Belfast Telegraph

Mairia Cahill: I'll not be gagged... go ahead, sue me

Mairia Cahill, who was allegedly raped as a teenager by a leading republican, is defying legal warnings to talk about her case - and the subsequent cover-up - at the West Belfast Festival tomorrow.

In 1997, as a newly turned 16-year-old, I was full of excitement about Feile an Phobail. Within a matter of weeks, in the run-up to the festival itself, my childhood was taken from me in the time it takes to click your fingers when I was sexually abused.

Excitement was eroded, as fear, worry, shock and shame took over.

Consequently, although I am now 34, this week will always hold the memory of that; it can be the most difficult time of the year.

It holds other reminders also. In July 2000, shortly before the festival, two other young girls also alleged abuse, the IRA placed a man under house arrest - initially without our knowledge - and panic set in.

On the opening day of the Feile I learned that he had "disappeared" when he was facilitated out of Belfast and our option of reporting him to the police was closed down.

I first met the IRA army council representatives and later Gerry Adams (right) about my abuse during festival week in 2000, so it is impossible for me to escape recalling those events at this time of year. They are everywhere I turn.

Normally I try to keep busy to stem off intruding thoughts, but at times I have no control when a memory imposes itself. And, in those quiet moments, sometimes I am back there all over again. The feeling is horribly intrusive.

This year I was determined to do something different; to rail against unwanted thoughts and to remind myself that, since I went public about my experiences, something had shifted.

My abuser no longer has the power over me that he once did. Other people have been helped as a result of my story and the wider issue of how some republicans treated sex abuse victims and their perpetrators has been exposed.

So, when the SDLP's Tim Attwood asked me if I would give a lecture on the topic of Justice For Abuse Victims, I didn't hesitate. The fact that it was to take place during the West Belfast Festival wasn't a deterrent for me; if anything I think it is more important to speak there, directly to the community where I come from, than anywhere else.

Some people cautioned me not to do it, fearing that I would be put at risk, that people would not listen properly to me, or hear the message, but would only seek to attack me. I would hope that those people are wrong.

As someone who worked on a voluntary basis for Feile for 10 years or so, and who sat through many speakers, I can say confidently that most got a fair hearing.

My grandfather Frank and my cousin Siobhan were founding members of Feile. It was very good for building confidence, for learning skills, for hearing diverse discussion and debate, for introducing other cultures and for showcasing a side of west Belfast that is hidden to some. But, in many ways, it is synonymous with horribly traumatic experiences in my life also.

A few weeks after agreeing to do the lecture I became aware that a solicitor's letter had been sent to the festival advising them that they could potentially be held liable if I made any defamatory remarks about certain individuals.

To their credit, Feile stated to the organisers of the lecture that they were committed to the event going ahead. For my part, I do not take legal letters lightly, but equally I will not be censored by anyone in what I say.

So, I intend to stick to my intended topic, leaving none of my original thoughts out. And if the solicitor's clients take issue with any of it and wish to sue anyone, they can sue me.

I intend to speak about how the first injustice foisted upon abuse victims is the act itself. How that renders people almost incapacitated, mentally and physically, as a result.

I intend to quote directly from victims and how their experiences of abuse have affected them, because their voices in any talk of this nature are always the most important.

I will speak about how the reactions of some members of my extended family were unhelpful in an effort to explain to people how damaging initial denial, or feeling ashamed, can be for victims of abuse - and, likewise, how the reactions of some within the wider community can also cause damage.

I will also focus on the republican community in particular, because that is what my experience has been, what I have felt keenly and what I know best: incidents of victim-shaming online and through the media and intra community - like my name being written on the walls of west Belfast in an effort to shame me into silence - will be explored, as will my feelings on the dangerous message communicated to victims of abuse by those acts.

Time and again we hear stories of how the criminal justice system fails abuse victims and my case is no exception.

The (Keir) Starmer Report, published last May, spelled out the failings in the Public Prosecution Service in relation to my case and I intend to look at that and also details of police failings, which haven't yet been explored in depth.

Since I went public I have been contacted by a number of individuals regarding other cases of a similar nature. I will expose the wider picture with the intention of urging the republican community to take cognisance of the fact that other victims like me exist.

I want to explore ways in which we as a society can tackle the scourge of abuse in an effort to stop the cycle. Tomorrow I am returning right to the heart of west Belfast to not only highlight the devastating effects abuse can have, but to come full circle and put the issue directly to the community in the hope that something will change for those yet to break their silence.

That, for me, is the most important thing; that people listen with an open mind. If one person leaves with something from the lecture that helps them then my sharing of experiences at a difficult time of year will be worth it.

There is nothing to be gained from living your life in the shadow of silence. I will continue to do everything that I can to ensure that no victim of abuse will be treated the way I was in west Belfast, or anywhere else, ever again.

  • Mairia Cahill is giving the Gerry Conlon Summer Memorial Lecture at St Mary's College tomorrow (5pm) as part of Feile an Phobail

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