I was raped by a senior IRA member. I won’t let them cover it up any longer’

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‘I was raped by a senior IRA member. I won’t let them cover it up any longer’

Mairia Cahill, the grand-niece of a provisional IRA founder, tells Radhika Sanghani how she was allegedly sexually abused as a teenager by an IRA member – and claims the republican movement is guilty of covering it up

Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill has said she was sexually abused by a member of the IRA when she was 16 Photo: Getty Images
Mairia Cahill grew up with the IRA.
Like most teens in Nineties Belfast, the military organisation was an inescapable part of her life. But, unlike her peers, Cahill was actually related to some of its members. Her great-uncle Joe Cahill was one of the founders of the Provisional IRA.
Another relative, part of her extended family, was a crucial member of the organisation. She says he was also her sexual abuser.
“He abused me from the age of 16,” says Cahill, now 33. At the time, she was about to start studying for her A-Levels and working voluntarily at a local community radio station. Her parents were out of the country and she needed somewhere to stay.
Her alleged abuser offered up his family home. She had no reason to suspect anything and agreed.
“It started round about August 1997 and went on until September 1998,” she tells me, explaining that he raped her on the sofa of the living room of his house.
“You can imagine the level of fear. It was like being someone’s rag doll. There’s a point where you won’t open your eyes because you don’t want to see the man when he’s doing this to you.”
Cahill eventually disclosed what was happening to another family member. The information then reached the IRA. A few months later, a woman from the organisation approached her, and told her that she wasn’t allowed to go to the police. Instead, she says, a number of leading IRA and Sinn Féin figures then held their own internal inquiry into her allegations.
“There followed six months of investigation or interrogation, where I was repeatedly questioned about the details of my abuse,” she says. “I was told I wasn’t allowed to report it, speak to anyone about it, or tell my parents.
“I believe it took so long because they were trying to get me to withdraw [my allegations].”
Cahill didn’t dare reveal what was happening – she was terrified that the IRA would attack her and her family. “You don’t have a choice if the IRA come to you and tell you that you’re doing it,” she says. “I was afraid all the time.
“At the end of the six months they decided they’d bring me face to face with my abuser to look at my body language and see how I reacted. They walked that man in and allowed him to hurl insults at me for a number of hours.”
‘I thought I’d be killed’
During this six month period, Cahill had started her degree at Queen’s University Belfast – but says that she ended up dropping out because of the investigation. “I couldn’t cope. Everything was wrecked in relation to my life. I was so much in turmoil about the abuse.
“I couldn’t cope with the fact that I could bump into this man at any time. It was horrific. I was extremely frightened and completely traumatised.
“I was very young. I’d just spent two years going through the abuse [before the investigation happened]. My big fear was they’d go to that man and tell him. I thought that I’d be killed.
“I was systematically worn down so much. When you’re at the point when you actually want them to kill you, you have a serious problem.”
Cahill says that when the investigation came to an end, the IRA eventually allowed her to tell her parents.
“They were completely devastated. They had no control over anything either. Not only were they learning their child had been abused, but that other people had forced an investigation into it – which meant there was no opportunity for justice through a court of law.”
Cahill recently disclosed these allegations on BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme. On it, she claimed that Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, had spoken to her multiple times about her abuse allegations and knew about the investigation.
Gerry Adams
Adams has since said he “met [Cahill] in good faith”, and told her to go to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police force at the time) with her allegations. He claims she did not want to.
‘A cover-up of abuse’
“I’m extremely disappointed,” says Cahill. “If Gerry Adams had told me to jump through burning hoops [back then], I would have done it. I would’ve liked to think they’d had an ounce of human decency and admitted it. That’s obviously not going to happen. They’re denying it to the hills.
“We have lifted the lid on how the republican movement dealt with the cover-up of abuse. Sinn Féin were denying this until the Spotlight programme. It’s a replica of how the Catholic Church dealt with the abuse.”
The party has said it believes that Cahill was raped, and that it supports all victims of sexual abuse. Adams has suggested that her claims are being politically exploited by “cynical, calculated and opportunistic” opponents of Sinn Féin. In a blog, he wrote: “Sinn Féin has not engaged in any cover-up of abuse at any level of this party.”
Cahill eventually came forward with her allegations in 2010, after the news that Adams’ brother was wanted by the police for sexually abusing his daughter (he was later found guilty.)
“I realised I wasn’t the only person [to experience abuse],” she said. “I went public and waived my anonymity. I then made a complaint to the police. There was a four year wait to get to court. There were a number of failings and there was a collapse of the trial.”
Cahill’s alleged abuser was also, simultaneously, being charged for having an IRA membership in the first place. She was called to give evidence in that trial, too. But then the prosecution pulled the case. Cahill lost hope and withdrew her support from the remaining trials, relating to the rape.
‘I’m not going to be quiet’
It meant that all charges were dropped against her alleged abuser. But Cahill believes that her decision to go public with her story means that justice will eventually be won – and that raising awareness of a potential sexual abuse cover-up could help others.
“For me every time I speak about the issue it gives a victim a green light to come forward and speak about their experiences, get help, or go to the police.”
But she has also received a huge amount of abuse online: “All manner of smears have been designed to make me go away. That’s not going to happen. Twitter – it ranges from very explicit threats to rumour and innuendo. Someone told me that I’m a political puppet with a hand up my hole. Others say, ‘how dare you talk about your issue when thousands of people haven’t had justice?’
Mairia Cahill
“They’re trying to make you feel guilty for speaking about it.
“It is traumatic. I have blocked most of them. Sometimes I answer legitimate questions. But normally you find it’s just trolling. I just think they’re behaving disgracefully.”
Cahill thinks that Sinn Féin and IRA supporters are behind the abuse, and that it is an “orchestrated campaign” against her.
“They think it’s going to have a detrimental impact on my mental health. I think it’s trying to drive someone to the point of suicide. They hope I’ll be too afraid to speak out against it.
“But I’m not going to be quiet and go away because it’s politically awkward for some people.”
Cahill, who now has a four-year-old daughter, was forced to move out of her house for her safety, and is now living between friends’ homes. She’s in discussions with the police around secure housing.
‘I want to help keep children safe’
So, considering the impact on her life, just what is it that’s spurring her on to keep telling her story?
“Truth,” she says simply. “The more people deny things when you know them to be true, the more determined you are to not be quiet.”
Since Cahill went public, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has announced there will be an independent review of three cases linked to her alleged rape, which is expected to be completed by spring 2015.
The review will be led by human rights lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, and will look into the trials that collapsed relating to Cahill’s alleged abuser. “I consider that there are particular challenges in prosecuting complex and interlinked cases, as in this instance, involving serious sexual abuse and terrorist related charges and involving multiple complainants and multiple defendants,” explained current Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC.
“This independent review will consider all aspects of the prosecution of these cases and if there are lessons to be learned, we will do so, openly and transparently.”
It is good news for Cahill, but only a stepping stone towards her final goal.
“I want to try and ensure that we can keep children safer than they were five weeks ago [when I went public with my allegations about the IRA’s internal investigation].
“I hope this media attention will make [my abuser] think twice before he so much as lifts a hand on to someone’s head.
“Then it will all be worth it.”

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