The news of the past 11 days has been dominated by the story of Maíria Cahill. We have heard about her bitter, damaging experience at the hands of an alleged IRA rapist and then – the “second nightmare”, as she called it – at the hands of an alleged IRA “kangaroo court”.
The revelations have also raised the prospect of other victims of IRA sexual abuse coming forward to tell their stories. She says they already have – but they have done so only privately for the moment.
Much of the media focus has been on Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin. Just as it was last year in the case of Áine Tyrell, and just as it was in the case of Jean McConville earlier this year.
At stake is Adams’s credibility. Last November questions were asked about when and what the Sinn Féin president knew after his brother Liam was sentenced to 16 years in prison for raping his daughter, Áine. In April and May this year more questions were raised about what the Sinn Féin president knew about the 1972 IRA murder of Jean McConville after he was questioned by the PSNI at Antrim station.
Now questions are being asked about what Adams knew about the alleged rape and interrogation of Maíria Cahill. Questions are also being raised about how the republican movement dealt internally with IRA sexual abuse. As with the Catholic Church, it is asked, did the IRA “institution” come before the victims?
Taoiseach Enda Kenny intensified the pressure during his angry Dáil exchanges with Gerry Adams on Wednesday, when he challenged the Sinn Féin leader to confirm whether IRA sex abusers were spirited across the Border to safe houses in Donegal, Louth and Dublin. The nature of his questioning seemed to indicate a certain undeclared knowledge.
Sinn Féin this week rallied around its leader. But it must have been awkward and frustrating for the likes of its TDs Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Peadar Tóibín to have to man the barricades for the third time in a year on behalf of their leader and deny more talk of a republican cover-up.
The spectre, as raised by Kenny, of IRA sex abusers secretly settled in the South, possibly close to vulnerable people, won’t have helped the Sinn Féin brand in the Republic, and these TDs will know that.
Neither the story nor the questions are going to go away. More alleged victims may come forward now that Maíria Cahill has broken the silence. In many important areas it’s back to whom people believe, Sinn Féin and its leader, or Maíria Cahill?
The ‘different time’ defence
One Sinn Féin defence this week was that
was a different place way back then, when nationalists didn’t trust the RUC. “How could people be so removed from the context of Northern Ireland?” asked an exasperated Peadar Tóibín on Newstalk on Thursday. “Eighty miles up the road hundreds of thousands of Irish people literally lived in a state where they weren’t given the right to vote, they weren’t given the right to housing, they weren’t given the right to jobs, they weren’t literally given the right to march for their rights. They were shot dead by the security forces. Now, a good chunk of [that] population did not trust the security forces because of that level of violence shown to them.”
But that argument seemed threadbare, because this wasn’t way back then. We were a long way from Bloody Sunday and the civil-rights campaigners.
The alleged rape of Maíria Cahill took place in 1997, after the IRA had declared its second and sustained ceasefire. The alleged "kangaroo court" was in 1999, a year after Sinn Féin signed up to the Belfast Agreement and at a time when moves were under way to create the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
That was also the same year Adams was telling his party ardfheis in Dublin, “Scandals of child abuse have infected some of the main institutions, and the extent of the cover-ups have shocked many citizens.”
The ‘tell the RUC’ conflict
Adams in his blog last Sunday said Maíria Cahill’s allegation of a cover-up was untrue. “When I learned of the allegation that Maíria was the victim of rape I asked her granduncle Joe Cahill, a senior and widely respected republican, to advise her to go to the RUC. He did this but Maíria did not want to do so at that time,” he wrote.
In an earlier statement, the evening after the BBC Spotlight programme, on October 14th, in which Maíria Cahill made the rape allegations, Gerry Adams also said he asked Joe Cahill, a founder member of the Provisional IRA, to persuade her to go to the RUC. Adams also said, "I met Maíria in good faith, at the behest of her cousin and my late friend Siobhan O'Hanlon who was concerned for Maíria's welfare following an episode of self-harming."
The self-harming reference left a sour taste in the mouth. Maíria Cahill went on Twitter to describe this remark as “disgusting”, adding, “I never self-harmed in 2000,” and saying that Adams “has just released a very personal inaccurate detail to the media”.
Gerry Adams made no such self-harming references in subsequent comments.
Maíria Cahill also insisted there was no suggestion that she should go to the RUC.
Both Siobhan O’Hanlon and Joe Cahill are dead, so here’s it’s a question of whether Gerry Adams or Maíria Cahill is correct.
Another issue is that in 1995 Adams said that people should not report alleged cases of child or drug abuse to the RUC because they were “not acceptable and, indeed, are using these issues for their own militaristic ends”. Would Adams’s views have changed in five years? It must be stated, though, that Sinn Féin contended that abusers were advised to go to social workers, who in turn were obliged to inform the RUC – so that effectively this reporting would bring cases to the attention of police.
The ‘interrogation’ allegations
As for the internal inquiry into her alleged rape, Gerry Adams and Maíria Cahill also offer conflicting accounts.
In his blog on the “interrogation” allegation, Adams wrote, “The IRA has long since left the scene so there is no corporate way of verifying this but it must be pointed out that this allegation was subject to a police investigation, charges were brought against some republicans who strenuously denied Maíria’s allegations. They insist they tried to help her. They were all acquitted by the court.”
Maíria Cahill instead spoke of an internal IRA inquiry running from 1999 into 2000. She told of the “beyond fright” fear she felt when first called to the interview and the “most harrowing” experience of being brought face to face with her alleged abuser in March 2000.
By her account both she and her parents were warned that going to the RUC was "not an option". She said on Spotlight that one of her alleged interrogators, Seamus Finucane, said to her that if she went to the police the IRA would release her alleged abuser, Martin Morris, who was under IRA "house arrest".
Finucane allegedly warned her, “I’ll let him go now, and I can’t guarantee you that you are not going to bump into him in half an hour’s time, in an hour’s time, whenever you are out doing your shopping, in three months.”
“And that was the end of any option of going to the RUC,” Maíria Cahill told the television programme.
Again, it’s which account people find most credible.
The ‘trial by media’
Peter Madden is solicitor for Seamus Finucane, brother of the murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. He reminded the media and everyone else this week that Seamus Finucane and the other three who faced charges relating to the questioning of Maíria Cahill – Pádraic Wilson, Briege Wright and
– were acquitted.
“In any normal society that would be the end of the matter, and my clients should have been permitted to go back to their normal lives. However, the rule of law has been subverted by the ongoing trial by the media against my clients,” said Madden.
He added that in court Cahill’s version of events would have been challenged. “She refused to allow this to take place and would not participate in the normal method of giving evidence at a trial, where the truth of her version of events would be tested by cross-examination. My clients were therefore found not guilty of these offences,” said Madden.
Martin Morris, who was charged with rape and is now understood to be living in London, was also acquitted after Cahill withdrew her evidence.
No one can gainsay Madden’s factual statement, but, equally, this story has become a matter of significant public – not just media – interest. That’s reflected in the fact that also this week the North’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, decided that the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, which he runs, has some serious soul searching to do over why it took four years for the cases to come to trial. He ordered an independent review into the prosecution service’s handling of the cases that involved IRA membership, arranging IRA meetings and, in the case of Morris, rape and IRA-membership charges. The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, is also examining how the PSNI conducted its investigation.
Therein lie some of the key reasons Maíria Cahill has given that she did not proceed with the case just as the full trials were to begin, in April and May this year. She has complained that the investigation and the prosecution just took too long and that emotionally she was in no condition to proceed. The court also heard that she feared facing Morris in court. “The odds were stacked against me right from the get-go,” she said.
Other victims and inquiries
programme Maíria Cahill has said that numerous alleged victims of IRA sexual abusers have come to her, to tell stories similar to hers. That was also one of the reasons why she met the Taoiseach and First Minister
separately this week, to seek support for victims who may have been retraumatised by all that has happened in the past 11 days.
The story is having quite an impact north of the Border. Aside from the response of the DPP and the ombudsman investigation the DUP has tabled a Northern Ireland Assembly motion calling for an inquiry.
But the bigger focus has been south of the Border. In the North people may be appalled by the allegations, but they won’t be hugely surprised. Throughout the island there is considerable empathy and support for Maíria Cahill – and some criticism, too – but the story has been getting more airtime and print space in the South.
Gerry Adams is a TD for Louth, and it’s in the South that Sinn Féin has been making relentless political gains against Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour. Therefore, as well as the personal suffering of Maíria Cahill, the story takes on the inevitable added dimension of how this will play politically in the Republic, and whether this could undo Adams and stall Sinn Féin progress.
The fact that the Liam Adams and Jean McConville cases did no lasting political damage to Gerry Adams or Sinn Féin in the South might indicate that, when the dust settles on the Cahill case, Sinn Féin will remain a solid political force, with Gerry Adams still firmly in charge.
That may well be the case, although there is no sign of the pressure waning or of Maíria Cahill flagging, despite the exhausting time she has had since the programme. Ambitious Sinn Féin politicians in the Republic must have concerns, although we are unlikely to hear them voiced publicly.
One senior DUP figure expressed this week what many others have said in the past year following the Liam Adams and Jean McConville cases: “If this had happened to any other party leader he would be toast by now.”
But Sinn Féin isn’t like any other party on the island; as Seán Lemass once said about Fianna Fáil, it is a “slightly constitutional” party: it operates under different rules and moral imperatives.
If Gerry Adams has the stomach to stick the course – and for the moment it seems he has – then it looks as if his party will continue to support him.