-278075.html
Contrast this with the speed with which the Taoiseach arranged to meet with Mairía Cahill this week and one is left feeling that if Louise O’Keefe’s abuser had been a republican, a political opponent of the current government in the South, she may have been treated more sympathetically by the state.
On top of all this, in the same week that the Mairía Cahill case was headline news it was reported that 40% of all teachers in the South (36,000) have still not been Garda vetted. http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1022/653979-teachers-garda-vetting/. It is still not mandatory in the South for people working with children in the South to be Garda vetted, though there are plans to legislate for this in the near future.
In relation to the North, there is no doubt that there was mayhem there during the 1970s and 1980s. In the absence of any normal policing in many areas during much of the 30 years of conflict, the IRA were often called upon by local people to deal with anti-social behaviour within their areas. Despite a reluctance to divert resources away from their main political and military focus, into ‘community policing’, republicans usually responded, in order to maintain their support base (and also probably to dissuade people from turning to the state’s forces). This is a reality related by a whole series of academic researchers in the past – including myself – some of whom were very hostile to republicanism. The IRA’s response was crude, cruel, ineffective and indeed unjust. In the main, that was all there was at the time. The RUC in such areas were more interested in fighting the IRA than fighting ordinary crime.
As Gerry Adams has pointed out this week the IRA also dealt with sex abuse cases during this period (again crudely, by shooting or exiling alleged offenders).
It is also clear that the IRA felt it needed to deal with allegations of crimes or abuse committed by its own members, to maintain discipline within its own ranks, to preserve its image publicly and to maintain its support base.
In relation to sex offences (and indeed other forms of crime) it has been admitted by republicans such as Gerry Adams that republicans were ill-equipped to deal with such cases and increasingly became aware of this during the conflict. By the 1980s prominent republicans were publicly calling for alternatives to punishment beatings and shootings and a whole series of community-based initiatives were set up in republican areas often with the support of social services, probation service and NGOs (though not with the RUC or other British military forces).
From at least the mid-1980s republicans were publicly telling victims of sexual abuse to contact the social services (with the knowledge that they would in turn contact the RUC).
Despite this many people from a republican perspective did not trust the state or its institutions in relation to such matters, particularly if they involved republicans accused of crime. There was a well-founded fear that the state would simply use such material in its war on republicans, not to provide justice for the victim. The allegations about the use of Kincora Boys Home in Belfast by the British security services, where children were sexually abused up until the 1980s, have never been adequately investigated. Indeed it is interesting that in the very week when the Mairía Cahill case was headlining in the media, the British Secretary of State for N.Ireland refused an investigation into security services involvement in Kincora. (That this was largely ignored by the media in the South is particularly insightful).
Besides all this, it is also probably the case that many victims also preferred republican ‘justice’ rather than state justice. It was quick and usually less merciful.
The word ‘cover-up’ thus, when it comes to the non-reporting of crime or abuse to the British authorities, historically, is thus too sweeping a term to employ unless one has evidence of real intent.
Finally, particularly when it came to sexual abuse within a family setting, many families and family members were often reluctant to make sexual abuse in the family known for a whole series of different reasons including protection of the privacy of the victims, protection of family relationships, protection of younger family members and protection of the family’s name, etc. Most professionals dealing with sexual abuse will admit that even in so-called ‘normal’ societies only a small minority of sexual abuse crimes are ever reported. How much more so may that be the case in an ‘abnormal’ society? They will also admit than even when reported to professionally qualified and experienced people such crimes are notoriously difficult to prove, especially if they occurred years previously. And of course the victims of such crimes have feelings, emotions, etc. and may not be able to cope with police investigations and court proceedings – some reasons perhaps why the alleged victim in this case decided not to proceed with court proceedings.
In my view, the Mairía Cahill allegations need to be investigated. I know that it will be difficult getting to the truth, so long after the alleged events and due to the fact that republicans can still be jailed if they admit historic membership of the IRA or historic involvement in IRA investigations. The recent court cases show that. However, unlike the British, republicans have got a stake in the future of this country. They know they have a responsibility to try and build a better future for all our people. That means addressing the legacy of past events which continue to dominant people’s lives in the present. In my view, I think republicans are genuine when they say they support a comprehensive truth recovery mechanism when it comes to conflict related events in the past. I also believe they are genuine when the say that they are interested in revealing the ‘truth’ as they see it, relating to the alleged investigation of these particular allegations of abuse in the 1990s. I think that such ‘truth’ recovery needs to be facilitated by all in this society.