Mairia Cahill: 'A missing suspect and a troubling silence'
The case of the ex-IRA man who vanished while facing sex assault charges raises some serious questions, writes Mairia Cahill
It is hard to write an opinion piece when you are subject to robust legal restraints, harder still to write without the full facts of an issue being in the public domain. As someone who has a keen interest in the issue of former IRA men accused of sexual assault, and an ever bigger one when it comes to those who go missing, it's important to do so.
So, what do we know? Thanks to Barry Cummins on RTE Primetime, we know that a 68-year-old former IRA man, originally from Belfast but who moved to Dublin, and left Ireland shortly after the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, was extradited from Spain in 2016 and charged with four counts of sexual assault against a then minor.
We know that this happened because a young woman made a complaint to gardai. We know that gardai objected to bail once he was back in Ireland, and that a judge granted it after the accused and another individual lodged €10,000 each as surety.
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He was given conditions as part of this bail, one of which was daily sign-in, and he kept to those conditions for a year, until two days before he was due to stand trial.
He then simply vanished into thin air, and even with an Interpol alert, gardai cannot locate him.
But we only know all of this since last Thursday - almost two years after the man vanished. That is quite simply astonishing. Why the radio silence until now, Garda?
It's anyone's guess where this man is, and consequently, the routine child protection checks that would take place for someone accused of sexual assault cannot be carried out.
We don't even know if he is still alive. Speculation is unhelpful, and yet, in a case where someone disappears off the face of the earth, nothing can be ruled in or ruled out.
It's a personal let-down. Over the last number of years, I expended a great deal of energy meeting the Justice Departments North and south, and providing information to Garda and the PSNI to ensure that the system would investigate these cases properly.
To discover that a senior former IRA man could be given bail, given the concerns that existed - and then skip it - simply beggars belief. The frustration I am feeling pales into insignificance when it comes to how the alleged injured party in this case must feel.
Waiting years after making a complaint to give evidence in court only to be told that gardai had located him in Spain and then lost him in Ireland, must be a hell of a kick in the teeth. This young woman, who was a child at the time she alleges the assaults took place against her, deserves better. We all do.
It is important also to state that the man in question is entitled to a fair trial on this issue. And he would have a better chance of getting one, if he actually turned up.
This man, whom I cannot name due to legal restrictions, is anonymous for good reason. His concealed identity, however, should not prohibit hard questions being asked of those with responsibility in a case which is clearly in the public interest.
How does a man in a case like this go on the run without detection for two years?
Why was bail granted by a judge when gardai had expressed concerns that he may be a flight risk?
Why is the public only being informed now?
Did he have help?
How hard are people looking for him?
How is he financing himself, and how has he financed himself over the last number of decades?
What connections does he have, and have those who know him been questioned?
We are unlikely to get answers to those questions without a review, and the Minister for Justice should commission one without delay.
The accused, who has now become something of a Houdini, was once an extremely senior republican, and a former Sinn Fein activist, so it is quite something that a number of Sinn Fein members have been on the airwaves since the story broke, and yet none of them has been asked if they know whether anyone in the party knows where he is, or if they would publicly call on him to give himself up to police.
Whether they have any influence over him or not is irrelevant, he's unlikely to listen anyway, but it is a matter which goes to the very heart of public confidence with regards to their commitment to the rule of law on alleged child abuse cases.
The party's previous behaviour on kindred issues is a matter of record. The fact that not one press corps hack or broadcaster thought it pertinent to ask, is actually more worrying.
Have we become fatigued or complacent when it comes to alleged cases of abuse by former IRA men?
Or do we simply hold Sinn Fein to a lower standard than every other political party?
I ask this question because, in comparison, had it been a Fine Gael former member who had skipped bail on similar alleged charges, it's a sure bet that the Taoiseach would be doostepped. McDonald or Adams, on the other hand?
So far, not one question, even though the president of Sinn Fein appeared on Drivetime last Friday, and at a press conference in Belfast the same morning. Maybe if this former IRA man and Sinn Fein activist fell off a swing while on the run, there might be more scrutiny.
The responsible thing for any member of the republican movement who may know where this man is is to pass those details to the authorities, and I am appealing to anyone who does know to do that.
It's a great pity that, at the time of writing, not one Shinner has taken it upon themselves to do the same.
Silence, for me, speaks volumes.