Tuesday 17 September 2019

'Politicking is for politicians, but all I've ever done is answer honestly.'

The only one still shying away from answering hard questions is Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, writes Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill
Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill

I like Vincent Browne. I make a point of watching him when I can in the North. He's controversial, and at times forensic, and when he has a politician in his grasp, sometimes I cheer at the TV as they squirm under pressure.

Last week I found myself, for the second time in a month, facing him. Vincent is a formidable interviewer and I was nervous.

I had also been awake since early that morning, going from interview to interview in the wake of the Dail debate. By the time I got to Vincent, I was exhausted. The reason I mention this is I haven't really had time to think and take stock since waiving my right to anonymity. I gauge it at times by other people's reaction. Most of it was positive, though some took issue with the tone of the questions.

At the end of Vincent's interview, I was starting to break. I had had to drag up every single memory that day in the course of seven interviews, and doing other things aside. I was still trying to process my feelings from the Dail debate the previous day.

I made the point to him on air that I am not a politician, but a victim, and I think that gets lost sometimes amongst people's interest in my views on Sinn Fein, or funding for rape crisis centres or other victims who are seeking redress for the heinous abuse perpetrated upon them.

This is what it does to me when I am asked a question. My stomach tightens, and it feels like I have been punched in the gut. Sometimes my head automatically goes back there, and I have to fight to bring it back into the present. I see it, I feel it, and it still frightens me. When the interview is over, I have to try and piece my head back together again before the next one starts. That's the part that people don't see. The involuntary shaking. The head swim. Fighting the tears.

I have no problem in answering any of the questions put to me, and I do so honestly. I understand Vincent has come in for a bit of flak for the way in which they were asked, and maybe there is merit in some of that. But I knew they would be asked before I went and I was content to go. I thanked him afterwards. Gerry Adams will not subject himself to the same scrutiny, as I noted on the programme.

There is merit also in pointing out the following, only because it has been put to me on a few occasions now by some interviewers.

I cannot be held responsible for the failure to address other people's injustice in the past by political establishments. I am not responsible for the cutting of funding to rape crisis centres. I don't think I should have to apologise for using my voice. Why should I? I uncovered the issue of how the IRA and Sinn Fein dealt with sexual abuse. I forced them to admit most of it.

Surely, in a country which took years to get to the bottom of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, that is to be welcomed? Because, as I have said before repeatedly, sexual abuse thrives on secrecy.

No longer, in this situation. Some truth now has been dragged kicking and screaming out of Sinn Fein. That's preferable to me than continuing to be haunted by the potential screaming of other children.

Because I wish to God, when I was lying on the settee in that house in Ballymurphy, with my eyes closed in fear, and my fingernails dug into my skin to stop me from screaming, that I knew more about how to disclose. I wish I had seen someone from my community on the television saying it was ok to go to the police. Around the time of my abuse starting, I was in a room with Gerry Adams and the journalist Eamonn Mallie. I recorded it at the time. Adams stated "The RUC are completely and totally unacceptable". The message was received loud and clear.

It was received louder still, when the IRA explicitly told me - and my family - that I was not to go to the police.

When I was lying on that settee in Ballymurphy as a 16-year-old, my control was taken from me. I had to lie in whatever position that man left me in, with my eyes closed, sometimes for hours, cold and afraid. Wanting to be sick, and not daring to move a muscle. What did he do after he had got his kick? He sat and slowly rolled a cigarette, sometimes drank a tin of beer. At times he turned the TV up and watched a programme. And all the while that was happening, I was in fright mode, wondering if he was coming back again for more. I had no ownership over my own body. But I owned my thoughts, and I continue to own them, even after everything that has happened.

In many ways that has been replicated over the last number of weeks. I don't have a team of press officers working out how to respond to media questions. I just answer the questions honestly when they come. I haven't refused any interviews, with the exception of one or two, when I was literally too exhausted to do them. I don't put anyone else up to answer on my behalf. I just answer.

Contrast that with the Sinn Fein representatives. I've lost count now of how many of them have been put up, and how many times the party position has shifted. Adams has not put himself on Vincent Browne, or Primetime, or any of those longer shows where he would have to face forensic questioning on detail. He hasn't done that because he knows I am telling the truth.

But when I hear him, or any of the rest of them, my mind is taken back to that time when I didn't have any control. And every time they peddle an untruth, or try to blacken my character, that punch in the gut feeling comes again.

It's a bit different now, of course. I have the support of good family and friends. And most of the country, North and South. That helps. It still doesn't stop me reverting to when I was 16, when the abuse started, or 18, when the IRA came to me and frightened me to death, or 19, when they came again and facilitated the movement of my abuser out of the country.

But what it does do, is tell me that for every punch in the gut I get, there is a cast-iron reminder that I am doing the right thing in speaking out. I don't want another child getting a punch in the gut. I don't want another child feeling like they're someone else's rag doll.

I don't want the next victim of IRA cover-up of abuse being treated in the shameful manner that I have since I have gone public. I want them to be treated the way that they deserve to be. With care, and with support, and with dignity.

And while I don't mind answering the hard questions, and haven't shied away from doing so, I wonder how a victim of rape sitting in the house feels watching something like that. How they feel when they hear the Sinn Fein doublespeak about supporting victims, yet refusing to condemn publicly their own activists who have taken to Twitter to launch vile abuse at me in an effort to try to get me to go away. I don't want them to be frightened. I want them to feel that when they do come forward, they will be believed, and they will be supported.

Imagine for one second a victim of the Catholic church cover-up of abuse being asked whether they were being used as a political football. Whether they thought that the fact a Dail debate was scheduled meant that other victims were overlooked. How they felt about the fact that resources for rape crisis centres was cut?

A man calling himself Adam O'Braonain, and who describes himself as a Sinn Fein activist, actually tweeted me this week to say: "Grow up…There are people in this state who want and need support. Your selfish attempts to distract from that are unbecoming".

Another anonymous tweeter by the handle @badinfluence tweeted into the #vinb hashtag: "You're a political puppet #MairiaCahill with a hand up your hole!"

For someone to take the time to think about the calculated damage that would cause to an abuse victim, worries me greatly. And all of this has been going on for weeks now. Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin had a cheek to say on TV during the week that there had been "no online abuse" directed at myself.

The people who caused this situation are, firstly, the ones who get a kick out of sexually assaulting, raping, and controlling others by doing so. The people who unleashed these sick people onto your community, and your children, without your knowledge are the IRA. You have no idea whether one of these abusers is working with young people. And the people who know this information, but who have failed to address it properly, are the party who wish to be running the country.

That is horrific. Collectively, they have put your children at risk.

Gerry Adams has already admitted that he believed his brother Liam to be a child abuser. He admits that he knew he was working with children in both Belfast and in Louth. He did not contact the police. Children in those constituencies were potentially at risk due to the fact that no information was brought forward on this man. And he continued to work with children. For years.

In what other situation would that be acceptable?

That is what we are looking at here. We have no idea where these people are, who they are working with, what access to children they have. Whether you are living with them, whether they have married into your family. And there are no mechanisms in place at present to check. I hope that there soon will be, and I am passing on every scrap of information I have to police forces on both sides of the border.

The best Adams could do last week, despite telling the Dail that he had passed information to the gardai, was to instead give that information to the Sinn Fein Child Protection Officer. That tells me he has learned nothing. He needs to go directly to the guards and give every bit of information he has.

Sinn Fein conducted an internal review in the last number of years as a damage limitation exercise in case the issue of cover up of sexual abuse by republicans made its way to the media. The information that the review covered needs to be passed directly to the police. Until they do so, and until they admit my own IRA investigation, they are continuing to cover up.

What possibly is most disturbing is that, even after all we've learned about the Catholic Church abuse cases, that sometimes, even still, we can forget, at the heart of every abuse victim - no matter how agreeable they are to answering any questions put to them - is hurt.

Politicking is for politicians. Law questioning is for the courtroom. When an abuse victim takes the tough decision to waive their right to anonymity and puts themselves out into the public domain, they shouldn't be asked to answer for others' perceived failings. And they shouldn't be made to feel guilty for using their voice to try and stop their horrendous experiences happening to anyone else.

Sunday Independent

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