If the IRA has a holy day in the year other than at Easter it is in June. Usually on a Sunday in the third week of that month hundreds of republicans from all parts of Ireland march to the grave in Bodenstown cemetery, in Co Kildare, of Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leader of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion. The march is an occasion for old friends to reunite, for unshakeable beliefs to be reconsecrated and, most importantly, for the IRA leadership of the day to spell out its vision for the future.
There was a frisson of excitement animating the Bodenstown faithful of 1977, because of the presence of a tall, lanky figure, bearded and wearing glasses. Although just 29 years old, Gerry Adams, the Belfast commander of the IRA until his arrest and internment in 1973, was already revered in the IRA, regarded as a strategic genius and, for many, a hope that the organisation's dwindling fortunes might be soon be restored.
The IRA was facing defeat in the summer of 1977. A ceasefire had dragged on with no sign of the promised talks about British withdrawal. The British had used the time to reorganise its fight against the IRA.
But in the spring of 1977 Adams had been released from the cages of Long Kesh internment camp and, with that, IRA spirits had lifted. In jail Adams had spearheaded a rethink of the IRA's future. With allies such as Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell he had constructed a plan to turn around the group's fortunes. There was a military side to the reorganisation and a political side.
Bodenstown 1977 was the day when the Provos' new political path would be charted. The man slated to deliver the speech that day was Jimmy Drumm, a veteran from the 1940s campaign and once a loyal supporter of the IRA leadership that Gerry Adams and his allies were about to displace. The words he spoke were not his own, however: they had been written by Adams and by Danny Morrison, a rising star in the organisation.
Implicit in the speech was the idea that the IRA was now committed to a “long war”. The notion, popular in the early 1970s, that the British could be expelled by a short, sharp campaign of violence was now deemed a fantasy. But to sustain the IRA for such a protracted struggle – privately Adams and his allies talked of a 20-year campaign – the Provos needed more than hatred of British troops to fuel the war effort; the IRA had to become relevant to the people in the areas where they operated.
Jimmy Drumm’s speech at Bodenstown 1977 signalled the moment when the Provos began the long journey to the Belfast Agreement. Within five years Sinn Féin had won seats on a new Belfast Assembly; a year later Gerry Adams was elected to Westminster and the secret diplomacy that would lead to the end of the IRA’s war was under way.
An apt phrase had been coined to describe the new dispensation in 1977: "active abstentionism", a term that contained the idea the IRA would undertake this new mission by building structures outside the institutions of Northern Ireland. There would be no recognition of partition, but the IRA and Sinn Féin would find other ways to relate to their people.
One of these ideas is now at the centre of the Maíria Cahill scandal. Under the reorganisation plan a new branch of the IRA would be created. Called the Civil Administration, or sometimes the Administrative IRA, it was to police the areas where the IRA held sway.
Law and order breakdown
With the Troubles nearly a decade old, law and order had broken down and value systems had been undermined in many Catholic districts. Crime, vandalism and joyriding were endemic, and the RUC was distrusted and disliked in nationalist areas; sometimes it would not answer calls, out of fear of being ambushed, or preferred to turn a blind eye to problems that distracted the IRA from violence.
A 1993 survey of victims of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, by Monica McWilliams and Joan McKiernan (this writer’s wife), cited as typical one woman’s response when asked if she would seek police help when facing a violent partner: “They are not there to help. In this area police are not people that you normally go to. I mean, to walk out and stop them in the street, they would laugh at you – I mean they don’t have any contact with this community whatsoever.”
Nonetheless there was a cry for law and order in places such as west Belfast – and a large policing vacuum. The IRA decided to fill it. The era of organised punishment beatings began.
Justice at the hands of the Civil Administration was invariably swift and brutal, administered with baseball bats to break bones and bullets to cripple legs. A local IRA commander would act as judge and jury and then order the punishment; to describe this as a “court” would be an insult to the English language, but there was no doubt that in the areas affected by mounting crime the IRA’s savage justice was popular.
The defining feature of the IRA’s policing system, however, is that it was inherently ill-equipped to deal with matters as complex and delicate as the rape of a 16-year-old girl such as Maíria Cahill. There is no evidence that the IRA’s interest was in the girl’s wellbeing, no sign that it sought professional advice about how to deal with her problems, no indication that the IRA had even the experience of past similar cases to learn from.
The fact that the organisation’s “police” brought abused and abuser together in a confrontation scenario was not just a sign of ignorance about how to deal with such matters but also suggested that the IRA’s real interest was in clearing the name of one of its fellow members and a colleague in the Civil Administration rather than securing justice for a victim.
The Administrative IRA’s function was not to assist rape victims or bring the rapists to justice, especially if the alleged perpetrator was one of their own, but to beat the living hell out of joyriders, glue-sniffers and burglars, knowing that its popularity, and that of its political wing, would soar in Catholic areas hard pressed by petty crime.
Evidence that this type of policing paid handsome political dividends came in a vivid 1993 interview with the alleged IRA informer Freddie Scappaticci – better known as "Steaknife" – by the Central TV programme The Cook Report:
“The IRA appointed a person in Belfast, and his sole job was to look after Sinn Féin/IRA-type things – co-ordinate publicity campaigns, etc,” Scappaticci told his interviewer. “If Sinn Féin wasn’t doing too well in an area the IRA could be deployed in that area to do various things, to work alongside Sinn Féin.
“Part of this co-ordination would have been ‘civil administration’ – that is, the people who kneecap people, baseball-bat people, who break legs, arms, is what their ‘civil administration’ is . . .
“The IRA made a conscious decision along with Sinn Féin to clean up the Divis Flats because of the crime and drug dealing. An IRA man was put in to call on people to band together and make the flats a hoods-free area . . . The IRA moved in and kneecapped four or five people. Then they gave a particular drug-dealing family 48 hours to get out of Belfast or be ‘stiffed’. They left. The Lower Falls became quiet. Sinn Féin got their act together and got two seats in the Lower Falls.”
The popularity of the Administrative IRA’s often cruel violence against alleged criminals in nationalist districts could sometimes pay handsome electoral dividends. The IRA’s brutal policing system was arguably, and ironically, part of a process that ended the Troubles.
All that will be of scant comfort to Maíria Cahill, who has endured 17 years of isolation and mental agony as she sought justice for one crime the IRA couldn’t or wouldn’t confront.
Ed Moloney is the author of A Secret History of the IRA and Voices from the Grave