To misquote a terrible old bigot who had a way with words, most political controversies end not with a bang but with a whimper. That borrowed aphorism may turn out to be true in relation to the scandal which brought Maíria Cahill to public prominence and which has led to her selection by the centre-right Labour Party as their candidate to that most-undemocratic of legislatures, Seanad Éireann. Since 2014 I have purposely avoided commenting too much on the controversy surrounding the case of the Belfast-born woman due to the partisan ferocity of both her supporters and her detractors (not to mention the threats of litigation that both sides wield as a debate-killing axe). However this opportunist stunt by Joan Burton’s election-fearing party cries out for at least one or two observations.
For those who are unaware of the complex background to the story, thirty-four year old Maíria Cahill – the grandniece of a former chief-of-staff of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army – is an ex-secretary of the youth wing of Sinn Féin, then known as Ógra Shinn Féin*, who ended her association with the party over a decade ago. Since 2010 she has waived anonymity to publicly argue that at the age of sixteen she was subject to repeated sexual assaults in the home of her uncle-in-law, Martin Morris, a senior volunteer of (P)IRA and its Civil Administration Team, in the Ballymurphy district of Belfast between mid-1997 and late 1998. Those attacks came to light when the matter was brought before a prolonged, if perfunctory, military inquiry in 1999-2000, initiated through the intervention of two female republican activists in the city (Cahill had also informed her late cousin, Siobhán O’Hanlon, a prominent member of Sinn Féin and (P)IRA, of the rapes). Despite the seriousness of the crimes the investigation, including a particularly traumatising face-to-face encounter between the accused and the then eighteen year old girl, failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion and the issue seemed closed.
However several months later two younger members of the extended Cahill family came forward to say that they too had been abused by Martin Morris. (P)IRA eventually placed him under house arrest at an address in the Ardoyne area of Belfast while another investigation was commenced. Yet within days Morris somehow managed to escape his detention, disappearing to whereabouts unknown. Further meetings between Maíria Cahill and representatives of the military and political wings of the Provisional movement followed, those individuals denying well-founded claims that Morris had in fact been exiled by (P)IRA to temporary lodgings in County Donegal. In reality it was clear that the insurgent movement had staged an internal cover-up of a potentially embarrassing scandal, and one which left its victims understandably distraught.
Despite appealing directly to the Army Council, the organisation’s ruling body, Cahill received no further resolution of the issue, leading to her resignation from SF in 2001 (though she continued to campaign on behalf of Sinn Féin candidates as late as 2003). Traumatised by the events of her teenage years in 2006 she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of anti-depressants, fortunately surviving the attempt without any permanently physical harm. By 2009-10 she was working with the Republican Network for Unity (RNU), a grouping founded by former SF members dissatisfied with the party’s policies, serving temporarily as its national secretary, before seemingly abandoning politics altogether to pursue justice against her uncle-in-law through the UK-administered courts in Belfast.
The complex and at times contradictory course of that action ended with failure in 2014, though it brought Maíria Cahill into the ambit of her cousin, Eilis O’Hanlon (the estranged sister of Siobhán), a national newspaper columnist with the conservative Independent News and Media group, and a harsh critic of Sinn Féin. Through the publicity generated by a BBC television documentary examining her experiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and with the support of known opponents of SF, Cahill went on to meet the leaders of the major national parties in Ireland, voicing her case with admirable poise and determination. That journey, aided by her own articles in the right-wing, unionist-sympathising Irish and Sunday Independent newspapers (which of course employ her cousin), has led to this week’s announcement of her candidacy for the Labour Party in a Seanad election caused by the resignation of an existing seanadóir, Jimmy Harte.
Naturally one should be hesitant when using terms like “election” in relation to Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Oireachtas or Irish legislature. It is not an elected body in any normal sense of the word, given that it is largely composed of government-favoured appointees serving alongside those of various sectional interests. Simply put, it has been the traditional method by which political parties in Ireland pay off their cronies and supporters, guaranteeing them annual salaries, perks and post-senate pensions. All parties, from right to left, have exploited its perfidious nature. Which is why it is so disappointing to see Maíria Cahill, someone I generally admire despite our probable political differences, being seduced by the false promises offered to her by that stranger to political integrity, Joan Burton. Her possible “election” to the upper house of our national parliament by an “electorate” of some two hundred people is an affront to democracy. Something that holds true for any candidate of any background or affiliation. That some in Labour are now demanding that no other person should dare challenge her in the so-called election is even more repulsive.
However, perhaps two good thing might come of this farce. Firstly the endemic sexual, physical and psychological abuse suffered by woman across Ireland might gain the serious attention it deserves. That includes questioning why the right-wing Fine Oibre coalition has slashed funding to tackle this social scourge, denying women and girls the services they require to find refuge from their abusers and to see them brought to book.
Secondly, maybe Maíria Cahill, with the independence she has shown, might demand to know why her party colleagues refuse to organise and stand for office in the north-east of our island nation? Why does her new leader, Joan Burton, believe in a form of partitionist-segregation that reduces some Irish men and women to the status of second-class citizens with second-class rights to representation? Simply put, if a resident of Belfast is good enough for the Irish Labour Party, why is the Irish Labour Party too good for the residents of Belfast?
* Note: Ógra Shinn Féin is now the ridiculously titled “Sinn Féin Republican Youth” or SFRY, which aptly illustrates the party’s commitment to our indigenous language. Plus the name is seriously wanky.