Mairia's voice only weapon that she needs
No one ever doubted Mairia Cahill's story until the truth became inconvenient to some very dangerous people.
Mairia Cahill is my cousin. First cousin, once removed, for those who understand or care about such technicalities.
For most of my life, it didn't really matter anyway. We belong to a large, extended bunch, which is spread across Belfast. Mairia's side in the west of the city. My smaller branch in the north. I didn't know them and they didn't know me, except to hear what they were up to now and again; but I always got the impression that the Cahills were a bit of a mystery. You'd have needed a family tree to keep track of them.
The first time I heard about Mairia specifically was in the summer or early autumn of 2000 when my mother told me that one of Frank's grandchildren (Frank was my mother's brother) had been "interfered with" and that the man had been put out of the country. "Who was it?" I asked. "Mairia, Philip's daughter," she said.
The names meant nothing to me and, apart from finding out what age she was, nothing more was said about it; but there was never any doubt expressed, none at all, about the fact that the abuse had happened, and that she had been believed, not least for the simple fact that the alleged abuser had been "put out" of the country.
I didn't hear anything else about her, in fact I'd never even seen her, until September 2009, when someone pointed her out at my mother's funeral. It was a few months later, in January 2010, that her interview with Suzanne Breen appeared in the Sunday Tribune, in which the much more complex story of what had happened to her started to emerge. Far from being believed, as I understood all along, Mairia had been subjected to a six-month-long, hostile "investigation" by republicans, which consisted of lengthy interrogation by senior members of the IRA, separation from her parents, all culminating in a forced confrontation with her abuser, in which he was allowed to yell disgusting accusations at her.
She wasn't named, for legal reasons, but everyone in the wider family, and republican community, knew who she was. And I still don't recall hearing anyone who disbelieved that aspect of her story either. Not one. The people that she was talking about were not innocent boy scouts. They were dangerous people. There was widespread sympathy for her ordeal.
Time passed. I joined Twitter and, in 2012, a woman with an Irish name followed me. For some reason, I followed her back. Then a DM (direct message) came. "Hello Eilis, this is Mairia Cahill. Can I have an email address for you?"
So it began. We started talking - on Twitter, by email, via text. It wasn't always serious. We joked, gossiped, talked nonsense. She's extremely funny. We finally met in person last summer. Later, we went skiing together. Stuff like that, though, of course, the story of what had happened to her was a huge part of our conversation.
Her treatment at the hands of her alleged rapist when she had barely turned 16 was a major life-changing event. I had no idea what it must have been like for her. Still don't. I can't comprehend the enormity of it. Back then, she was a bright young woman with lots of opportunities. She was interested in politics, cultural affairs, writing.
I can honestly say I have never known someone with a more encyclopaedic knowledge of what's going on. Of who's who, and who said what, North and South. She seemed to know everyone and remember everything, and it's a bad idea to waffle around her because she has an in-built BS detector that makes the Large Hadron Collider look primitive in comparison.
In many ways, Mairia is a luminous testament to a generation of Catholics in the North who overcame discrimination to become clever, accomplished, articulate, formidable people who could take on the world. Which is ironic in a way, because it is those very qualities which now make republicans so wary of her. They are dealing with a woman who represents the absolute best qualities of the community which produced her.
In time, she let me read her written account of what had happened. Her account of the year that she was abused, the six months that she was investigated by the IRA, and the years subsequently, were mesmerising. She is a terrific writer, with a command of detail which is heartbreaking at times. Somehow it was the little details which made all the difference. How she left a note for her parents under her pillow, telling them who she was going to meet, the very first night that she was taken away by the IRA, in case she never came home again. That broke my heart.
How the IRA woman who first took her away to a flat in West Belfast to be interrogated put on the kettle once they arrived and how Mairia was convinced that she was going to pour the boiling water on her. In fact, she was making tea. If you want an insight into the fear that a young woman can feel when confronted with powerful people who have her in their power, there it is. It's the terror of watching a kettle boiling and knowing that, whatever happens now, there's nothing you can do about it. Everything is a weapon. Nothing in your life is safe.
As time went on, and the time approached for the court cases against the individuals concerned, the pressure grew.
It was now years since she first went to the police with her allegations and, even though she was dispirited with how badly, in her view, the case was being handled by the prosecution, she was determined to see it through. I asked if she had anyone to go to court with. She didn't. I wanted to offer to go with her for support but didn't want her to think I was looking for a story out of it, because I couldn't have cared less about that. Eventually, I asked her. "Yes," she said, "I would love you to go with me."
That's why I was with Mairia in court the day that the accused was arraigned on a charge of IRA membership. I saw how he looked at her. How he deliberately turned his back on the judge and stared at her fixedly as if there was no one else there. At that moment I understood the fear that she'd endured throughout her ordeal. She wasn't a strong, articulate thirtysomething woman any more. She was a frightened child again.
I was back in court with her again, when the case opened in Belfast. Again, I saw how a previously confident prosecution unravelled, through no fault of Mairia's. How everyone let her down. Sinn Fein. The police. The courts. Not a single one of them did right by her.
When I learned that the BBC was making a Spotlight programme about her, I was concerned, not least for her safety, but also because I knew that she'd face a backlash from republicans. But I was also delighted for her, because she would finally get a chance to speak, openly, fully, and freely at last because she no longer had to hide her identity. She couldn't control how people responded to her, but she could speak, in her own voice, which is the only weapon she has, and the only one she needs.
Later on, I was asked to be interviewed, having been with her in court on these crucial occasions. I was reluctant, because I knew that my own hostility to SF and the IRA, which I have never hidden, would be used to try to discredit her by proxy, and indeed that happened; but I knew that I had to say yes. That she's my cousin isn't that important , but she is my friend, and I believe her, and that does matter.
The only complication was that one of the women who conducted the investigation into Mairia was my own late sister, Siobhan.
It was typical of Mairia that, having told me this late at night in a DM, her main concern was whether I was all right, or whether I was annoyed with her for bringing it up. She blamed herself for telling me. In truth, all I felt was sick to the stomach and wretchedly sorry for Mairia. I felt guilty too, because, if I'd been friends with her at the time, maybe I could have helped her, maybe even protected her. Typical riding to the rescue fantasies. If saying sorry for not being there when I might have made a difference was enough, I'd say it a million times.
But it was too late now. She'd endured this whole thing alone for years. The least she deserved was to be able now to tell her story, without censorship or preconditions, leaving nothing out, however hurtful to other people. This is her life. She lived it. She owns it.