Saturday 24 March 2018

Mairia Cahill: My abuse will never define me...and Seanad nomination is proof of that

I have accepted the Labour nomination for the by-election, because it's a powerful reminder that victims can rebuild their lives again

SUPPORT: Tanaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton and Mairia Cahill
SUPPORT: Tanaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton and Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill

There is a long, mostly unknown connection between the Cahill family and James Connolly.

My grandfather Frank's grandparents lived beside him on Belfast's Falls Road, and Frank's parents, my father's grandparents, became close friends with the Connolly family, my Uncle Joe with Nora Connolly in particular. I mention this because this week I have accepted a nomination from Joan Burton and Alan Kelly to stand within the party Connolly founded to gain the nomination from the Labour Party to run in the Seanad by-election. Life has a way of working in cycles sometimes.

For anyone who knows me personally, politics is a natural progression. As someone who grew up in the highly politicised west Belfast, who took Politics for A Level, who worked within the field, and who consistently has worked in the community sector in order to help empower people to change their lives for the better, the politics of social democracy is one which attracts - because I have seen in action how it can work.

I've also seen how Labour has led the way on issues of social justice in Ireland. Last May, I attended counts in Dublin and Dundalk when Ireland made history with the Marriage Equality referendum - and I saw the delight on people's faces and recognition that it was the Labour Party who established the Constitutional Convention that enabled that referendum to be held. Politically, as a young woman in Ireland, I am also attracted to their stance on the 8th amendment, and on other issues of social democracy.

I'm deeply grateful for the support I have received from people in the last year across the political spectrum, north and south - from Micheal Martin, Niall Collins, Enda Kenny, Frances Fitzgerald and Regina Doherty in particular. I will continue to work with both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and others who have been supportive to highlight the situation that victims of IRA cover-up of abuse have found themselves in. I know I can continue to receive their support on this issue.

Labour were also very supportive of me. From my first meeting with Joan Burton last October, to Senators Mary Moran, John Gilroy and Lorraine Higgins and others staying in contact with me, to meeting the parliamentary party in November, to Alan Kelly presenting me with the James Larkin Thirst for Justice Award in February - to all of the activists who I met in Killarney, and who have stayed in contact - thank you. I appreciate your support very much, and in doing so, you have also helped to enable other victims to come forward to seek help. For me, the goodwill I received is never taken for granted, and accepting the nomination from Joan and Alan is an honour. I am mindful that the vacancy in the Seanad has arisen because of the resignation of Senator Jimmy Harte - a man who has been an advocate for many years for people, and one who is rightly held in high esteem. Jimmy and his family have had an incredibly tough time, and I wish him every good thought as he continues on the road to recovery.

ADVOCATE: Mairia Cahill will fight for abuse victims
ADVOCATE: Mairia Cahill will fight for abuse victims

For some, accepting the nomination may seem like a strange thing for me to do. It was a decision which I haven't taken lightly. It's almost a year since I waived anonymity, and while there have been good points during the year when other victims came forward, and my vindication through the publishing of the Starmer report, I have personally found it one of the toughest in terms of attacks on my character and integrity. As a single parent of a young child, I thought long and hard about how I would manage if the nomination is successful, and also if I would cope with more inevitable abuse from Sinn Fein supporters and members.

This is the conclusion that I have come to:

I am a victim of rape and abuse - and for many years I thought I was only ever going to be defined by that. And, despite past problems with self harm, depression, and suicide attempts, I got up, and I got on. I went back to further education during one of the toughest periods in my life, and I pushed myself to the end of it - because when I started my first degree at Queens, the pressure from dealing with the after-affects of my abuse - and the pressure from the ongoing IRA investigation into that meant something had to give - and I had to drop out. I'm stubborn, and I set the bar high for myself consistently in order to achieve things I once thought would never be possible.

In later years, I worked hard at voluntary community projects, sometimes working 18-hour days, and continued in paid employment in order to prove to myself that I could still lead a life - even if my abuse meant that at times I suffered from flashbacks and I found it hard to cope.

Tainaiste Joan Burton and Mairia Cahill pictured for news. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 1/10/15
Tainaiste Joan Burton and Mairia Cahill pictured for news. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 1/10/15

The point, I suppose is that terrible things can happen to people - and it doesn't have to be the thing which solely defines you. And, if I've proven anything over the last year to myself, it is that even when it feels like you are at the point of breaking, you can achieve what you need to if you keep going. I wanted to highlight the horrific situation of IRA internal investigations into sexual abuse. I forced Sinn Fein from its initial denial of "unfounded and untrue", to admit to it. And, in doing that, other victims came forward. I am proud of those people who reached out for help. And I am so grateful to BBC NI Spotlight and other journalists, particularly this paper for giving me a voice to do that, and for the support which I received from those close to me also.

And that is why I am accepting the nomination. Because, no matter what happens with it, it is a powerful reminder to me that while life is never certain, it is possible to rebuild. I hope that other victims take hope from that, and rebuild theirs also. No one should have the right to hold power over your body or your mind. For me, it's another message to my abuser, and the IRA - and those who have attacked me daily on social media since then, that you may have tried to break me, but I am not broken.

More importantly, it's an internal promise to myself that through the Labour Party I can help to make a difference. Should they decide to run me as their candidate in the Seanad By-election I would hope to be able to continue to highlight the field of rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse, and other social justice issues. The Seanad has a long tradition of powerful advocates who have helped people. I hope to be able to continue to do that.

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