Where do Maíria Cahill’s disclosures leave Sinn Féin North and South?

Opinion: How the republican ‘kangaroo courts’ evolved in Belfast and Derry

The origins of the republican “kangaroo courts” in the north of Ireland lie in the so-called “no-go areas” that emerged after August 1969 in Belfast and Derry. The RUC, who had either stood aside while Catholic districts were attacked and streets burnt, or had actually facilitated the attacks, were withdrawn and replaced by the British army.

The districts that suffered worst in Belfast and Derry erected barricades to exclude security forces. In the absence of official policing behind those barricades, the newly emerging IRA meted out summary “justice” to petty criminals in the form of beatings and kneecappings, and, in the case of girls fraternising with British soldiers, tarring and feathering.

Why did they think they could do this? Preposterous as it may seem, the republican movement regarded itself as the legitimate government of Ireland. In the bizarre theology of the movement, the IRA army council was the inheritor of the powers of the second Dáil elected in 1921.

In the 1970s in the parts of the North they controlled, they began to ape the Sinn Féin of 1919-1922 in taking over the functions of the British state, establishing Sinn Féin courts and, in the late 1970s, even attempting unsuccessfully to set up a shadow underground administration.


Ironically the Northern Ireland Office strengthened this process by funding “incident centres” supplied with phones and telex machines (all bugged) in republican districts during the 1975 ceasefire. As well as using the incident centres to report breaches of the ceasefire by the British army, the IRA moved in what they called their “civil administration”. The civil administration of the late 1970s formed the nucleus of the Sinn Féin political machine in republican districts in the 1980s.

The civil administration ran the local district, including policing it. The frankest account of how it worked is provided by the late Gerry Bradley, a former IRA OC of north Belfast, in the book Insider.

Bradley says the civil administration was fully operational by 1976. It was run by IRA members who did not want to carry out operations. As Bradley bluntly put it, “Guys from the civil administration did the batterings, etc”. The “etc” would include punishment shootings.

Running whole areas

He said: “Even by the time of the hunger strikes in 1981 the IRA was running whole areas and dealing with all kinds of stuff, from complaints about the milkman to marriage guidance to aggravated burglary. People went to the cops about car accidents because you had to, for the insurance. Otherwise the IRA dealt with everything.”

Interestingly, he added: “The only crime people went to the police about was paedophiles – even then the civil administration often got to the main actor first.”

Gerry Adams in his Léargas blog says: “IRA personnel were singularly ill- equipped to deal with these matters.” Perhaps “spectacularly ill-equipped” would be better. The people running kangaroo courts were not exactly professors of jurisprudence: some were stupid thugs. Conducted in safe houses and empty flats, there was much shouting, threatening and fearsome confrontation.

Often “sentences” were decreed unknown to the accused, who would then be told to be at a certain place to receive a beating with baseball bats or a punishment shooting.

However, because in the Maíria Cahill case an alleged IRA man was the accused, the procedure would not have been an ordinary civil administration operation. It would have been an IRA court of inquiry sanctioned by the army council. Apart from the crass stupidity of the process, including the ludicrous, quasi-medieval confrontation to assess from body language who was truthful, the real question is whether the IRA spirited away the accused because of his seniority in the IRA. Part of Maíria Cahill’s outrage is that the man got off scot free because he was in the IRA. It is widely believed in the North that Cahill’s alleged assailant was expelled to the Republic. It is no secret that over the years at least half a dozen IRA sexual predators were similarly expelled. Where do Cahill’s disclosures leave Sinn Féin? The short answer is, in two different places: the North and the Republic. The story Maíria Cahill tells is no surprise to people in republican districts, and in any case it relates to events years ago. Many people believe she made a mistake meeting Peter Robinson, giving “the other side” a stick to beat Sinn Féin with. Inquiries and reviews announced will run into the sand. If past experience is a guide, the current uproar will not affect Sinn Féin’s vote.

Political target

In the Republic it’s a different matter. Gerry Adams is the man Maíria Cahill directly accuses of failing her, whereas there’s no political target in the North. It’s true Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin are in danger of over-egging the pudding. There’s a whiff of hypocrisy from men who know that 10 years ago Sinn Féin and the IRA were two sides of the same coin and know exactly what they were up to then.

In a remarkable Dáil answer to Enda Kenny on January 26th, 2005, Bertie Ahern listed IRA heists in 2004 totalling millions of pounds, and admitted turning a blind eye to save the peace process.

Nevertheless, there is increasing desperation in Sinn Féin because they believe the Taoiseach knows who and how many IRA abusers expelled from the North are living in the South. Gerry Adams could not have been unaware of the shocking practice. Revelations still to come cannot but seriously damage Sinn Féin’s long-term standing in the Republic.

Brian Feeney is head of history at St Mary's University College, Belfast. He is a columnist with the Irish News and the author of Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years and Insider: Life in the IRA. (O'Brien Press).