Northern Ireland is a society scarred by its history. The legacy of the conflict over the national question is everywhere apparent; painted flags, kerbstones and murals mark territories and promote narratives. But just as the history of the working-class has been excluded consciously from these ‘green’ and ‘orange’ narratives so too is the hidden legacy of sexual abuse of children which until now has largely been left unexplored.
Fermanagh journalist, Rodney Edwards, deputy editor of the local newspaper, The Impartial Reporter, was investigating reports of a paedophile ring operating in the county when he started to receive more and more reports of sexual abuse spanning decades into the past. A common feature was that the victims had reported the incidents to the police but there was an apparent failure to investigate or see the cases through.
The cases were predominantly reported during the period of the long armed conflict, known as the ‘Troubles’.
Those whose names have been made public span the breadth of society. One alleged prominent abuser, David Sullivan, worked as a bus driver and was reportedly responsible for a range of abuses of children (sometimes on school buses) in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those abused by Sullivan claim that he abused them in conjunction with unnamed prominent businessmen. Sullivan’s dismembered body was found in the early 2000s and the culprit for the killing has never been found.
Other alleged abusers exposed in recent weeks include the headmaster of a local Catholic primary school (and prominent Gaelic Athletic Association member) and a number of Orange Order members. The list of alleged abusers is understood to extend to include prominent businessmen, republicans and police members. As has been pointed out by campaigners, it seems that many of those most centrally involved in the abuse were people who in the course of the Troubles were in positions of power and authority over children.
Every week for more than six months, Rodney Edwards has brought forward new revelations of sex abuse which are sending shockwaves across Fermanagh society and the North of Ireland, where the saying “whatever you say, say nothing”, associated with dangers surrounding the Troubles, has almost totemic power. At present, more than 60 alleged abusers have been identified (but not named by the newspaper) with more than 50 alleged survivors coming forward. But not one alleged abuser has been charged let alone brought to a court of law to face a jury trial.
The apparent inaction by police has drawn further questions about why they have failed to act. Attempts to raise the issue at the local council have been stymied, and myself and independent councillors have had our speaking rights curtailed with the support of the councillors from the other parties. Indeed, in the last week I have been threatened with action for questioning whether the council has questions to answer – over allegations of child sex abuse occurring in council toilets – by council officials.
The Fermanagh Council of Trades Unions initiated an initial protest at Enniskillen Courthouse steps on the issue and this has been followed up by two further protests. At these protests, victims of historic childhood sex abuse have spoken out, demanding action from the police and the relevant authorities. At the first, no other politicians were present despite it being well-publicised. However there was strong support from local people, especially as the protesters took their placards in hand and walked through the town rallying at the central Diamond area, before continuing their protest outside the town’s fortified police station.
A second protest was held on Enniskillen’s town Diamond area. Again, union banners were prominent and alleged victims got up to speak publicly and encourage others to come forward and to demand justice. This time representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein and the “cross community” liberal Alliance Party attended and spoke. Commitments were made that the subject would not be buried and instead it would be discussed freely at the council meetings (commitments that vanished into thin air).
A third protest was held recently at the Enniskillen Courthouse steps to highlight the continued inaction by police on the issue.
The campaign occurs against a backdrop of worsening community divisions and indeed cuts across them. Recent weeks have seen tensions surge across Northern Ireland over marches, flags, Brexit fears and incendiary speeches by politicians, on both sides. Just days after the ‘Justice’ campaign protest there was an attempt to kill police and army bomb disposal crews with a secondary explosive device planted in the county.
Historic sex abuse is a clearly pervasive issue in Fermanagh, a situation highly likely to be replicated across Northern Ireland. Much has been written on how British Intelligence facilitated the abuse of boys at the Kincora boys’ home, in Belfast, in the early 1970s – which was used to entrap both Unionist and Loyalist political leaders. At the very least, a culture normalising sex abuse – like domestic violence – predominated during the period of the conflict. Secret societies and organisations and the deference with which figures of authority were held in this society no doubt contributed to that situation.
For the journalists who chose to pursue these stories, their work can bring them into a head-on conflict with elements of the state. NUJ National Executive member, Anton McCabe, who spoke at the most recent rally for justice, highlighted the need to defend press freedom and spoke against police pressures on investigative journalists pursuing historic stories. Most recently the nature of this pressure was brought into the open by a recent judicial review held in Royal Court of Justice. This found against the police arrests and raids of investigative journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, for making the ‘No Stone Unturned’ documentary which exposed police collusion in the ‘Loughinisland massacre’, in which six Catholics were murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries, in 1994. The pressure is on local journalists to drop their investigations and exposes and ‘let the police get on with their work’ – but threats and intimidation notwithstanding that is not going to happen.
Uncovering the truth and the fight for justice for survivors is intimately linked with challenging the culture of deference to authority which has held down and separated working-class people for too long. It is also part and parcel of finding out the truth of the capitalist state’s role during conflict. Seeking justice for the victims of sex abuse is not just about securing closure and support for their ongoing needs – it helps open up the space necessary for working-class people to reshape our society in the future. The survivors and their supporters who are driving this campaign come from both sides of the community and demonstrate that such an outcome is possible even in a divided society like Northern Ireland.