Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Mary Lou McDonald outlines Sinn Féin's support for victims of abuse

12 November, 2014 - by Mary Lou McDonald TD

Please find the full text of Deputy Mary Lou McDonald’s speech during Statements on Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Members of the Provisional Republican Movement in the Dáil today.

The experience of sexual violence or abuse is a crime like no other. It brings with it the physical trauma, fear, and shock associated with any violent assault. But it brings much more. It is an insidious crime, a secret crime, unspoken and unacknowledged in many cases. Denied and disbelieved in many cases.

It is, maybe uniquely, a crime for which many victims are left feeling responsible, guilty even, for their own suffering.

 The profound sense of stigma, of silence and of isolation associated with the crime of abuse has scarred the lives of countless victims across Ireland, across generations, across class and creed.

It takes courage to disclose, to make a complaint, to speak out. I want to acknowledge every person who has taken those decisions and those that have stepped  into the public light to tell their story.

Mairia Cahill took that brave decision.

I want also to acknowledge how essential anonymity is for many victims. It affords them privacy and protection in which to pursue justice, to cope, to heal and to come to terms with their ordeal.

The alleged rapist at the centre of this controversy and debate is alleged to have committed offences against two other people. Their legal representative has made clear that ‘sensationalist’ commentary over the last number of weeks has caused them distress. We should be mindful of their rights and their feelings.

While much of the public debate and commentary on sexual violence and child abuse has centred on peoples experiences in various institutions, it is true to say that the place where women and children are most vulnerable to abuse is in their home and among their family circle. Abuse is most often carried out by perpetrators who are close to and trusted by the victim.  Figures published today by the Rape Crisis Network reflect that 91% of perpetrators are known to their victims.

Mairia Cahill’s case follows a tragic pattern for teenage victims: the crime was rape, the alleged perpetrator was a family member, known and trusted and the assaults took place in the perpetrators home. She first disclosed to a family member, someone within her circle of trust, That person was the late Siobhán O’Hanlon, her cousin. 

Many families didn’t know, and still don’t know, how to respond to the earthquake in their lives that a disclosure of abuse is. It is perhaps the most traumatic, and potentially divisive, revelation that any family can experience.

Indeed I have known cases where victims have gone to their graves still not having been believed by family members.

That is why it is so essential that the state and its institutions have the confidence and trust of victims and their families, that confidence and trust is the first requirement for people to come forward and make complaints. It is the most basic prerequisite of justice.

That trust and confidence did not exist in the Northern state. People did not trust, could not trust the RUC.  The political chaos of conflict left many victims in ongoing, agonising silence. Afraid of their abuser, afraid of the war, afraid of armed groups, afraid of the police, afraid of special branch and the British army, afraid for their families, afraid for their lives.

Many, many victims of sexual violence of rape of child abuse in the course of the conflict never told anyone; never reported anywhere.

Others reported to the social services or the RUC. Some of those cases were mis-handled, others cynically exploited in the game of one-upmanship in the course of a vicious conflict.

Other victims came forward to other groups – including the IRA.

The IRA should never have been involved in dealing with accusation of sexual violence or abuse. But they were.

Rough justice or summary justice for alleged perpetrators meant no justice for victims. That’s the reality.

The IRA was never and could never be a substitute for the due process that is at the core of upholding victims’ rights and punishing those found guilty of such a heinous crime.

Mairia Cahill claims that she was subjected to a coercive investigation by the IRA. That version of events is vigorously contested by the women and men who stand accused of acting as interrogators.  For the record two of those so accused are women.

The Taoiseach earlier conjured up the image of the disappeared in his words of condemnation of those who he asserts carried out this Kangaroo court.  He went on, for reasons best known to himself, to belittle Briege Wright in particular, and sneer at her supportive work with abused women in west Belfast.

Is the Taoiseach aware that Briege is the sister of one of those disappeared? Was he being gratuitously cruel in making these remarks? I suppose he doesn’t care anymore because on this case anything goes.

Over the last number of weeks my words of condemnation for those in the Roman Catholic Church who covered up sexual abuse have been echoed and re-echoed. I wish to repeat those words this evening, anyone associated with the abuse of a child or the cover up of abuse must face the full rigours of the law.

That is the case irrespective of who the perpetrator may be. There are no exceptions to this rule.  Nobody is exempt – nobody within any group, any organisation that, let me say explicitly includes Republicans and former members of the IRA.

One in four experience abuse. It is not far from any of us or from our families. It is undoubtedly the case – a statistical certainty – that abusers are found in all walks of life. The IRA was no exception.

Some members have read accounts into the record of this house very harrowing stories of victims of abuse by Republicans. Can I say to those victims that they were not abused in our name. Can I assure those victims, all of whom I understand have made complaints to the statutory authorities, that I and we support them fully; That we want them to find the justice to which they are absolutely entitled.

The question has been posed whether we can get the bottom of these cases – I believe the answer to that question is yes.

The call for abuse victims and any others – including former IRA volunteers – to come forward is genuine.  I hope that call is heard and understood. I hope that the Government will take up the proposal as set out by Martin McGuinness to establish a mechanism to support victims and find perpetrators. I hope the statements today amplify and underscore that call.

For abuse to be identified and dealt with the silence must be broke.

An allegation has been made against Sinn Féin that we are party to a cover up or conspiring to shield child abusers. That is not true and the repetition of this slander will never take from the fact that it is not true.

We have, like every other political party I assume, guidelines for dealing with disclosures of abuse, allegations of abuse against any party member of anyone in the wider community. These guidelines have been drawn up in collaboration with the HSE and the social services in the North.

I can tell you that in my own case I have ongoing contact with Wellmount and Mountjoy social services on matters of child welfare in my own constituency. The same dynamic is true of all other Sinn Féin offices and elected representatives across the country.

There is rarely a week goes by that I don’t have contact with victims of abuse in the course of my work. Many are victims and survivors of institutional abuse. Others have suffered in their own homes.  They and they alone will judge my commitment to victims and to justice, not opportunistic political or media hacks.

The last number of weeks have seen the slur of cover up of child sexual abuse, casually made, casually repeated and reduced to a matter of common abuse.

I am the mother of two young children. Like any mother I would walk the hot coals of hell to protect my children. I attach the very same value to every other child, to their safety and their welfare.

The accusation made by some members of this house, and amplified by some media outlets, that I am ambivalent to the safety of children or that I would be party to a ‘cover up’ of abuse or that I would withhold information on abuse is untrue. That this slur is made to score political advantage makes these assertions truly beneath contempt. 

Abuse was carried out in institutions supported, inspected and financed by the state. Abuse was denied by the state in those institutions and redress and justice has been afforded only most grudgingly by the state. Government after government – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour -  has pursued a strategy of denial, of damage limitation and half -hearted recognition and redress for victims.

This is the record of those that today accuse me and my Sinn Féin colleagues. It is the work of utter hypocrites; who have chased victims through the courts of this land and beyond to protect the state; who have offered only misery redress and who have studiously avoided conceding state liability for the vast catalogue of suffering and grief that happened on their watch. That’s the truth.

Some victims of that abuse – those that the state failed – have muddled by, some have coped, many, more have not. Some are to be found among the rough sleepers in the city, some have spent a lifetime in and out of prison.  The inconvenient victims – the ones to be denied and obstructed - by those that oversaw their abuse.  No statements for them. No banner headlines for them.

So much for your commitment to victims.

If one message emerges from the Dáil tonight I hope it is a clear message to victims and to anyone who has any information whatsoever – hard evidence or suspicion – relating to the abuse of a child or danger to a child, to come forward.  Don’t delay.

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