Tuesday 11 December 2018

'In a split second I remembered what it felt like to be frightened beyond belief'

Mairia Cahill explains how she felt when she found that a Twitter account in her abuser's name had started following her, and why she wanted to meet the Taoiseach - so that he would know from her directly that she was telling the truth and to raise the issues of victim support and potential sex offenders being moved south of the Border by the IRA

Cliona Saidlear from Rape Crisis Network Ireland condemned Sinn Fein for its ongoing treatment of Maria Cahill
Cliona Saidlear from Rape Crisis Network Ireland condemned Sinn Fein for its ongoing treatment of Maria Cahill
Enda Kenny and Mairia Cahill
Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill

I'm glad I did the BBC Spotlight programme. It was the right thing to do. My motivation in all of this was to share my experience of what happened to me, in order that other victims would finally get recognition for what happened to them.

The programme, and the subsequent media interest, forced Sinn Fein into the position where they had to admit, that yes, the IRA did indeed investigate cases of sex abuse, and in some cases moved suspected perpetrators out of one jurisdiction, and into another. Up until last week they were saying it was "unfounded and untrue".

The consequences of that are frightening. No one has any idea who they are living beside, who has access to their children - because no child protective measures are in place in respect of these individuals - and crucially no one knows the scale. Except for the IRA, of course, and Gerry Adams told us last week that since the IRA have left the stage, there is no way of verifying this information.

But there is, of course. There are republicans with this knowledge at present, and senior at that. Hugely influential people. They need to bring that information forward in order to protect children.

When the Spotlight programme aired, I had no idea that I would end up in the middle of a media storm. Naive, possibly, but I don't think anyone could have predicted the way in which this story - my life - took off.

The day after the programme, I did a radio interview calling on Sinn Fein, and Adams in particular, to admit what happened to me. Spotlight had afforded all of the SF individuals a right of reply. They issued detailed questions to all of those named - and the party itself. The questions remained unanswered, apart from a statement of denial. A person, or persons, then brought injunction proceedings to the courts. They failed to stop the programme going out.

On that Thursday, as I was driving from Belfast to Dublin, I gave an interview to Newstalk.

I answered the questions honestly, and I firmly believed that, after this, Sinn Fein would admit what happened to me and I could go on living my life.

How wrong I was. When I got to Dublin I heard the interview on the radio. It was hard-hitting, even for me, to listen to. I was on my way to see Micheal Martin in Leinster House, simply to thank him for the consistent support he has shown me to date, for years, in private, and away from the media on the issue. RTE radio was on and I heard Gerry Adams give an interview in which he not only denied my allegations, but issued completely inaccurate details in relation to the matter. He claimed, for example, that we never discussed the rape allegation, that, "she didn't raise it, I didn't raise it".

That was like receiving a punch in the gut as I sat in the Fianna Fail office listening to him.

Think about that for a second. Adams claimed that Siobhan O'Hanlon, his personal assistant and a leading IRA member, had told him after handing him a newspaper article: "That's our Mairia who has been a victim of this". Can you imagine an 18-year-old woman meeting her party President and MP, who has stated that he saw the newspaper article (which, by the way was in relation to an IRA investigation into the abuse of two other alleged victims), who is aware that I'm a victim of "this", but still claims that we never once discussed the rapes or the IRA investigation? From 2000 until 2006?

I was incensed. So angry in fact, that I told Micheal Martin I wanted to respond immediately to what Gerry was saying, and I wanted him to come with me to the media waiting outside to do so. I needed his support to help me get through that, and I want to thank him for that support in the face of vile slurs of political footballing.

On the Friday, I went on a number of radio stations and explained how the Sinn Fein denials were traumatising me. I did an interview on Six One News where I explained that my case was not an isolated one. I explained how the IRA dealt with allegations of sexual abuse.

It was this interview which forced Gerry Adams to finally admit that yes, the IRA did indeed internally investigate cases of abuse, and in some cases perpetrators were moved on.

I felt vindicated. But I felt disgusted at the same time. Adams had admitted the general issue, yet failed to say that the IRA had investigated my abuse.

The news interviews continued and with every question I answered, I had to relive the trauma of what had happened to me. It wasn't easy. There were plenty of tears. I probably would have crumbled had it not been for Eilis O'Hanlon holding me through those moments, through the crying when other victims got in contact, and the flashbacks which raised themselves again, and through the sheer exhaustion of doing interview after interview, and travelling between meetings. She has been there at the most distressing times, and I will never be able to repay that kindness. Sinn Fein, with every denial, were causing untold trauma, but I wasn't giving up.

On Monday of last week I met the SDLP in Belfast in between doing radio interviews by phone. That afternoon I met the First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and we arrived to a media scrum outside Parliament Buildings. I, like most people, am not used to media cameras on that scale, and I shook as I spoke.

I explained how, while I am politically opposed to the DUP, I was grateful to Peter for the opportunity to talk to him about the issue, and to ask him to put in place more resources for abuse victims. I was concerned that my story had triggered memories for them, and I wanted something to be available for them in the future.

I told the media that if anyone wanted to go forward to the authorities North or South, and felt afraid, I would personally go with them to give them support.

I managed to get an hour's quiet time with my family in Belfast, then headed down to Dublin again. I had missed most of the news, but was able to piece together the situation from reporters outlining the SF position and asking for a response. The words "ludicrous", "reprehensible" and "disgusting", were used more than a few times.

On Wednesday morning, I went to meet An Taoiseach. I had wanted a meeting with him for the same reason as the one with Peter Robinson. I wanted him to know directly from me that I was telling the truth, and I wanted to raise the issue of victim support, and crucially, I wanted to raise the issue of potential sex offenders having been moved south of the Border by the IRA. It has potentially huge implications for child protection, and, to Enda Kenny's credit, he listened to me with compassion. It was exactly how a victim of abuse should be treated, and was completely in contrast to my treatment at the hands of SF. Repeated denials of your experience takes its toll, as I explained to the media outside.

I travelled again to Belfast after the meeting to do an interview with The Nolan Show. Stephen is a formidable interviewer, and I was nervous about doing it. I had answered all of the hard questions put to me all week, and this was no different. I was moved to tears as I spoke of my contact with other victims. I caught up on the Dail debate, and again heard about it from journalists on my journey back south of the Border that night.

I was becoming more exhausted by Thursday, and decided to take a step back and try to answer some of the many messages I had received since going public. It was in the course of this that I noticed an online piece in which a republican blogger made the suggestion that I had had a "clandestine, year-long affair" with the man who'd abused me. I was sick to the stomach, not just for me, but for the other alleged victims of my abuser, whom I had been trying to protect from all of the media attention.

The heart was knocked out of me. I couldn't believe people could be so cruel. But what compounded the insult was that the IRA man who was present when I was forced to confront my abuser, had shared the disgusting blog online.

This was one of the people who Adams had called a "decent" person the previous day in the Dail. I think any right-thinking person would agree, this was not a decent action. I cried. Sinn Fein have yet to condemn Seamus Finucane for sharing it.

That evening I sat down to watch television coverage of the issue, and while simultaneously checking my phone, I received a notification on my Twitter account. An account in the name of my abuser had started following me. And, in a split second, I remembered what it felt like to be frightened beyond belief. And I felt sick. I was afraid of my phone.

The memories of my abuse flooded me, and I went right back there again. I lay on Eilis and she put her arms around me and I tried to stay in the present.

It was the last straw. I went to the gardai on Friday and started the process of making a complaint about some of the online campaign of abuse directed my way. I am meeting my solicitor next week to discuss the SF response to me, and my options with regards to issuing legal proceedings.

Sinn Fein have vilified me in the media all week and called into question my credibility. They have put spokesperson after spokesperson up to blindly defend Adams and the IRA. And although they have shifted their position a bit, it is not enough. They need to admit that the IRA investigated my abuse against my wishes. They need to confirm explicitly that I was brought into a room with my rapist and three individuals from the IRA.

Until they can admit that, they can never credibly speak on the issue of child sexual abuse again.

Gerry Adams had an opportunity yesterday to repair some of the damage. He blew it. More content to toe the Belfast hardline "circle the wagon" stance, he cowed out of admitting that I was telling the truth, and issuing a public apology. That is what is required - not even necessarily for me at this stage - but for every other victim of the IRA out there who were doubly traumatised by the IRA investigating their sexual abuse.

He has, by default, denied their experiences by denying mine. He asserts that SF have not been involved in any cover up. When you are asked to give a police statement - and you take months to give a statement through your solicitor rather than allowing yourself to be questioned directly by police you are not helping to convict an abuser. When you ludicrously assert that during 2000-2006, when I was meeting with Adams, we never once discussed the abuse or the IRA investigation - you are not telling the truth.

When you praise those IRA people who brought me face to face with my abuser, and call them "decent people" - you are covering for them.

What you need to do to repair the damage is admit it. Until you do, you and your party will never be able to speak credibly on the issue of child sexual abuse ever again. Every time you do, the people of this island - and the children who your movement have placed at risk by moving paedophiles around this country - will remember.

Those victims of sexual abuse should know that it has never been their fault. They should not be ashamed. Gerry Adams should.

Sunday Independent

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