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Mairia Cahill: Martin McGuinness and me

Mairia Cahill was raped by an IRA man, but felt re-victimised by the Sinn Fein leader's attempts to deflect responsibility away from the republican movement


Martin McGuinness and Mairia Cahill in her younger years

Martin McGuinness and Mairia Cahill in her younger years

Mairia as she is today

Mairia as she is today

Martin McGuinness and Mairia Cahill in her younger years

I'm one of those people who think that speaking ill of the dead is not particularly helpful. However, I am not a hypocrite and I don't believe in glossing over history when someone does pass away. I remember how hurtful it was when my Uncle Joe - reported to be a one-time leader of the IRA - died after a long illness and how reading the different comments flung around on the internet was painful.

So, I am reluctant to write about Martin McGuinness barely 48 hours after his departure from this world, mindful of his family and friends and the hurt they will undoubtedly be feeling.

I am also mindful, however, of the families of all of those who have been devastated by the actions of the IRA and it is their pain, too, which sits acutely with me as I write this.

Families of people such as Joanne Mathers, Frank Hegarty and the Enniskillen bombing victims; and the thousands of others who have had their hearts ripped out of them and their minds fractured at the hands of an organisation which McGuinness led in times of war and in peace.

And therein lies the contradiction which is demonstrated through the death of McGuinness like no other. He will be remembered as a likeable man, who did some despicable things in the first half of his life and who redeemed himself somewhat during the latter part.

His legacy will be unpicked for the history books and there is no doubting his contribution to the peace process and in relationships with once-arch enemies, who now speak fondly of him.

It is incredibly sad that those types of friendships were not forged long before, because, had they been, it might have saved heartache for many families touched by the dark hand of what has become known as the "Troubles".

The man I once knew as "Martin" and who I later depersonalised as "McGuinness" after my own hurt got in the way, was a no-nonsense man, serious about his republicanism. He was also calm, yet hot-headed at times, and thoughtful.

Others have described him as ruthless, with a sense of humour. That's probably about right.

I remember cheekily calling him Art Garfunkel as a teenager in front of others and watched a flash behind his eyes at the insolence as he leaned into me so that I was against the wall, before he steadied himself, smiled, quipped something not memorable to me today and walked on.

This was a man who, when he found out about the IRA investigation into my abuse, said nothing, but walked over to me in the Sinn Fein office in Sevastopol Street and kissed me on the cheek, while putting a comforting arm of my shoulder.

It was a brief encounter, no words exchanged, but it was enough to know that he knew. In later years, that memory is tarnished by his behaviour after I went public on BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight in 2014.

I suppose I should be grateful for him publicly saying: "I believe Mairia Cahill was raped", which some took to be vindication of my experiences, but his next line really was disgraceful, as anyone who works with abuse victims will tell you: "I regret that she was not able to go into court to confront the person she alleges raped her in the same fashion that republicans are being confronted now."

That type of victim-blaming to deflect from the IRA's responsibility was typical from the republican movement over the years and, at the time, I was raging and hurting all over again.

However, credit should be given to him for not denying, as others did, the IRA investigation into my abuse. He also said he couldn't speak for an organisation that had gone. Conveniently enough.

So, forgive me for pointing out, when people say he moved away from his past, that he was still in the very recent past deploying some nimble footwork to make it look like he was somewhat sympathetic to the victim, while still covering for the IRA. Old habits die hard.

Asked in the same interview whether the exposure of the IRA sex-abuse issue would affect the-then talks dealing with flags, parades and the past, he answered: "The past dogs everybody. If there is to be a series of an honest analysis of the past in this country, people have to accept that the past dogs everybody."

In this, he was telling the truth, because, although his move towards peace was recognised even when he was alive, it is hard to forget the one-time butcher from the Bogside-turned-IRA-commander, brought alive with the now-famous photograph of him looking into the distance, gun in both hands.

It is a photo which personifies his past and should go into the history annals alongside everything else.

The evidence of IRA involvement is there, though the narrative will change depending on your view. It seems, after listening to some of the contributions made since his death, to quote the oft-used phrase, that one man's terrorist really is another man's freedom fighter.

This was a man who oversaw some horrific murders and abuses by virtue of his position within the IRA - though he also oversaw the oppression within his own community.

Journalists Kathryn Johnson and Liam Clarke, in their book From Guns to Government, outlined a series of incidents in 1971, where young women were abducted by the IRA, or Cumann na mBann (the women's IRA), because they were dating soldiers.

One woman, who is named in the book, was kidnapped, had her hair shaved and red lead poured all over her body. The women who held her captive refused to release her until McGuinness arrived and gave his permission.

Still, we have a tendency in this country to dehumanise paramilitaries, just as they dehumanised their victims, yet the fascinating thing about Martin McGuinness is that he was the epitome of the friendly face who once evoked terror. The trusted terrorist, if you like. The man who literally did go from guns to government and who served as a stark reminder that the majority of the people who committed atrocities here lived among us; were products of their communities, as much as their communities were products of their influence.

So, when the history books are written, let's tell the story of McGuinness, warts and all. There is no benefit in whitewashing the stains of the past. To do so means we learn nothing about why someone is content to lead an organisation like the IRA in the first place, regardless of where their "journey" ended up.

The man who once said, "At the end of the day, it will be the cutting-edge of the IRA which will bring freedom" and who, in later years, stated, "My war is over", probably understood that better than most.

Belfast Telegraph