Allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up by IRA militants have caused a storm from Belfast to Dublin and drawn comparisons with the Catholic Church, as well as offering a rare glimpse into vigilante policing during the province’s troubled past.
The Sinn Fein party, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has been forced on the defensive by the claims from 33-year-old Mairia Cahill.
A member of a prominent republican family whose great-uncle was one of the founders of the Provisional IRA, Cahill says she was sexually abused as a 16-year-old by an IRA member.
She then says she was subjected to months of secret interrogation by the paramilitary group, including a traumatic confrontation with her alleged abuser to check her story.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has rejected her claims of a cover-up but has admitted that the IRA was “ill-equipped” to handle cases of sexual abuse and has revealed that militants “on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them”.
In a blog post, he conceded that many abuses had emerged since the IRA’s ceasefire in 1994 as part of the peace process and that “some cases may have involved IRA volunteers”.
Another senior Sinn Fein member, Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the IRA, has called for any victims to come forward.
The IRA’s summary justice, which included punishment like beatings and knee-capping for theft and drug dealing, was the norm in nationalist areas because the British state police was seen as politically unionist and alien to the republicans.
Couples in mixed Catholic-Protestant unions were also punished.
– ‘Brave and utterly plausible’ –
Cahill waived her right to anonymity after a trial on her case fell through earlier this year when she withdrew her evidence, saying that the investigation had been mishandled.
British prosecutors this week ordered an independent review of the case, which involved three inter-linked criminal cases.
The man she has publicly named has denied abusing her.
As part of her campaign, Cahill met with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on Wednesday after holding talks earlier this week with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson.
Cahill told AFP in a telephone interview she was speaking out because she believed child abusers were free and could cause further harm.
Cahill said her questioning at the hands of the IRA lasted six months and that the militants swore her to secrecy.
The group was “systematically trying to break my head down to a point where I would withdraw those allegations,” she said.
Many commentators have compared the case to the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church that rocked Ireland in the 2000s.
Mick Fealty, an influential Irish political blogger, agreed saying: “Sinn Fein has the same kind of institutional secrecy, distrust of outsiders, and the same sense that it’s far better dealing with its own problems”.
But the left-wing party, which is enjoying a wave of public support by leading opposition to austerity, has rejected the criticism as being more about the past.
Adams said republicans had developed more “victim-centred approaches” since the years of IRA policing, adding: “Those who wish to have these cases dealt with have that right”.