The IRA has always had crude and frequently brutal ways of dealing with internal matters such as alleged IRA sex abusers and informants. When it came to internal inquiries, though, it was far more noted and feared for the manner in which it dealt with informers than with perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Scores of informants – some working for MI5 or RUC Special Branch and others totally innocent of such charges – were killed by the IRA during the Troubles. Their interrogations were carried out by the IRA’s so-called Nutting Squad, the title itself conveying the dread anyone called before it would have experienced.
Maíria Cahill faced a different IRA inquiry but the same interrogation principle would have applied, according to former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, who said that the “beyond fright” sense of fear she said she felt when called before the inquiry was utterly credible.
Mr McIntyre, who was in the IRA up to 1998 and subsequently became alienated from the Adams-McGuinness leadership, said he was unaware of any deep IRA “culture” of sex abuse but, equally, he knew of alleged cases of victims who were abused.
He referred to three particular cases. The first was of a Belfast IRA man who was “deemed to have sexually assaulted the children of his girlfriend”. He said the IRA member would have got a “grilling” in an internal IRA inquiry but the upshot was that the alleged abuser was sent to the Republic, where he was supposed to get psychological counselling. “As far as I am aware, that never happened.”
Mr McIntyre said that within republican circles it was also widely known that a Derry IRA member who allegedly abused under-age females had been “spirited away”. He also recounted how a woman had told him directly that she had been raped by an IRA member. She had reported that claim to the IRA but got no response. “She came to me and said that the IRA did absolutely nothing about it,” he said.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams is no friend of Mr McIntyre but in his blog this week, Mr Adams allowed that the IRA had its own way of dealing with sex offenders. "Despite the high standards and decency of the vast majority of IRA volunteers, IRA personnel were singularly ill-equipped to deal with these matters," he wrote. "This included very sensitive areas such as responding to demands to take action against rapists and child abusers. The IRA on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them."
Due to the secret nature of the organisation, detailed accounts of how sex abuse victims and their alleged IRA assailants were treated has not come into the public forum. However Mr McIntyre said Ms Cahill’s account rang true. “What I was told was that it was often a case of putting victim-perpetrator together to test who was telling the truth,” he said.
The strongest personal account so far of how victims of IRA alleged sexual abuse were treated comes from Ms Cahill herself from her BBC Spotlight interview, in which she made her allegations about being raped by an IRA member and having to face her alleged assailant in a republican-style court.
When called to speak to the IRA in 1999, she explained the terror she felt as an 18-year-old. “At that time in west Belfast, the IRA were the authority figure. We knew it was not good news when they said they wanted to see you later and wouldn’t tell you what it was about. So I think the natural reaction for anybody would be to panic.”
Ms Cahill described being driven to a house by a woman and brought to an upstairs flat in west Belfast. “A guy came in. I knew at that point when he walked through the kitchen door that I was in deep, deep trouble,” she said.
Ms Cahill said that one of her questioners said that the alleged rapist was a “volunteer in the army”. “He has rights. We are here to investigate that. We are also here to protect the organisation. We can’t be seen to be having abusers in our ranks and you need to tell us what happened.”
After the rape, that was when her “second nightmare” began, said Ms Cahill. She told of how she was questioned repeatedly, often several nights a week over a six-month period, and that she was instructed not to tell her parents about her “interrogation”.
The “most harrowing” and traumatising episode was towards the end of the questioning when she was brought before her alleged abuser. “They told me they were going to read my body language to see who was telling the truth. They were going to bring him into a room. I immediately panicked because the one thing you don’t want to do is come face to face with the guy that has abused you.”
Ms Cahill, after meeting First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont yesterday, said there were many more "damaged" victims of IRA sexual predators out there. She said they were now slowly coming forward to privately tell their stories to her. This way, more first-hand information would emerge, she believed.