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Express Interviews: Mairia Cahill

Brian Conmy interviews Mairia Cahill about her public allegations against senior members of the IRA, her life over the past year and her Seanad bid

Last year Mairia Cahill was kind enough to speak to the UCC Express about the experiences that brought her to public prominence. In that interview Mairia characterised her abuse as “part of my experience and its part of who I am” but as time removes us further from the initial shock of hearing Mairia’s story of abuse at the hands of a senior IRA member we’ve seen time and time again that this abuse has not defined her life. Instead it has been a part of a driving force that has taken her far and following on from a recent announcement that she is standing as a Labour candidate in the upcoming Seanad bye-election, continues to drive her even further in her pursuit of justice and to help other people through their own experiences of sexual abuse.

Before speaking to Mairia on the phone she asks for the time I expect to call, stating that she doesn’t answer unexpected calls or unrecognised numbers for obvious reasons. Perhaps naively I had never thought of this, the changes entering the public consciousness (or political sphere) would bring to even a simple action like answering your phone. Upon questioning of this though Mairia she clarifies “I’m conscious that I keep in contact with other victims so I like to keep the phone free for those coming though”. As well as this she added “I don’t generally answer numbers that I don’t know anyway, you know because there is a risk there, I’ve had quite a lot of threats online and I have had nuisance or malicious phone calls that’s one of the reasons why I like to know who I’m answering the phone to first”

It’s an unfortunate facet of modern life that many of us may be susceptible to nasty comments online, it’s imaginable that these comments multiply when someone enters the political arena to run for an institution like the Seanad. However the vileness and intent of these comments become less imaginable in Mairia’s case “the reason for all of the online attacks and smears and the disgusting blogs that were written at the start of last year, the reason that was done I think was clear to everybody, to any ordinary member of the public, and that was to try and either shock or shame me into going away. I took a decision at that point that even though it is very distressing that I wasn’t going to go away”. Again perhaps naively I asked if maintaining these social media presences was worth it in light of these sad realities, “Well I don’t have to you know, I always have a choice really to back out of doing it, it’s kind of stubbornness takes over… I dip in and out of social media like anyone else but I am entitled to a twitter account or Facebook page or whatever the same as anyone else is.”

Having an account of rape and sexual assault during a person’s teenage years made so public and then to be scrutinised by powers that seemingly didn’t have their best interests in mind is something many of us likely can’t imagine. To compound this in Mairia’s case is the unfortunate fact that politics was involved. The political aspect of Mairia’s case is not a common one but on how it differentiates her experience from that of another sexual assault victim she points out “Well I think it’s dangerous to look at it that way, essentially when you strip it all back it was a case of abuse. What compounded the problem was when the IRA decided to involve themselves in the case of abuse wanting to protect their own reputation. That of the Sinn Féin party and of my rapist. So for example when they initiated the first investigation they were very keen to stress that my rapist had rights as an IRA volunteer and that’s a direct quote from them under the terms of the green book, an IRA manual if you like for those type of people. So in all of that the difference wasn’t really you know, I had the suffering and trying to deal with the trauma of the abuse and I had to try to deal with the trauma of an unasked for, because I never went to the IRA asking for an investigation, they came to me.”

Pointedly though Mairia notes that her experiences are more common than some would assume “So that was very traumatic and then I had the years afterwards where there was a silence imposed on it but essentially I think the difficulty in trying to cope has been the same as any other person who has gone through abuse or rape, it happens also in the context of the catholic church if you look at those investigations for example. You know those victims had the abuse first of all that was then compounded by an investigation by the church into some of the priests and in some cases some victims were made to sign documents and were kept quiet and there are parallel between the two”. Even within cases of abuse by the Republican movement she notes that “No one rape or abuse case is the same and indeed even within the republican movement and what I’m seeing now from victims coming through is no one case of abuse in relation to republican abuse has been the same either. Certainly there are similarities in relation to kangaroo courts and the same names popping up again and again”

In UCC already this year there have been a number of reported instances of sexual assault on college students, in some instances even occurring in UCC related student accommodation. With this issue in mind I wondered if the college and the SU were doing enough, or what realistically they could do, to combat this issue. “I think any positive step in order to raise awareness of issues around abuse or sexual assault certainly is welcome and I think universities of course have a responsibility towards keeping students safe. University is a life changing experience for people when they’re on the cusp of adulthood and I understand that quite well because I had to drop out the first time I went to do a degree. I had to drop out because of an IRA investigation so I remember all of the different feelings students have when they’re moving from primary to secondary and then secondary to third level education. Any consent training whatsoever is of course to be welcomed, I think we have to get the balance of responsibility on it right also. The responsibility for abuse should never be placed on the shoulder of the victim”. She also highlighted the Dublin Rape Crisis’s new campaign around the topic of consent, praising its gender non-specificity and accessibility.

To some, issues around combating sexual and domestic abuse are a societal issue. Mairia highlighted her own view on this by saying “Well I think everything in life is a political issue, no matter what way you look at it. You know where you buy the coffee you get in the morning is political… You look back to Ireland for example and how quickly it has changed even looking back 20, 25 years ago with the contraceptive ban, the marriage bar being enforced, things like that in terms of female identity and having an identity of your own all came through the political system in order to have to be changed the same with the marriage equality referendum this year. So in that sense yes politicians can do a lot because they’re the people who’re entrusted with a mandate to help change society for the better and that doesn’t always work like that and people get frustrated time and again.”

On the idea that all things are political with specific reference to sexual abuse she added “It’s been a very difficult couple years in Ireland with austerity measures, funding has been cut to different services who work directly with victims but that said front line services I’m glad to say have been protected this year, specifically in relation to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre by the government. So that’s one positive aspect in a couple of years of negativity in Ireland. The economy seems to be back on track again so hopefully with that if for example I get into the Seanad my main and first priority is to victims of abuse or sexual assault and domestic violence. I’ll do anything I can to raise awareness of those issues and look at how we try to improve lives of victims. For example I heard just this week there are waiting lists for women who’re victims of domestic abuse to get into refuges and that’s a completely unacceptable situation for those women to be in and a very very dangerous one. So you know things like that need to be looked at and we need to look at how we ease the burden on victims and make it safer to live their lives”

One of the greatest things in my mind that Mairia has done is so continuously stood up in the face of adversity. Not just in finding a way to live her life after her sexual abuse but to continuously stand in public in search of justice for herself but also for other victims of a failed justice system.  With the news that she is standing in the upcoming Seanad bye-election I asked if this work would remain a priority for her, “Well I think that’s a huge goal and a huge priority for anyone to have, there are massive areas in relation to Irish life. You know 1 in 4 people is a victim of sexual assault or abuse, not quite sure what the figures are in relation to domestic violence but it is a problem we see played out time and time again through court systems both north and south. At the moment we also have the situation in my case where other victims of abuse by the republican movement have come forward and I also want to be able to help them. The Garda investigation and all that will continue if I’m in the Seanad but really you know we have seen situations in the past where senators have been able to make a difference”.

Specifically naming Averil Power and her work bringing forward the adoption rights bill as well as Katherine Zappone and her work on the marriage equality referendum, Mairia’s drive to leave a similar legacy of positive change behind is admirable but perhaps not without possible contention “I think also we need to probably start having a responsible conversation as to how we address perpetrators of abuse in a human way allowing them the opportunity to stop their behaviour and change. I understand that’s a very controversial thing to say for someone who is a victim of sexual violence but really you don’t have any hope of eradicating abuse or at least trying to curb it if you don’t deal with the root of the problem and the root of the problem in this instance you’re talking about the proprietors themselves.”

It’s been some time now since the Seanad abolition referendum failed to pass by popular vote and with its failure any discussion of Seanad reform seems to have gone with it. While many believe the Seanad is weak, needless or toothless Mairia saw it as a worthwhile platform to work on “Well I had the opportunity to run as a TD and I decided not to. First of all the Seanad is a different ball game in relation to what it would be if you were running in the general. We’ve already seen some of it with the Seanad campaign but this Maria Cahill versus Sinn Féin when there are four candidates standing and not just two. I could have put Sinn Féin under serious pressure had I ran in the general election, I decided not to do that because the issues of abuse and rape and domestic violence would get lose in the circus really. That doesn’t need to be fought you know. I suppose what I’m trying to say but had I run in the general the issues would have been lost in the quagmire and it would have come down to if I’d stood against Mary Lou for example, it would have been a circus. I would have been confident enough of taking a few votes off her but that’s not what I’m about, it wasn’t my motivation in coming forward. I came forward to use my voice to tell of my experience and to help others and that would have been lost had I rain for the Dáil. Now the Seanad is slightly different, it’s a bye election. You know the possibilities of being able to change things and turn things around quickly in relation to being able to help people is easier. So in that sense I’m quite happy to go in as a Seanad candidate”

However she also noted “Never say never, I may at some point down the line decide to run [for the Dáil] but for me right now and practically as a single mother of a young child you need a hell of a lot of time commitment to do both but I thought in the middle of a general election campaign that would be too much”

What surprised many, myself included, about Mairia’s announcement that she would be contesting this bye-election was the fact she would do so as a Labour candidate, she said “I was attracted to the Labour party both because of how they dealt with me and I’ve seen how they’ve been able to shape people’s lives for the better and you couldn’t find a better example of that than in the marriage equality referendum.” An earlier comment about being a single mother resonated with me and so I asked if Labour were assisting her as a woman trying to enter the Seanad “Absolutely, I think Labour stand on their record as consistently fielding female candidates long before gender quotas became an issue. The labour party were fielding candidates like Joan Burton, a great example, the first female chartered accountant in Ireland is now the leader of a party and the Tánaiste. I think that’s a great example for women, she has children herself and she has a life outside of politics too so she’s managed to strike a balance with it. They are very aware because I’ve made them aware that I have a young daughter and I’m not going to comprise my parenting of her in order to be in political life full time. That’s not to say I’m not committed but I think people are entitled to have a balance.”

Finally I wanted to address what I considered an elephant in the room, based on recent polls it seems possible that Sinn Féin may be one of the parties in power following the next general election. Asking if the possibility that they could be a partner in government while Mairia would reside in the Dáil was a daunting one Mairia reassured me that “I don’t think that’s going to happen. That’s the first thing. Secondly I’ve come across Gerry Adams many times in my life, as recently as the week before last or last week, I bumped into him in the corridors of Leinster house, I ignored him and he ignored me. That was it. I’d be much more concerned that people would fall for the lies that they have peddled, not just on the issue of abuse but across the board you know. For example they’re a party that implements austerity cuts in the North and complains about them in the South. There are a number of hypocritical stances they’ve taken on IRA activity, for example the denial that it was the IRA who murdered Paul Quinn who had a brutal death. A 21 year old boy with every bone in his body broken while his friends were made listen to him being beaten, Sinn Féin have never come out, in fact they labelled the young lad a criminal when he was killed. His mother Bríd and his father Steven are completely traumatised and his anniversary is coming up soon in November. What Sinn Féin should probably do, in fact should absolutely do is to that family admit that the IRA killed him and take away the slur against his name that he was a criminal. He wasn’t.”

If you have been affected by any of the content discussed in this interview, there are supports available. The Samaritans are always there to talk, and their free-call 24hr number is 116 123. For supports specific to sexual assault, the Cork Sexual Violence Centre is located on 5 Camden Place and can be called on 1800 496 496. Outside of Cork, the Dublin Rape Crises Centre is there to help. They can be called on 1800 778 888