TPQ editor Carrie Twomey reflects on the trauma of the peace process against the backdrop of ongoing attempts to intimidate and silence Máiría Cahill.
This Sunday’s papers made for difficult reading. Much of the news coverage of Máiría Cahill’s case has been both invigorating and hard to bear. It is wonderful to see such plain spoken audacity finally get both heard and due recognition. The requirements of the processing of peace meant that challenging voices have been too long silenced and vilified. Censorship, self or otherwise, and a deliberate averting of the public eye was the rule rather than the exception. This allowed the fascistic monster in our midst to morph and take on a new form rather than disappear. All for the sake of peace, a peace without justice or principle, and increasingly, without meaning.
Other aspects of the Cahill commentary and information relayed is personally challenging, as what is discussed is so similar to my own experience. I understand fully and painfully what it means when Máiría, speaking of the way she has been treated by Sinn Fein, says it has re-traumatised her: it shocks me, because it is forcing me to confront the plain fact of my own trauma.
You get through crisis because you have to. It is what it is. You don’t wallow or think of yourself as a victim; you take responsibility for your life and you do what needs done. So to think of the last few years of my life as traumatic is not easy for me. But reading about Mairia’s fear, tears, and anger, and knowing how intense everything she is going through right now is shakes me and forces me to name my trauma for what it was. Saying that the last few years of my life has been a nightmare is easy – it is a way to both acknowledge and dismiss how much it hurt. To accept that I have been traumatized is something altogether different. To see a mirror of my experience so readily accepted in the media as traumatic, and horrible, and cruel is shocking. Because it means what I have had to deal with is also cruel, and horrible, and traumatic.
At one point it got so bad I went to my GP begging for help. I stopped sleeping out of fear, was up all night every night. A monster had taken over my life. I suffered from severe depression and exhibited all the hallmarks of PTSD except that the T was never fully P, and still isn’t to this day. I was prescribed Prozac which helped tremendously and availed of counselling which was even more helpful and for which I am extremely grateful.
Because my experience is political it is hard to explain or express emotionally. Traditionally, we are supposed to be unemotional, or at least, hold emotion back from politics; the rules of the game are that it gets dirty and low, and the only way to win on that is to never let them see you cry. You have to take it on the chin and move on.
My experience, however, while rooted in politics is not unemotional nor without consequences. For speaking out against Sinn Fein, I have been traumatized. Vilified, intimidated, and threatened, I have lived in fear and under surveillance. I do not have a private life; my life with my husband is an open book as we have no sense of privacy and know that anything can be used against us at any time.
It first began in earnest in the wake of the IRA’s murder of Joe O’Connor, where I was subjected to a picket of my home, new in a foreign country with no family and few friends, six months pregnant. I had been a union organizer and was no stranger to pickets, although picketing a home in the dark of night was unusual. I faced the mob with my back straight. I named my daughter Truth in honour of our defence of it.
And that is what I, and my husband, had done. We had spoken the truth. And we continued to speak the truth, no matter how difficult or how scary it was. And we highlighted the truths the processors of peace wanted buried: that fear and intimidation was being used to impose an imperfect peace that would never last because its foundation was as false and hollow as the lies being used to uphold it were.
For 8 years we published The Blanket, and were hated, attacked, and smeared for doing so. On the Slugger O'Toole website, I helped expose the terrible lie at heart of the 1981 Hunger Strike because I refused to be silent, and refused to stop asking questions.
Alongside this, the oral history of the Belfast Project was being collected by my husband. Others, too, refused to be silent, and understood the importance of leaving a record of their truth. Given what we faced for what we published in The Blanket, we knew the danger his taking this project on entailed. We thought the institution sponsoring the project appreciated the risk too, but found out to great cost that they only cared about their own financial risk.
When we moved south we thought we were closing a chapter in our lives. We wound down The Blanket and attempted to adjust to a new life. The attack on our neighbour’s home upon the publication of Voices From the Grave reminded us that our new life was still our life. My husband was under threat; Bobby Storey thundered about the IRA code in speeches and the Andersonstown News put it on the front page to reinforce the message.
The arrival of the first subpoena of the Belfast Project truly upended our lives. The sustained intimidation and character assassination that was conducted by Sinn Fein was unrelenting. And it was cruel. They came at us from every angle, including my husband’s own union, seeking every opportunity to undermine and discredit him, all in order to protect their leader, Gerry Adams. They want to break you, to place you under so much pressure and strain that you crack.
Unfortunately for Sinn Fein we had been living, as my husband often described it, at the bottom of the ocean for so long because of the sustained hate campaign Sinn Fein waged against us, we had become so well acclimatised to intense pressure that it was normal.
But what I am faced with today is that what we went through and what we have faced is not normal, and should never be normal. What Máiría Cahill, and the McCartney Sisters, and the Quinns, and the Raffertys, the Donnellys, the Perrys, the Notorantonios and O’Connors, the Kearneys, the Bennetts, and far too many more, have gone through and are going through is not normal.
It is not normal to be afraid to answer the phone or open your door. But I am. Every time a little surge of fear, a small question, is present. I answer it anyway, but the fear never leaves.
Like Máiría Cahill, I have reported online threats to the Gardai. Like Máiría Cahill, I have no faith or trust in the judicial system in the north. Months after I had reported the online death threat made against me to the Gardai, my husband’s judicial review of the subpoenas took place in the north. It was a disappointing and expensive farce. It was supposed to review the impact of the subpoenas on our safety. It was an exercise in the PSNI self-justifying itself. They had no knowledge of any of our contact with the Gardai. Why would they risk their subpoena case in acknowledging the reality of the threat we faced? Of course they were always going to say they had no knowledge of anything. To admit we were at risk because of their actions would mean an end to their fishing expedition. Our lives didn’t matter and mean little to the machinations of the state.
Like Máiría Cahill, I know the fear of going to Belfast in the wake of a Sinn Fein rally. The weekend of Adams’ arrest, when ‘Boston College Informer Republican McIntyre’ went up on the walls and Bobby Storey thundered about not having gone away to remind everyone else to keep their mouths shut, when the cultish mural of abject adoration went up and the online chorus sung that people should ‘direct their anger at the touts’, I was due to be in Belfast for the annual Brendan Hughes Memorial Lecture. I am on the Family and Friends of Brendan Hughes Committee, along with Ivor Bell, Paddy Joe Rice, Danny McBearty, and Gerard Hodgins; Gerry Conlon was also on our committee before he died and was instrumental in organizing this year’s event. Clare Daly and Gareth Peirce were due to speak in West Belfast. I had a responsibility to be there. Ivor Bell, who had been charged before Adams’ arrest, was going – I could hardly not show up. But I was terrified. I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. I swallowed my fear and I got on the train, but I will never forget how scared I was, and when I saw the graffiti on the walls I knew I was right to be afraid.
I have not even scratched the surface of what I have gone through – these few examples are just the first that come to mind, but leave me feeling I have done an inadequate job of explaining what we, and those like Máiría who challenge the protected species that is Sinn Fein, face, and the emotional impact it has on us.
Like Máiría, I deeply understand the need to be believed, to be told, you are right, you are not crazy, you are not paranoid, you are not bitter, or a dissident, or out to get Gerry Adams or undermine the peace process, you are telling the truth, this did happen, and it was wrong. This is the beating heart of the desperate need of a truth process, for the ending of the conflict has meant too many victims have been denied even the basic dignity of acknowledgment and validation of their experience.
My family do not deserve to live through the fear of the threats we face for having dared to document history. No family does.
The bottom line is that the peace process has never been about peace. It has always been about protecting the British state at the expense of the people and it still is. Anything that challenges that or threatens to expose the real cost of what is being peddled is a threat to that state and treated as such. Nevermind if it is a victim of rape, or a child, or the family of someone brutually murdered, or a historian, or a journalist or just someone who has a sense of justice and outrage and dares to express it when wronged. The state's dirty secrets are worth more than all of us put together and they will do anything to protect them.
It is not the Mary Lou McDonalds who are the new face of Sinn Fein. Instead, it is the children who have come of age between peace and conflict. This is what Mairia Cahill symbolizes: those younger people who have grown up in the peace process, who have been gifted the promise of normality, who should remain untainted by the Troubles and have every right to demand to be so.
The Mary Lous of Sinn Fein want to continue with the corrupted legacy of power and control that the conflict gave to their leaders. The true future lay with those who say, “Enough” and speak out because it is the right thing to do. Stop traumatizing us. It is time for true and actual change, and those who face the future with courage and openness will be the ones who achieve it. The others will only deliver more of the same old lies and deceit, and with them the dirty war will continue on, business as usual.