Skip to content

Sexual Abuse, Unawareness, And 1985 An Phoblacht

In the midst of the PIRA child sex abuse controversy and the allegations made by Maíria Cahill and Paudia McGahon, Liam Adams was in court on March 26 again. Indeed, first debates on the PIRA’s treatment of allegations of sexual abuse appeared in winter 2009, when Liam Adams’ abuse of his daughter came to light in public. The sexual abuse was said to have been committed over a six-year period between 1977 and 1982 when his daughter, Aine, was aged between four and nine.

It is well documented, that the PIRA’s system of Civil Administration worked well to police the nationalist areas and wipe-out petty crime. However, it was at the same time totally unprepared to deal with allegations as serious as child abuse, in particular if these allegations were directed against their own activists. To be sure, this is not a statement against the PIRA justice system as such. Rather it proves the weaknesses of an alternative justice system set up during periods of turmoil and war-time of people previously not involved in dealing with these serious issues and, more importantly, never trained in dealing with sexual abuse. Consequently, the PIRA’s Civil Administration stumbled into this major problem completely unprepared and ill-advised.

In essence, I am not in the position to blame the PIRA or its Civil Administration for what they did. The Civil Administration might have been the best system possible for war-torn West Belfast. However, the essential misbehaviour of those republicans dealing with the cases of Maíria Cahill and Paudia McGahon was to sweep it under the carpet in order to whitewash their activists’ name at the expanse of the victims.
Struck by these recent developments surrounding allegations of sexual abuse and in particular child abuse within the Republican Movement during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I stumbled over an article on child sex abuse in an old edition of the republican newspaper An Phoblacht. To be sure, since the 1970s An Phoblacht is the highly influential organ of the Provisional Republican Movement.

The article appeared on page 2 in An Phoblacht on Thursday, March, 7, 1985, the day before the International Women’s Day on March 8. It is accompanied by an Opinion piece on the importance of the International Women’s Day. The headline simply reads: Child sex abuse; the article is written by Maeve Armstrong.

The eye-catcher of the page is a quote from Gerry Adams speech at the 1984 Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin. In white letters on black background it reads:

Until my election as West Belfast MP, I was unaware of the extent to which incest occurred, but since then I have had to deal with such cases. I am speaking on this issue to encourage other men to speak out.

Well, it would be interesting to see how Adams dealt with incest in the community back in 1984. And what did he tell those men who were brave enough to “speak out.” Who dealt with what they said? Did he tell them to go to the RUC, as he allegedly told Maíria Cahill? What if the accusations involved a well-known member of the republican family? Who knows…?

However, let’s continue with the article in An Phoblacht which makes an interesting read in the light of recent allegations:

One of the most emotive, though least talked about, issues in Ireland today is the widespread yet conveniently ignored problem of child sex abuse.

Exactly thirty years ago, Sinn Féin acknowledged widespread child abuse as an ignored problem in Ireland. Well, as we have seen in recent years, it was not the behaviour of the Republican Movement towards allegations of child sex abuse within its own ranks that encouraged people to speak out and deal with this “ignored problem.” Rather it was the Republican Movement itself that prolonged the silence within the nationalist community towards sexual abuse.
The article goes on, explaining that

under the 1865 Offences Against the Person Act, a British Act which still applies both North and South, child sex abuse encompasses a long and disturbing list of criminally punishable sexual activities such as gross indecency, indecent assault, buggery, exposure to pornographic material and ‘flashing’ and exhibitionism. Also included is the taboo and socially-embarrassing crime of incest, defined as full sexual intercourse with a blood relative.

This rather technical introduction is followed by one of the most interesting parts of the article:

If child sex abuse is to be prevented in the future, then society must first of all confront the issue by ending the silence, secrecy and myths which distort the truth and, secondly, re-examine our attitudes to sexual relationships in general. We must work towards preventing not only child sex abuse, but other crimes like rape, from happening.

Countless children, overwhelmingly female and under the age of 15, live with the ominous shadow of fear and misery as victims of incest – child rape – and suffer its traumatic effects long into their adulthood and old age. Incest is on the increase, not only here in Ireland but in every country around the world.

Until recently, the enormity of the problem virtually escaped any intense public scrutiny, partly because of the convenient belief that child sex abuse, and incest in particular, was not very common and partly because it was mistakenly assumed the problem was confined to the ‘lower classes’ or that it was a ‘rural’ phenomenon.

Following the mention of research conducted in the USA and Britain the article goes on, explaining the long-term effects of child sex abuse on the victims:

The long-term psychological and physical damage to children who have been incestuously abused – whether on one occasion or repeatedly over a number of year by a father, brother or other relative – can be irreparable. It can force the child into actions which may be wrongly interpreted by parents and professionals alike as delinquency-related problems i.e. drug or alcohol abuse, running away from home and general rebelliousness.

Tragically, some children and adolescent victims feel that their only way to escape the prospect of continued abuse and the associated feelings of fear, shame and guilt is to commit suicide. There are the children who suffer in silence, whose trust in personal relationships is betrayed and whose right to protection within the family home are violated.

Often when the child begins to realise that something is ‘wrong’ or is not ‘natural’ in the way they are being abused, they begin to feel they are the guilty ones. Regrettably, some children who reveal their account of the abuse to a parent, relative or person in authority like a teacher, are dismissed, ignored or regarded as indulging in a mere ‘childish fantasy’.

This comment by Maeve Armstrong, that victims of child sex abuse are often not taken serious reminded me strongly of Maíria Cahill words who alleged that at one stage Gerry Adams said to her:

Well you know, Maíria, abusers can be extremely manipulative. And you know, sometimes they are that manipulative that the people who have been abused actually enjoy it.

Yet, as Armstrong writes, this is not the only reaction possible:

Alternatively, if the child is believed he/she is inevitably totally unprepared for the tidal wave of reaction and emotion he/she has unwittingly released on themselves and the family.

Reading this article thirty years after its publication, I cannot help thinking that it is Armstrong explaining how totally unprepared this particular family, the republican family, stumbled into a situation of recognising the up until then “ignored problem of child sex abuse” within their own ranks. Indeed, what Armstrong explains in the following paragraph is the behaviour, parents show in these situations; and her words can similarly be used to explain the behaviour some members of the Republican Movement showed in relation to allegations of child sex abuse. Armstrong writes:

“In this situation, parents may be placed in the agonising position of being torn between the love and loyalty they have, on the one hand to protect their children from further abuse and on the other to protect other family members from prosecution. As the vast majority of the victims of incest are girls, it is usually the mother who is put in this position.

Or, it is rather the Republican Movement who is put in this situation, if the accused is a republican activist? Armstrong continues:

Once the problem is out on the open, the child, not the offender, can feel a tremendous amount of guilt as they wrongly feel responsible for causing trouble in their home, if not for the actual splitting up of their family if the offender is imprisoned.

As it is well known, PIRA’s Civil Administration did not take prisoners. Nevertheless, a child abuser within its own ranks? Trouble in the republican home? Splitting up the republican family? All these would have been highly counterproductive scenarios for a movement, engaged in a war against the oldest colonial power in the world, Britain. Consequently, there was only one way out to avoid causing a situation as outlined by Armstrong, namely trouble in the republican family. This way out was to deal with the allegations internally and half-hearted, sweep it under the carpet, and clear the name of the offender.

Civil war situations demand harsh and quick answers from revolutionary leaders often ill-prepared and sometimes ill-advised to deal with the new circumstances. Thus, it came to a situation within the Republican Movement that can be describes as following: Resolving incest within their own ranks can wait until after the war is won.

Armstrong continues:

The child can also be subjected to the unpleasant and disturbing ordeal of thorough questioning in a police barracks and a medical examination, never mind the actual court appearance – if it goes that far – which can be very traumatic.
“However, at with the issue of rape, very few offenders appear before the courts and when they do the onus of proof is unfairly balanced against the child who has no right to legal representation – the law defining that he/she is merely a ‘witness’ to the crime.
“Given Irish society’s rigid attitudes to the role of men and women, we must begin a process of re-education if we are to successfully tackle, and most importantly prevent, this underestimated and serious problem, which, as republican, we cannot ignore.

The article ends here, and Armstrong is completely right, child sex abuse and rape are serious issues, no political activist, socialist, republican, or otherwise can ignore.

In general, the article on child sex abuse by Maeve Armstrong raises some important points still relevant for todays’ controversy. First, she urges to the end the silence on child sex abuse, incest, and rape within society. Second, she stresses that work to prevent child sex abuse and rape from happening must be undertaken. Third, she highlights the physical and psychological long-term effects of sexual abuse for the victims. Fourth, she shows that it is broader societal phenomenon, not confined to any classes or areas. Fifth, she outlines the problems victims face in addressing the issue of sexual abuse, in particular the hardship for children who far too often are frightened to speak out. Sixth, she mentions the problems caused for families both of victims and offenders in dealing and coping with the issue if sexual abuse, and in particular, if both, the victim and the offender, are from the same family, living in the same household. Finally, she stresses the need for republicans to successfully tackle and prevent incest, child sex abuse, and rape.

Indeed, this article and these seven aspects given by Armstrong show that the problem of incest and child sex abuse was known and debated in the Republican Movement thirty years ago. Although Armstrong’s article not directly mentions that this problem existed within republican circles at that time, one can imagine that child sex abuse by republicans was at least known. This suggestion is not only underlined by Armstrong’s article but also by Gerry Adams’s comments at the 1984 Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin.

In conclusion, Armstrong indicates a then – and still – widely ignored problem within Irish society and the republican community. Moreover, rather than just indicating this problem, she stresses the need to prevent further cases of child sex abuse, incest, and rape. By doing this she points the finger in the right direction. Unfortunately, it seems that even thirty years after the publication of this article in An Phoblacht, some Irish republicans still have not read Armstrong’s article carefully enough.

Published inArticle