Our society remains – in large parts – bitter and divided. Our inability to deal with our past has become a festering sore that will inevitably and sadly shape our future unless legacy Troubles-related crimes are dealt with in a balanced, proportionate and fair manner.
This means finding a mechanism to deal with all victims of our troubled past.
The Historical Investigation Unit (HIU) envisaged as part of the Stormont House Agreement is meant to find a way forward in dealing with that very issue but by its nature it does not address legacy in the fullest of terms. Presently the HIU is designed to take over from the PSNI Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) which in turn took over from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).
Both the HET and now the LIB are seen in some quarters as not being impartial or independent in investigating legacy issue. This is something I totally disagree with and something that will create investigatory issues for years to come.
There is however a bigger issue that needs to be understood. That is, if the HIU comes into being in its present form, it will only investigate troubles related deaths and will not touch on any other legacy crime. This means those individuals critically injured by terrorist or state actions, attempted murder, causing an explosion, collusion where there has been no fatality or legacy sexual crime will not be investigated.
This issue of sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war is globally well known and many would think of conflicts in Africa and more recently in the Middle-East where it has been shown to be a weapon of choice for many armed groups. However, we are yet to explore sexual violence and rape within our own society during the Troubles as a manifestation of the conflict.
It is absolutely clear that sexual violence and rape did occur during the Troubles but because we are a highly divided society many found it hard to go to the police especially if they came from a nationalist or republican area. One notable exception was Máiría Cahill who waived her right to anonymity to bravely point an accusing finger at the IRA member who had raped her. More than that, she outlined the vile circumstances that followed were she was subjected to an IRA investigation, forced to face the accused rapist and was finally ostracised by her own community.
The reason for this vile and doubly abusive behaviour against Máiría Cahill was not to get to the truth but clearly to deter other women from coming forward. After all who wants to face the attitude reflected with the words:
“Well you know, Maíría, abusers can be extremely manipulative. And you know . . . sometimes they are that manipulative that the people who have been abused actually enjoy it.”
To date the Garda Siochana and the PSNI have been given the names of around 54 IRA abusers. Some have clear evidence against them because individuals – who are equally as brave as Máiría Cahill – have come forward to name their abusers. Their cases will be heard in due course. Others have unfortunately been unable to come forward due to their circumstances, and as a result, this has in many cases resulted in serial sexual predators being free to roam our streets to abuse others.
Of course this is not solely an issue within the IRA and it is as clear that loyalists also used gender based violence and rape as a method of control. This can be seen in the case of Ann Ogilby beaten to death by UDA women while her young daughter sat crying in the room next door or Lorraine McCausland – raped beaten and dumped after attending a loyalist drinking club.
At least the families of these two women will or should receive a full investigation by the HIU but only because the crime ended in death. Had it not – had it been recorded purely as sexual violence or rape – it would not be on the HIU workflow.
We have separated gender base violence from the Troubles and in doing so we have abandoned many victims.
The bottom line is that here in Northern Ireland, once the HIU has been set up, there will be no mechanisms to investigate such crimes. Sexual violence will go largely unpunished and an apology, as given by the Director of Public Prosecution Barra McGrory to Máiría Cahill and two other women in 2015, will be all that is left to offer.
How can we possibly allow society to move to a situation where illegal activities up to but not including murder, can go without being investigated? Not excluding the fact that those innocent victims critically injured during the troubles do not even find their fight for a pension feature in the proposed legacy bill.
The PSNI may well say these crimes will sit on the statute books but they will also say that they do not have the resources to investigate them. As a result, there will be a virtual amnesty for individuals who have perpetrated some of the most vile acts against some of our most vulnerable.
These perpetrators will continue to stalk our society in positions of authority and influence while many victims will have to suffer the indignity of being ignored.
Justice for the living is as equally important as justice for the dead.