(This article was initially published in the February 17th 2015 issue of the UCC Express.
It can be found in its original form by following this link. It is posted here again, unedited)
Mairia Cahill speaks to Conor Shearman on sexual assualt, Sinn Fein and why society needs to stop dehumanising paedophiles.
Mairia Cahill is a victim. A victim of sexual assault, and the victim of an organisational cover up which has generated shockwaves throughout the Irish political sphere. Her abuse may define who she is today–“it’s part of my experience and its part of who I am”–but she remains far more than a victim: she is a mother, a probation worker, a campaigner for justice for all of those abused on the island of Ireland.
An empowered woman, Cahill exudes strength in both the authority of her voice and her thematics: capable of delivering a nuanced discussion of sexual assault and her own abuse to a packed lecture hall; influenced undoubtedly, by four years of legal proceedings and countless interviews with the PSNI in which her tale was relived ad nauseam.
One might be forgiven for assuming the abuse and cover up she was subjected to, took place in the dark ages of Northern Ireland: a time in which sectarian groups rather than any form of law ruled the land, on the contrary, although sectarianism was still largely prevalent, the kangaroo court Mairia was subjected to took place in six months across the turn of the 21st century–a mere fifteen years ago.
“I believed the more that I did, the less likely I was going to be murdered.”
Mairia’s ordeal began at the age of sixteen when she was subjected to a cycle of rape and sexual assault across a period of 12 months by Martin Morris, a senior figure in the IRA, married to her aunt, renowned for the pride he took in his violent employment. By the time the IRA kangaroo court investigation was established in response to the disclosure of the abuse Mairia was eighteen, “but essentially I had been stuck at the age of sixteen since the abuse had happened to me.”
The police, she describes, were never a realistic prospect for justice at this period, “I grew up in a strong IRA area, the police were not an option because Sinn Fein instructed the communities and certainly led from the front in terms of whipping up distrust with the police.” Instead she was forced to contend with another abuse: “I was put through six months initially of an investigation, a forced investigation. I didn’t ask for it, had I had a choice, I wouldn’t have asked for it.”
The final humiliation was a forced confrontation with her attacker, “he was brought in with a man and there were two other women in the room, and they were there to read my body language to see who was telling the truth—you couldn’t make it up.” Distanced from the Neanderthal logic of the investigation now, at the time it had a chaotic impact on her life; a dramatic weight loss and dropping out of university were outward symptoms of its effects, meanwhile every day the process continued she firmly believed she would be killed.
The IRA never took action against her abuser. Following other victims revelations that they too had been abused, they placed him under house arrest before later facilitating his move outside Belfast. It is a fact which she broaches with difficulty: her voice darkens, laden with sorrow, “That fear of him having access to other children, being in an area where no one might know what his background was and therefore would allow him to have access to the children, was probably one of the worst things to have to deal with.”
“Essentially what we’re doing is looking at the next Taoiseach or Tánaiste potentially, who stands accused of being complicit in the cover up of child sexual abuse.”
Instigating legal proceedings in 2010 she became frustrated by four years of case building which threatened to go nowhere. Witnesses recanting evidence and the trial’s potential use of judges rather than a jury meant that her abuser had the potential to be released and appeal immediately on conviction; she lost faith in the process, “I became aware that I was never going to be able to obtain justice through the criminal justice system.” She withdrew her support for proceedings, although is quick to point out, not her testimony.
“Justice can mean different things to different people. For some it can mean disclosure and for some it is going through the court process. It’s nobody’s business but the person who has suffered from the abuse what justice means to you.” Cheated of one justice, Mairia pursued another: waiving her lifetime right to anonymity she provided a series of interviews to a BBC spotlight programme, preventing further abuse, she claims, was one of her central motivations for doing so, “part of that reason was so that man’s face and name would be in the public domain.”
The broadcast of the programme led to a bizarre situation whereby she felt compelled to give as many media interviews as she possibly could, “I believed the more that I did, the less likely I was going to be murdered. That was my feeling, because I had the public protection and people knew exactly what had happened.”
The difficulty of the five months since she has abandoned anonymity has been unequivocal. Politics have led to her demonization among particular public figures, while temporary homelessness forced her to move back to her mother’s home. Regret though, is not something which factors into her consciousness, “I would do it again in an instant because it did bring other people forward and get help.”
Politics is an intrinsic part of her story, as she knowingly confesses, “Abuse is a political issue anyway, no matter who or where the abuse comes from the resources have to be found to tackle it.” The fact that the cover up of her abuse was linked with Sinn Fein and its most senior leadership in Gerry Adams requires confrontation. She points to political discussion of her story as bearing particular significance in that Sinn Fein stand as potential candidates for the next government, “essentially what we’re doing is looking at the next Taoiseach or Tánaiste potentially, who stands accused of being complicit in the cover up of child sexual abuse.” She bears a remarkable optimism toward politics, although disillusioned with republican parties and the so called “double sided” policy they present: what others see as political opportunism in debating her story in the Dáil she views as solidarity, empathising with her as a human being.
Changing the culture of sexual abuse to one in which empathy is offered for victims is a major feature of what she hopes could change. A stigma which cannot be underestimated, she describes the advent of social media as heralding a significant rise in the attitude of victim blaming in cases of sexual assault.
While educating society on a better understanding of the realities of sexual assault, and teaching children from a young age of appropriate bodily boundaries are relatively orthodox measures of change that Mairia proposes, far more unusual is her remarkably sensitive attitude towards paedophiles and perpetrators of sexual assault. She refuses to demonize them, encouraging a view of them as human beings with the capacity to change, “I don’t think it’s beneficial for society to lock someone up for the rest of their lives […] if someone admits that they have a problem and they want to change, they should be given every opportunity to do so.”
Treatment she advocates is the only way which society can remedy such crime, “They have to first of all admit they have a problem, that’s where treatment can be crucial, but if you don’t treat them then they get worse and we have had enough research in society to show that is the case.” It is an ennobling attitude from somebody who refuses to conform to a set expectation. The ultimate triumph over the darkness that Mairia Cahill has experienced is that she refuses to allow it to corrupt her.