The IRA and Rape Culture - “When The Violence Causes Silence We Must Be Mistaken”


Growing up in West Belfast, as Maíria Cahill did, you are immediately introduced and submerged into a culture of republicanism and of the armed struggle. Murals, flags and gardens of remembrance make it impossible to escape. What is lurking in the shadows of these symbols and the shadows of local heroes is the clandestine sexual abuse that went on during those turbulent years – clandestine to the public but an open secret within the republican family.

Living in a community where Sinn Féin have an absolute political monopoly, it was incredibly brave of Maíria to waive her right to anonymity and challenge the conventional wisdom that surrounded her case – the conventional wisdom that the IRA was responsible for. What we have seen as result, is an attempt by Sinn Féin, as they quite often do, to make Maíria’s rape something it is not. They are trying to write this off as an attack on Gerry Adams and are actively adding to rape culture by implying that Maíria has made it all up for these ends.


Rape and sexual violence are both extremely common and we have to stop ignoring this as a political problem. As a recent article in the Irish Times about three sisters indicates, Maíria’s case is not alone and the IRA and Sinn Féin are the new champions of rape culture. Given how they have reacted to Maíria’s rape, it is no surprise that other victims have been repressed and have remained silent.

We live in a patriarchal society and have done so for centuries. This means that men are in charge in all institutions and levels – cultural, social, economic and political.

After an occupying force has invaded and taken control of society, a foreign man is in charge instead of the indigenous man who previously held the post. The ousting of the indigenous man from power is an insult to his manhood and of all indigenous manhood. The resistance to this occupation is therefore an attempt to get the indigenous man back in the ruling chair, thus occupation and the resistance movement to the occupation are both inherently male-dominated.

Just as capitalism is gendered, the IRA was too. Up until the restructuring of the IRA in the 1970s, women could only join Cumann na mBan. The gendered makeup of the IRA made it clear that men had their fight and that women would play a supportive role in that fight. They supported the men while they attempted, ever so romantically, to single-handedly overthrow the British Empire.

Male British soldiers were not allowed to search women and as it was hard to come by a female British soldier, women were considered to be perfect for the task of transporting weaponry by hiding it in their clothes.

Female volunteers were also used by the male leadership as honey traps; they were used to lure British soldiers back to houses on the promise of sex only to be shot by the IRA on arrival. More commonly they were used to gather intelligence via pillow talk.

The woman’s role in the republican movement was very much in keeping with the patriarchal structuring of society and it was never on the IRA’s agenda to smash the patriarchy. The women who participated in these honey traps were so absorbed with “the cause” that they didn’t see that they were adding to their dehumanization that already existed due to colonialism and the social order of society.

The masculinity of the movement made its way into their psyche which meant that the sisterhood came second to a united Ireland. The leadership did not allow them to realise that a strong and relentless sisterhood is a direct and severe threat against the basic social and psychological structure of oppression. A structure the establishment holds so dear as it is paramount to its very existence – as is the case in all other structures of oppression.

The IRA leadership had no problem with exploiting female sexuality “for the cause” because women’s liberation had no place in the movement. Women were seen as sex objects that could be used to further the republican agenda. Owing to its male privilege, the IRA provided the perfect environment for rape culture to thrive and to go unchallenged without them even realising it.

The investigation into Maíria Cahill’s rape is perfectly in tune with the IRA’s attitude towards rape culture and its victims. The IRA imposed itself on Maíria and forced her to talk about it without her consent. IRA volunteers protected Maíria’s rapist through staying true to rape culture by refusing to believe her and by insisting that she was lying. They made attempts to silence Maíria by imposing a code of silence on her and by emotionally torturing her through months on end of questioning, oftentimes several nights a week, forcing her to relive the experience in the presence of a hostile male IRA leader in the hope that if they exhaust her enough she would drop it. The onus was on Maíria to prove that she had been raped, instead of her rapist proving that he did not rape her. Her rapist’s male privilege was reinforced by his status in the community with Maíria being told “he has rights you know.”

How women were treated and the place that they were given in the movement is indicative of the narrow-mindedness of the republican movement. The republican movement alongside its aim of a united Ireland was not inclusive and it neglected other forms of oppression prevalent throughout Irish society. It was centred around the idea of identity politics which puts that particular form of oppression above all others – negating how they work together to support one another – and often have equal representation within the same brutal system that was responsible for their oppression in the first instance as their main aim.

The IRA wasn’t fighting to abolish the state; they wanted a green state instead of an orange one. Whether it is a “democratically” elected official or a monarch, rulers imply that we’re too stupid to govern our own lives. The concept of rulership requires a level of privilege and therefore a hierarchy. Therefore, while we have rulers we can never have true equality or liberty. While we live in a sexist, racist, heteronormative, capitalistic society, I think the question of English rulers vs. Irish rulers is obsolete.

The means shape the ends; an authoritarian strategy based on patriarchy, centralisation and militarisation leads to an authoritarian, patriarchal, centralised and militarised society. What we need instead is a genuine alternative; not to emulate the oppressors. We need to shake off everything in our society that enslaves us and denies us true liberty.

The greatest trick that British Imperialism ever played on us was convincing us that Catholics and Protestants were natural born enemies. The state has to create certain social artificial antagonisms in order to justify its existence and so they created the artificial antagonism of Catholics vs Protestants which resulted in the Green-Orange divide. The results of this state construct served only the state and its interests. Catholics couldn’t see past their own oppressions and Protestants were kept as happy slaves.

An oppressive structure wouldn’t last very long if it was standing alone. They need the support of other oppressive and exploitative structures and institutions; they complement each other and add to the misery of those that they affect. British Imperialism could never have oppressed Catholics to the extent that it did if it wasn’t for their exploitation of the working class; their robust repression of women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, non-whites etc.

The republican movement neglected this analysis and thought that a united Ireland was enough. There were some who thought that other social problems could be solved “after the revolution”. For a truly liberating revolution, this notion and the romantic image of male IRA volunteers overthrowing the British Empire is obsolete and irrelevant to the idea of a liberating revolution.

The republican leadership was corrupt; it stunted creativity and didn’t allow for critical thinking or growth of political concepts. There is no doubt in my mind that the ordinary people who made up the IRA thought that a united Ireland was some sort of panacea. But the male-dominated and hierarchical republican movement was nowhere close to a panacea; any suggestion of direction, superiority or leadership of the masses is an implication that the masses must accept and submit to direction, it gives the leaders a sense of privilege and they become dictators separated from the masses.

A united Ireland is nothing if all that it means is painting the post boxes green. We need a bottom-up revolution; we need to shake this capitalistic, patriarchal, racist and heteronormative world to the very core. Whatever the IRA wanted, it wasn’t my revolution; it was a straight-white-man’s revolution.

Guest written by: Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird.