“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”, said associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis.
In the case of Mairia Cahill, it is Cahill (not any organ of the state) who has forced an extraordinary story out of a close-mouthed system with horrendous import for wider society, of a rape victim who fell foul of the wrong people in the wrong place in post-conflict NI and who got no help from state agencies who abandoned key responsibilities.
Jennifer O’Leary’s Spotlight programme last night, ranged largely around an extended interview with Cahill, crucially hinged on key excerpts from the report which raise startling questions about the different standards of justice afforded rape victims in west Belfast as compared, say, to those who might be raped in North Down.
The flat prose of the Ombudsman’s report notes simply that the RUC intelligence reports note that “the IRA were investigating the matter”. Although the reporting continued for a number of months the Ombudsman notes there is “no evidence of any police action taken as a result of this information”.
We know from earlier news reports that the Ombudsman could find no evidence that an informer had been protected from prosecution (remember this was two years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement), which raises the question of what exactly was going on here?
On the face of it, the RUC (a much-hated institution among many “good” Republicans) appears to have been perfectly happy to leave the matter to the Provisional IRA. If that were all there was to this case, it might be treated as a historical contingency.
But the fact that even when RUC CID received information “that Mr Morris was suspended from Sinn Fein as it was suspected that he was abusing certain children”, and it was placed on local police systems and shared with some officers, it never made it to onto the National Criminal Intelligence System.
Hard to resist the conclusion that the RUC in these early days of the post-Belfast Agreement era took an attitude that “whatever happens in Republican Belfast stays in Republican Belfast”. ‘Human rights compliance’ (a key SF demand of the police force back then) would be foregone.
Roll forward to that odd and perplexing admission by the then DPP that his department had effectively goosed its own prosecution by allowing the investigation of the case to be split between the IRA allegation and the rape itself, and that therefore no blame could or should be attached to Mairia for withdrawing from the case.
The Ombudsman report only looks at the state’s involvement in this affair. To suggest that the agencies charged with the health and protection of young women and men have been compromised is an understatement. In this case (and potentially others), it appears to have ceded oversight of criminal justice where the IRA was still held to be in control.
Yesterday, Mary Lou McDonald made the extraordinary claim that there were no records of whether Morris had ever been a member of Sinn Fein. A claim that seems not to have made it onto most of last night’s mainstream news, but which was covered by Spotlight…
In Northern Ireland, publicity for any inconvenient truth is hard to come by. In the case of RHI, where Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee failed, Sir Patrick Coghlin is slowly (but magnificently) succeeding to get to the very bottom of a very grubby matter.
So unusual is the penetration he’s brought to the issue, that bar the dogged and erudite Sam McBride at the News Letter almost every Belfast based journalist struggles to get above the detail to the wider import of the story. Then again, this isn’t Sam’s first such challenge.
Perhaps it is the sheer enormity of the appalling vista (to use Lord Denning’s poisonous and ruinously presumptive term) that is preventing senior news editors from giving this story the proper investigative treatment it so clearly requires.
But proceeding on the unreasoned basis that if as it sits outwith the official records of the state, a senior political actor on the Irish national stage can fob journalists off with an (oddly familiar) ‘we have no records, therefore there is no case’ will not come without a cost.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty