A Belfast woman, Maíría Cahill, whose great-uncle Joe Cahill helped form the Provisional IRA in 1969, has claimed in a BBC programme that she was attacked and sexually abused by a much older IRA man from the age of 16 for a period of 12 months in 1997.
She has accused the Republican Movement of trying to force her to keep quiet about the rape and holding a “kangaroo court” in which she was interrogated about her claims. “The only word I have for it is interrogation, because that’s exactly how it felt.” The IRA investigation lasted six months and included a face-to-face meeting with Cahill’s alleged abuser. “They told me that they were going to read my body language to see who was telling the truth and that they were going to bring him into a room.”
She says that she was discouraged from going to the police, in line with Sinn Fein policy at the time. When she did go to the police the prosecution authorities ensured that it was IRA membership charges that were first taken against the alleged rapist and those involved in the IRA investigation.
When these charges collapsed the prospect of conviction for rape also reduced so she withdrew support from the remaining trials. She signed a withdrawal statement but maintained her claims of sexual abuse and her claims against the four people accused of subjecting her to an IRA interrogation. She also accused both the police and the Public Prosecution Service of failing her.
What we have then is the story of a rape victim who received no justice from the movement she supported and none from the state, which appeared, as usual, more interested in a political agenda than the concerns of a victim.
The case has become news just as an inquiry is to take place into child abuse at Kincora children’s home in east Belfast in the early 1970s. It is widely suspected that the British security services colluded in a cover up of the horrific abuse that took place in the home in order to gather intelligence in pursuit of their dirty war.
The hands of the state when it comes to the North of Ireland are literally dripping with blood.
Not unexpectedly however most attention has been directed to Gerry Adams, who Cahill says she met to discuss her rape. At this meeting she claims he suggested to her that abusers were so manipulative that they can make the abused actually enjoy their abuse.
Adams has rejected this and claims that he asked another female republican to tell Cahill to report her experience to the police. Cahill in turn has argued that the idea that a senior republican would ask her to go to the police to give information against not only the IRA accused but also the IRA investigators as “absolutely ridiculous”.
The accusations against Gerry Adams come shortly after the conviction of his brother for abuse of his daughter, Gerry Adams’ niece. Gerry Adams was again accused of doing little or nothing, failing to report the allegations to the police and of concocting a frankly incredible story regarding his own knowledge and actions.
Maíría Cahill continued to work for Sinn Fein even after her abuse and was briefly a member of the Republican Network for Unity, a political organisation very critical of Sinn Fein’s support for the police. She subsequently moved to support a campaign against former republican prisoners working in the new Stormont administration and she now declares her full support for the authorities and the police. She has also sought and received the public support of the leaders of Unionism and of the Southern capitalist parties. As a result Sinn Fein has accused the latter of seeking political gain from her tragic experience.
Gerry Adams has subsequently given a very general apology on behalf of the IRA for its failures in the area of abuse, acknowledging that it had, on occasion, shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them. The latter has raised a storm of protest from Southern politicians that the republican movement has in effect repeated the crimes of the Catholic Church by moving abusers about the country, free to abuse again.
The publicity surrounding the Maíría Cahill case has also brought out numerous allegations of IRA protection or leniency towards abuse by their own members in comparison to brutal treatment of others.
For Adams the disbandment of the IRA means there is no “corporate knowledge” to draw on in the Cahill case while he admits that the IRA was “singularly ill equipped” to deal with sexual abuse, although it presented itself as the alternative state for long enough.
So what are we to make of this? One take on it is that what we are seeing is the politics of vengeance that does society no good. The political ‘zig-zags’ of Maíría Cahill may obscure the political significance of her case but its significance is salient not only because of her own demands but also because of the other cases which the publicity she has generated has brought into the open. In other words we are not simply dealing here with one person’s tragic experience that has no wider social significance. This wider significance goes beyond the political impact of her case on the fortunes of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.
With regard to the latter we can lament her reliance on the state and any illusions on the justice to be received from it but in this respect the political significance of Maíría Cahill’s pursuit of justice through lobbying establishment politicians and the state, and her criticism of the handling of her case by Sinn Fein, is immeasurably less than the republicans own capitulation to the state and their embrace of it as the providers of justice. Their treatment of Cahill is also of greater political significance given that they are a major political party seeking office, and the fact that this treatment appears to have been meted out to others.
Even in terms of her own particular situation, she was and is obviously caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. She initially sought justice from the movement she supported and was betrayed. The most charitable interpretation is that they let her down but having let her down they stand condemned for having abused and betrayed her.
And now she wants vengeance? As Leon Trotsky said “the feeling of revenge has its rights.” It is not the case that she has no demands other than this. She wants others put in the same position by the Republican Movement to come forward. She wants republicans to admit the truth of her claims and she wants help for her and other similar victims. These goals appear to me to be entirely supportable even if her road to achieving them is not. But, as I have noted, she initially chose a different road. It is not difficult to understand how, given her circumstances, she chose the course she is now on.
The Socialist Democracy article noted above correctly argues that justice “can only be asserted by the self-organisation of the working class and oppressed” and that “to win justice we have to rebuild the self-organisation of the workers, not give backhanded support to the state and the mechanisms of class oppression.” But this is hardly a task that one woman could be expected to take on board herself and if she did not see it as an option this reflects the current near invisibility of it as a practical option for her.
Which brings me to the political lessons that socialists must learn from this and similar episodes. The article states that “the IRA was a revolutionary nationalist army . . . the idea that it could effectively investigate rapes is ridiculous.” Yes indeed, just like the idea that it could defeat British rule. Except it claimed it could do both and organised an armed campaign that assumed responsibility for both, a responsibility it has not properly accounted for. Instead the Republican Movement has rewritten the past (it fought for ‘equality’ not for ‘Brits Out’) and has relied on the British state to place it into its new arrangements for imperialist rule.
But let’s pause for a second to ask ourselves how an army, even an ‘army of the people’ could possibly represent an alternative state? What sort of state would it be that is defined by, conditioned by and ruled by an army? It’s not that the Republican Movement couldn’t help itself when it came to dealing with questions routinely addressed by the capitalist state, including rape allegations, but that Irish Republicanism has always elevated armed actions above political struggle, the liberation of the oppressed by the oppressed themselves. When it has stopped doing so it has stopped being in any real sense republican. It reminds one of the saying that you can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it. Guns are no answer to fundamental social and political questions. The singular in Adams’ “singularly ill equipped” can only truthfully refer to republican militarism that it embraced until it was defeated.
For Marxists it should be a salutary lesson that political programmes defined by what they are against; defined by ‘smashing the capitalist state’ are only progressive to the degree that the working class has built itself a democratic and viable alternative. Too often this is not at all the case and justification for particular political positions is often reposed on the argument that it will split, weaken or smash the state while doing nothing to advance the organisation or political consciousness of the working class as the alternative.
Whatever political weaknesses that Maíría Cahill may have, they pale beside those of her abusers who must ultimately be held responsible for the trauma of which her political odyssey appears as an expression.