The British authorities, as well as Adams, have questions to answer on Cahill allegations
Opinion: A question of priorities means, in practice, wronged women must wait
‘Harrying Adams should not rule out hammering on the door of Theresa Villiers’s office.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) will be fairly content with the way the Sinn Féin/Maíria Cahill rape controversy has been playing out.
Northern Ireland secretary of state Theresa Villiers’s officials may be concerned about possible reputational damage to key supporters of the peace process but they will also be aware that the intense political and media concentration on the alleged interventions of the IRA and Gerry Adams will have helped deflect attention from the role of the British authorities.
Politically, the most striking element in the BBC Spotlight programme that brought Cahill’s allegations to a wider public came from Mark Durkan. The Foyle MP related that he had been told by a number of Westminster colleagues that they had been briefed by Sinn Féin MPs who, referring the Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation of Cahill’s claims, “said they were very concerned about what they said was political policing”.
Durkan said, too, that he had been approached by former Labour NI secretary Shaun Woodward, “Who asked me if I was concerned about what was happening to poor Pádraic, and referred to the issues, difficulties and concerns that he was aware Sinn Féin had, and that this was very worrying for the process . . .
“He said that we couldn’t go pursuing these sorts of issues.”
“Pádraic” was Pádraic Wilson, alleged by Cahill to have been involved in meeting her in his capacity as a representative of the IRA. Wilson’s importance for consolidating the IRA ceasefire had been recognised in his release from Long Kesh for eight hours in May 1998 to speak at an IRA convention. At the time, a month after the Belfast Agreement, there was no unanimity in IRA ranks about continuing down a road that, logically, would lead to disbandment. The NIO explained that Wilson had been released “in an effort to promote the agreement and to encourage the peace process”.
Wilson had been serving 24 years for a car-bomb offence. He was IRA commander in the prison. Few other figures would have had comparable clout when it came to swaying the rank and file. Ed Moloney, author of A Secret History of the IRA, characterised the relationship: “He loved them and they loved him back.”
Thus, the NIO had reason to feel a certain commitment to Wilson. The referendum in May 1998 – a fortnight after Wilson addressed the IRA convention – confirmed the great popularity of the peace deal among Northern nationalists. It was the IRA, not the mass of the people, which had needed to be persuaded.
On this view, Woodward’s endorsement of Sinn Féin concerns raises the concern that the NIO put at least as much store on alleviating the anxieties of those who had been indispensable in the making of the agreement as on the pleas of a young woman who said she had been raped. Many in the North, not all of them Sinn Féin supporters, thankful for the degree of peace that now obtains, might, perhaps regretfully, accept this order of priorities. But what it means in practice is that we must not pursue these issues, that wronged women must wait.
The readiness of the British authorities to treat sexual abuse as of little account when a valued political project was at stake had already been evident in the Kincora affair in the 1970s when the systematic rape of boys in the care of the state had been ignored, and even facilitated, by MI5 in order to keep a network of loyalist informants onside.
Documents released last July under the 30-year rule, despite having been heavily redacted, showed MI5 had closely monitored the sodomising of teenage boys over a period of years. We were later to learn that RUC officers investigating Kincora believed their efforts had been thwarted by MI5. This was also the view of former MI5 officer Colin Wallace.
One document gave an account of a meeting in February 1972 which heard the RUC was conducting three separate investigations of the Kincora complaints. It recorded the meeting being told: “There are persistent rumours that ‘guilty men’ in high places have not been brought to justice”; but suggested it was unlikely these “vague rumours” could ever be substantiated.
The attendance list for the meeting included UK attorney general Michael Havers, Lord Chancellor Quintin Hogg, senior civil service legal adviser Sir William Bourne, and Northern Secretary Jim Prior. That is, the British government’s most senior legal officials along with one of Woodward’s predecessors.
The least that can be said is that the British government has form when it comes to taking a close interest in sex abuse cases that subsequently fail to reach satisfactory conclusions.
Adams still has questions to answer. But the NIO and the British authorities generally should not be allowed to continue to sing dumb about their role over many years regarding the sexual abuse of youngsters. Harrying Adams should not rule out hammering on the door of Villiers’s office.