One of the rarely discussed facets of the generational war which disfigured the north-east of Ireland from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s (or early 2000s) was the widespread – if not quite common – sexual abuse or exploitation of women. Those engaged in such activities included members and supporters of all the belligerent parties to the conflict, British and Irish, regular and irregular. It is perhaps not surprising that such dreadful incidences occurred given the general breakdown in society and societal norms as a consequence of the failure of the Irish civil rights movement to effect substantial change in the face of Unionist intransigence and British indifference during the period of 1968-71 and the rapid descent into open warfare. Anarchy and brutality by state and non-state forces bred attitudes that would be far from acceptable in any normal society. The conflict of course also spanned the period when gender equality was becoming the norm throughout western Europe. The old localised cultures of male supremacism were being replaced by a transnational culture of equal rights between the sexes. Unfortunately Ireland lagged at the back of that socio-cultural revolution, and the partition-isolated north-east of the country even more so. What was unacceptable in Germany in the 1970s was still acceptable in Ireland in the 1980s, and what was nationally unacceptable in Ireland in the 1980s was still regionally acceptable in the north-east of Ireland in the 1990s.
While the historic abuse of men, women and children by elements of the British Occupation Forces and their counter-insurgency allies in the British terror factions are well documented, notably the Kincora Scandal, the sexual exploitation of women and children by individual members of the (Provisional) Republican movement is less so. That can be partly attributed to the movement’s commitment to a form of left-wing ideology that encouraged women’s rights and activism, and which institutionally discouraged discriminatory attitudes. That included the often brutal punishment of those found guilty of transgressing expected modes of conduct. However just as important was the need to maintain the movement’s image, both internally and externally, and worries about the security implications of investigating and dealing with misdeeds by activists (even when those making complaints were themselves fellow activists). More than once the benefit of doubt or undue leniency was shown towards malfeasant individuals because of military or security concerns (or the guilty party’s “position” and connections within the movement). Courts-martial dealt less with upholding army standing orders than upholding the army’s organisational integrity.
This of course is common to guerrilla forces throughout history when they are in opposition to a foreign or domestic power. The activities of partisan groups in Occupied Europe during World War II do not bear too close a scrutiny (France being a good example), while insurgents (terrorists or freedom-fighters) sponsored by the United States during the 1970s and ‘80s turned regions of Latin America into a virtual bloodbath. Simply put when guerrillas have need of professional criminal investigations and prosecutions they can hardly turn to the police forces and justice systems they are at war with. Shooting paramilitary police officers at night while availing of their law enforcement services during the day is a recipe for disaster (and history is replete with examples of that). Those battling insurgencies rarely view such cases on a human level but instead see them as simply another exploitable advantage in an ongoing struggle. The testimonies by victims of crime from the Irish Nationalist community in their interactions with the old, infamous RUC make for very depressing reading indeed as police interviews turned on questions relating to military intelligence not to the offences being reported.
The latest allegations in relation to the 1997-98 misdeeds by a claimed member of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army illustrate the dilemma of a resistance movement when forced to act as an alternative policing and criminal justice system, and the consequences of the failure to do so adequately. Maíria Cahill was betrayed by those she trusted, by a movement she was committed to both personally and through her family and community. Her treatment during the initial investigations by (P)IRA was reprehensible, the crude needs of army and party placed above the well-being of a vulnerable young woman (a woman who looked, in her own words, to “the Army” for some form of restitution). Sinn Féin’s reaction so far has been egregious, Gerry Adams immediate recourse to threats of legal action more than a little distasteful. While he has every right to place on the record his interpretation of the reported events he could do so with far more sensitivity than has been shown so far. Indeed the traditional tactic of offense being the best form of defence is looking increasingly tired and threadbare.
Given the option between believing the account of Maíria Cahill and that of the Sinn Féin leader, as much as I am a critical admirer of the latter, I am more inclined to believe the former. As I have consistently argued only a general amnesty will permit the participants to the northern conflict, from Ireland and Britain, to give a full account of all the events of that period, and not just the military ones.