Rape allegations and IRA paramilitary justice

Group’s culture of summary justice is back in Northern Ireland’s spotlight after new sexual assault accusations.

Mairia Cahill claims republicans tried to cover up her rape allegations against an IRA figure [Getty Images]

Maintaining law and order in Belfast during the violent days of the Troubles – the 30-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland – was no easy task.

Anti-police graffiti was a common sight on walls across the city. Many hardline Irish republican neighbourhoods were no-go areas, where police officers would seldom tread, and even more rarely be called in by locals to investigate crimes.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland. Their justice was often rough and ready. Suspects were tried in secret without legal protection. Sentences could range from a curfew to a bullet in the head.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are over. Former rivals Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party now share power in Belfast.

But more than a decade and a half since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the issue of paramilitary justice is back on the Northern Irish political agenda.

Earlier this month, Mairia Cahill, a 33-year-old former junior Sinn Fein official and relative of former IRA chief of staff Joe Cahill, went public with claims that a prominent republican in west Belfast had raped and sexually abused her when she was 16. Shortly afterwards the IRA, Cahill said, conducted its own inquiry into her accusations, acquitting her alleged attacker, and warning her not to go to the police.

The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods.

– Anthony McIntyre, former IRA prisoner

Knee-capping suspects

Such IRA-led extra-judicial investigations were part of life in Belfast during the Troubles, says Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner in the 1980s.

“The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods,” says McIntyre, author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism.

“Hoods” in Belfast parlance means anybody engaging in anti-social behaviour, from minor thieves and joyriders to drug dealers and, in some cases, perpetrators of sexual crimes. In republican areas, the IRA’s “Civil Administration Team” was charged with dealing with suspected offenders, and handing out sentences that had been approved in advance by the organisation’s Army Council. Punishment included expulsion from the area, to having kneecaps shot, and also summary execution.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams joined the IRA Army Council in 1977. Last year, Adam’s younger brother, Liam, was jailed for 16 years for raping his own daughter.

McIntyre says sexual abusers were often moved out of republican areas to safeguard the reputation of the movement. “The IRA could have publicly tarred and feathered sexual abusers, but they didn’t. They spirited them away not because they liked them, but because they wanted to protect the organisation.”

“Community policing” was not a role the IRA welcomed because it diverted time and resources, says McIntyre, but the organisation felt “that if they didn’t respond [to criminal behaviour], they would risk losing support”.

The Cahill case is not the first time that attention has focused on the IRA’s role as community enforcers since the peace process began in 1994. In the mid-1990s, an IRA front organisation, Direct Action Against Drugs, was responsible for a spate of killings of major players in the Irish drug scene.

In 2005, the murder of Robert McCartney following an argument in a Belfast bar provoked outrage. The killing of west Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972, and subsequent IRA cover-up, remains a live issue. Community leaders frequently decry the so-called “punishment beatings” that are still prevalent in some republican areas.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland [EPA]

‘Republican royalty’

But the detailed allegations made by Mairia Cahill are of a different order to previous criticism, says Paddy Hoey, a lecturer in media at Edge Hill University in London.

“This is republican royalty going against one of the top men in republicanism. It is an expression of the thought policing that goes on in west Belfast. Someone who could have gone to the police but didn’t because she was worried about the damage it would have done,” says Hoey.

By the late 1990s, when Cahill’s alleged abuse occurred, west Belfast had effectively been a “state-within-a-state” controlled by Sinn Fein and the IRA for almost two decades. The area even had its own radio stations and newspapers that were used to maintain discipline and were turned against anyone who spoke out.

“The full force of the republican movement as a pseudo-state in west Belfast or Derry would come down against you,” says Hoey. “Part of the reason that victims of these kind of crimes didn’t come forward was because of the power that was centralised in an elite [in the republican movement].”

Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.

– Mick Fealty, journalist

McIntyre says he remembers when his home in west Belfast was picketed in 2000. “My wife was six months pregnant and we had the IRA outside the door. It was all because I had said that the IRA had killed Joseph O’Connor [an anti-peace process republican shot dead in 2000].”

This kind of “direct policing” is less widespread in Northern Ireland now. The IRA has disappeared off the streets of Belfast. Since 2007, Sinn Fein has officially supported the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is fabled for its loyalty and discipline. But these characteristics, so essential in a war setting, have proved damaging in peacetime.

“The main threat to republicanism in the age of the peace process hasn’t come from the government. It’s come from within the republican movement, from control and abuse and cover-up,” says Hoey.

Culture of summary justice

The vicious beatings and intimidation that characterised “community policing” have returned to some areas where anti-peace process republicans have a significant presence. About half of paramilitary-style punishment shootings in Northern Ireland in 2013-14 were carried out in west Belfast, according to police statistics.

In Derry, dissident group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) has carried out dozens of punishment attacks in recent years. The group claimed responsibility for the murder of Derry man Andrew Allen across the border in Donegal, in the Irish Republic, in 2012. RAAD has even carried out non-lethal punishment shootings by appointment, with parents instructed to drop children off and wait while they are shot.

Mairia Cahill’s testimony has shone a spotlight on the culture of summary justice in republican areas. Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has acknowledged that the IRA passed judgement on sexual offences, but has denied Cahill’s allegations.

It remains to be seen whether memories of the brutal Troubles-era violence stirred by the latest charges will have lasting repercussions for Sinn Fein, says journalist and commentator Mick Fealty.

“[The story] is going to go away at some point. People I speak to close to Sinn Fein are saying that it’s like the McCartney sisters. Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Dissident Republicans A Threat But Lack Capacity

Dissident republicans ‘intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity,’ a leading expert on paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has told the Sunday Business Post. Speaking in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner, Professor Jon Tonge said that he doubted the move would give anti-ceasefire republicans ‘any great tactical advantage’

‘Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,’ said Tonge, a Professor at the University of Liverpool and author of a 2010 study that found that as much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for anti-cease groups. ‘There would have to be some horrendous mistake by the security forces for the dissidents to gain widespread support.’

Details of the unified organisation remain sketchy but its formation has heightened fears that dissidents could be planning a renewed campaign of violence. Last Friday, the day that the new republican grouping was announced, a shot was fired at a Police Service of Northern Ireland vehicle in West Belfast. Óglaigh na hÉireann, a republican splinter group not aligned to the new faction, is believed to be behind the attack. The attack follows serious disturbances in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast during last month’s Twelfth of July Orange marches.

The anti-ceasefire umbrella group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the IRA mantle. Leaders have styled themselves as the ‘IRA army council’, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. Among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic PSNI recruit, in April 2011.

Estimates of dissidents’ strength vary. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland put the numbers of people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity at around 650. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein remains the dominant political force, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry. Their ranks were swelled by an influx of disillusioned former mainstream IRA members from 2007 on, after Sinn Fein’s decision to support policing in Northern Ireland.

Supporters of dissident republicanism are ‘mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation,’ said Professor Tonge, who believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for an increasingly disparate movement. ‘It’s about saying ‘we are the IRA now’’, he said.

In a statement released to coincide with the announcement, the new group said that anti-ceasefire republicanism has ‘come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army.

‘The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,’ the statement continued. In a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Fein, the dissidents criticised the ‘phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont’.

Condemnation of the statement from across the Northern Irish political spectrum has been swift. ‘This latest attempt by dissident republicans to form yet another ‘new IRA’ highlights the lengths that they will go to in order to create destruction within our society,’ Ulster Unionist Party justice spokesman Tom Elliott MLA told the Belfast Telegraph.

Sinn Fein reiterated their public calls for the dissidents to stand down.  ‘There is no community support for these groups. They need to desist and they need to realise that they cannot achieve a united Ireland in this way,’ Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast, said in an interview to the republican newspaper An Phoblacht earlier this week.

‘That is not to say that they cannot be dangerous,” Kelly continued.

‘They have in the past killed people, the majority of whom have been from the nationalist community. However, these actions can take us nowhere.’

The dissident threat has risen in recent years. In March 2009, the Real IRA shot two off duty British soldiers dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later the Continuity IRA killed PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted increasing numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is on the rise but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of an anti-ceasefire coalition further increases the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

The dissidents lack weapons, a point underlined by last year’s successful prosecution of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gunrunning charges in Lithuania. Post-9/11 funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Given these constraints, a return to large-scale violence in the North is unlikely, says Professor Tonge. ‘You cannot dismiss the idea that violence will ever return, but the structural factors aren’t there any more.’  The religious discrimination that fuelled the Troubles is largely a thing of the past. Crucially, the income gap between Catholic and Protestants has all but disappeared. The creation of a post-peace process Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause.

Anti-ceasefire republicans are, however, still capable of bringing mayhem to the streets of a Northern Ireland. Any upsurge in violence could have repercussions for North’s fragile local economy. House prices here have declined by more than 50 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed continues to rise. Since the credit crunch began in August 2007, NI’s unemployment register has risen by 39,100 or 166 per cent.

‘(The dissident threat) is not good from an economic development perspective but the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved on,’ Nigel Smyth, director of CBI Northern Ireland told the Sunday Business Post. ‘It doesn’t feature in business conversations. We’ve been through this and worse before.’

‘The formation of a new grouping is ‘more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents’, said Professor Tonge.

‘The dissidents themselves do not believe that they can get the British out of Northern Ireland. What they do think they can do is to stop Northern Ireland becoming normal.’

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 5 August.

New IRA same old stance

A new republican anti-ceasefire group in Northern Ireland is a threat, but its goals are likely to be unfulfilled, writes Peter Geoghegan

In DECEMBER 1969, the Irish Republican Army held an extraordinary convention at Knockvicar house in Boyle, County Roscommon. During the preceding months, the Troubles had exploded into life across the border. Many rank and file members, particularly in Northern Ireland, demanded an aggressive campaign of violence against the British state; in contrast, the IRA’s Marxist leadership, based in Dublin, saw limited utility in “the armed struggle”.

The December 1969 convention ended with two leading republicans, Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, establishing a new organisation, the Provisional IRA. By the end of 1970, the press had introduced the terms “Official IRA” and “Regular IRA” to differentiate between the two groups. In 1972, the Officials announced a ceasefire. Within a few short, bloody years O’Bradaigh and MacStiofain’s group had become the IRA.

The history of Irish republicanism is a fissiparous one. Now, it appears that a new republican group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the irredentist IRA mantle effectively vacated when the Provisionals decommissioned in 2005.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Real IRA, Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner. The move would leave only the Continuity IRA (a small armed group formed after the 1986 Sinn Fein split) outside the new republican umbrella.

The leaders of the unified outfit have styled themselves as the “IRA army council”, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. There are reasons to be fearful of this development: among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in April 2011. The Real IRA was responsible for the worst republican atrocity of the entire Troubles, when their bombs killed 29 at Omagh in August 1998.

The “new IRA” has an old enemy in its sights: the British presence in Ireland. “The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,” the group said in a statement released last week. In a none-too-subtle riposte to Sinn Fein (which a number of dissidents were formerly members of), the statement railed against “a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.

So how serious a threat to the peace are this new group? They may be small, but their numbers are not insignificant. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland estimated that there are 650 people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein rules with a gloved iron fist, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry.

As much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for dissident republican groups, according to a study published in 2010. Supporters are mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation. The author of that research, Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for the movement, but doubts whether it will succeed.

“I don’t think it gives dissidents any great tactical advantage. Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,” Professor Tonge told The Scotsman.

“Their intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity.”

Dissidents are hoping to profit from an association with a globally recognised brand name: the IRA. The decision to band together has been a publicity boon, reported by media outlets across the world. Whether increased coverage will lead to an influx of new dissident recruits is less clear-cut.

Northern Ireland today is hardly a utopian society. Over 70 per cent of people live in segregated communities. Sectarianism remains intransigent, as evidenced by riots during last month’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

But Northern Ireland is a very different place from the “cold house for Catholics” of December 1969. The structural factors that underpinned the emergence of the Provisional IRA emergence do not exist in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Religious discrimination in housing has ended. If workplaces are not as mixed as they could be, fair employment legislation has brought an end to sectarian hiring. The income gap between Catholic and Protestants has closed. The creation of a Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause. There is no organised loyalist agitation, a la 1969.

Professor Tonge believes that the formation of a new grouping is “more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents”.

Dissidents will take succour from the deep well-spring of Irish republican history, from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen of 1798 through the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Republic established in 1918-19. Although eulogised today, the Irish republican rebels of the 1916 Rising were spat at in the streets of Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the failed rebellion.

Even the term “dissident republican” is not as modern as many would imagine. As Henry McDonald noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, it “was coined in the mid-1970s when the Official IRA was engaged in a shooting war with the fledgling INLA”.

While heaping opprobrium on Sinn Fein, today’s dissidents see parallels between that party’s recent past and their present, especially on the issue of electoral politics and the absence of a mandate. In 1985, Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said of Sinn Fein’s electoral performance: “Ultimately it is not votes but the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring about freedom and justice in Ireland.” It is a nostrum many dissident republicans still subscribe to.

Of course, violence has not – and almost certainly never will – lead to the promised land of Irish republicanism, a United Ireland, a fact Gerry Adams and McGuinness eventually recognised (albeit many years – and lives lost – after the IRA’s 1960s left-wing leaders).

Even with a newfound sense of unity, dissident republicans possess only a fraction of the capability of the old IRA. The group lack weapons – underlined by last year’s trial of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gun-running charges in Lithuania. In the post-9/11 dispensation, funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Nevertheless, the dissident threat has certainly increased in recent years, particularly as IRA veterans left the mainstream movement in the wake of Sinn Fein’s support policing. In March 2009, two off duty British soldiers were shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later PC Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted ever greater numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is increasing but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of a dissident coalition heightens further the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior dissident figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

Conversely, last week’s announcement represents the present weakness of dissident republicanism. Dissidents are hoping to achieve collectively where they have largely failed in isolation – not by forcing the British out of Northern Ireland, but by stymieing moves to make Northern Ireland a normal place.

As long as the army stays off the streets and there is no return to political policing, the dissidents, together or alone, have little hope of achieving even their most modest goals.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, August 1.