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Mairia Cahill: 'I've been to Hell and back, but there's now light at end of tunnel'

Mairia Cahill, who was raped by an IRA member, accepts that she will never get justice in court. But she hopes yesterday's announcement of an independent review into how prosecutors try major cases will spare any other woman enduring the pain she did.

Published 19/05/2016

Mairia Cahill
Mairia Cahill
Leading human rights lawyers Keir Starmer QC

Four years as a victim in the criminal justice process takes its toll. Putting your life on hold, living on fear and adrenaline as the feeling of being completely out of control takes over. Delay after delay. One trial splitting into two and then three. Witnesses dropping out, other witnesses not divulging all of their knowledge. Some potential witnesses not coming forward at all.

The horror engulfing you as you realise your abuser - and those who forced an investigation into your abuse - will walk away without trial. The depression. The grief. Feeling completely on your own as you try to fight your corner with powerful people. The pressure.

The collapse of my cases was one of the hardest things to come to terms with. I never withdrew my allegations, but I did feel that I had no option but to withdraw my co-operation as a witness, and I did so in a lengthy statement to the court reiterating those allegations and detailing my reasons and what I believed to be serious failings in relation to the cases in which I was a victim.

I was proven right when leading human rights lawyer Sir Keir Starmer was appointed, along with Katie O'Byrne, to conduct a review into my cases. Without my emails to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and the police, which meticulously documented my objections over the course of the trials, getting to the bottom of the whole mess would have been, arguably, much harder to do.

His report found serious failings - and vindicated all three victims in the case as a result. In one meeting after Starmer was appointed, I remarked to Barra McGrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions: "I tried to tell the PPS what was happening." He replied: "You were screaming it at us." And I was. In email, on the phone, in person. Attending meetings, saying the same thing, over and over. For four years.

Of course, snide remarks continue to be levelled as recently as this week at me online. "Fantasist", "Wasn't raped", "Didn't prove her case in court". Certain politicians who stated "I believe Mairia Cahill was abused ... but" created the conditions where, somehow, people thought it acceptable to blame a child abuse victim, rather than the perpetrator.

Gerry Adams' now-infamous remark in relation to the accused in my case - that they were "decent people" who were, in his opinion, "grievously wronged" - was another knife in the gut.

Of course, the only people who were grievously wronged were the victims - firstly by the perpetrators, then by failings in the criminal justice system, and then by those who peddled character assassination in order to cover for Sinn Fein. It didn't work, though I found those sort of ignorant remarks hurtful. I still do.

Mr McGrory could not have been clearer a year ago when he stated: "One issue I'd like to make clear at the very outset is that no blame in relation to the collapse of these cases attaches to Mairia Cahill, or the other two victims. In Sir Keir's words, the Public Prosecution Service let you down, and for that I wish to say sorry."

It was a welcome apology, and I stated at the time that I hoped it would lead to changes for other victims as a result.

I doubt the Starmer report would have happened without the BBC NI Spotlight programme on my experiences in October 2014. I owe Jennifer O'Leary, Chris Thornton and the entire team a huge debt. That programme - and the support from politicians, notably Jim Allister and Alex Attwood - ensured that the PPS faced calls to commission an independent review, and Mr McGrory acted quickly in an attempt to restore confidence.

Media coverage from other outlets - including the Belfast Telegraph - has, hopefully, ensured that no other victim of sexual abuse will be treated in the manner I was ever again in Northern Ireland.

The recommendations from Sir Keir and Mr McGrory's determination to implement them will bring positive change to the way in which sexual offences and murder cases are prosecuted in the future.

The establishment of a "centralised unit of senior prosecutors, who will have a single focus on the most serious offences" will ensure that services will be improved and, in addition, I would hope that victim engagement will also improve, so that those who have suffered do not feel retraumatised by the criminal justice process.

To Mr McGrory's credit, he took responsibility for his organisation, accepted the findings and acted. I welcome the fact that he has met with me and kept me updated and also taken my concerns and suggestions on board, but, more importantly, that he has also adhered to the Starmer report recommendations and appointed an independent audit by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate to tangibly assess whether the PPS has improved its services in relation to the most serious offences.

I will never achieve justice in a criminal court of law for what happened to me, and that, at times, is very hard to come to terms with.

I can't change what has passed. However, other victims now have a stronger chance of securing justice as a result of changes implemented after Starmer reviewed my cases, and that, right now, is the most important thing.

Victims deserve the very best service from the agencies tasked to both investigate and prosecute their cases.

I can only hope that lessons have been learned.

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