Ireland prepares to surprise itself in the 2016 election to its Dail (parliament) on 26th February — an election in which, like elsewhere in Europe, smaller parties are expected to gain votes.
Sinn Fein can no longer be described as one of the smaller parties. It expects to significantly increase its presence.
But some who wanted to make this the worst possible campaign for Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams, who led his party into the peace process that ended 30 years of armed conflict in Northern Ireland.
On the English side of the Irish Sea there was a bit of bilious talk: the man was a scumbag who covered up sexual abuse by his brother Liam when he first learned of it in 1987.
It was then that his niece told him of his brother’s sexual abuse, and it was then that he discovered how his father, a well-known Republican campaigner, had abused some of his own 10 children.
More than a decade later Adams made a remarkable television announcement exposing his father and explaining the devastation wrought in his large extended family.
“I was almost 50,” he said when he learned of the abuse, “everybody was coming at this at different speeds and from different perspectives.”
He’d always wanted to go public — he was, after all, a globally iconic figure and a person allowed few private confidences.
Finally his brother Liam Adams was jailed for 16 years last year after losing an appeal against his conviction.
Gerry Adams isn’t a scumbag, and he didn’t cover it up, he tried to manage it.
What we know about child sexual abuse is that it blows families and people apart.
This side of the Irish Sea it is easy to hate the IRA and Sinn Fein — the Establishment has waged war on Republicanism, after all, forever.
You don’t have to be a Republican yourself to know that all of our engagements with its politics have to be mindful of that history, and our place in it.
Even Adams’ enemies acknowledge that he is a dignified, discreet, strategic — though, of course, imperfect — political leader who helped get his movement out of the mire into the political light.
Of course, there is dirt in his story — it was a very dirty war.
He didn’t cover up the abuse, he acknowledged it; when his niece Aine told him in 1987, he tried to manage it. He may not have managed it very well.
In England in 1987 the government launched the first and longest public inquiry into sexual abuse in Cleveland, a county in the north east of England.
We are talking about 1987, who addressed sexual abuse well?
Of course he made mistakes. However, he didn’t cover it up he tried to manage it.
What seems to have happened is that he confronted his brother; Liam was sent over the border to Dundalk — hiding place of many Republicans, where no doubt it was felt that people would keep an eye on him.
In 1987, lest we forget, how many people knew that a man who abused his own daughter would be capable of abusing other children, boys and girls?
In 1987 it was inconceivable that Adams could have gone to the police in Belfast.
Adams had already survived attempts on his life; the British were fiercely resisting an equality agenda — the MacBride Principles — initiated by human rights and feminist activists as a way through the political impasse.
The paramilitary organisations were trying to come up with a peace plan in the mid-1980s. But in 1987 the British sent Brian Nelson, an agent in the Orange/loyalist UDA to South Africa to acquire an arms cache that was then distributed among the loyalist paramilitary organisations.
The British — MI5 and the Army — re-tooled and modernised the intelligence delivered to the UDA so that it could more effectively target Republicans. We are talking about death squads.
In 1989 they killed the human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
If you don’t believe me, check out John Ware’s Panorama programmes on Brian Nelson and the death squads and the British security services; check out British Irish Rights Watch evidence to the British and Irish governments; check out the evidence that the British security state also ran the Republicans’ own internal security system.
Check out Martin Ingram’s book Stakeknife. Stakeknife is the code name for Fred Scappaticci — more stories will be emerging this year of his terrifying role as the architect of spectacular brutality, on behalf of Britain’s security services.
That was Adams’ world. That was everybody’s world actually, a world in which no nationalist or republican could conceivably take their troubles to the police — the RUC — they just couldn’t and didn’t.
There was no hope of justice for women or children in those communities.
In Britain we aren’t in a war zone, and 90 per cent of us still don’t take our experience of rape or child sexual abuse to the police.
In Northern Ireland the police and criminal justice system was not safe for 100 per cent of women and children.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans began to organise alternatives to the police and to the informal horrors of rough justice: punishment beatings. They set up restorative justice schemes and enlisted independent mediators.
But they knew — and I talked to them about this at the time — that restorative justice was not an appropriate mechanism for men’s intimate sexual oppression, abuse and domestic violence.
Femimists in the Republican movement were involved in trying to sort that stuff out. But they were all struggling in a war zone.
Since then, the narrative of republicanism and justice has been scalded by a new one: schisms within republicanism, particularly between those who supported the peace process and those who didn’t, intrudes upon the bitter bequest of abuse. Adams, inevitably got caught in that cross-fire.
An Irish friend reminds me that the absence of trust in systems of law and order during anti-colonial and civil wars is nothing new.
“It means that parallel systems of enforcing law and order emerge with typically bizarre sanctions and remedies.
“This happened between 1916 and 1922 in Ireland when Republican Courts meted out justice. This was even included in the film ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley.’
“Some people forget this historical fact and choose to think that the more recent Republican incarnations of local ‘justice’ were an outrage.
“The RUC during the troubles did not deal with domestic violence, abuse or rape cases. They would not go to houses during the Troubles. People went to Republicans to seek justice or remedy.
“The way accusations or facts of rape were dealt with within Republican environments were extra-state.
“Living in an environment were the state is illegitimate is very frightening. This is the context within which we have to think about this.”
We are not entitled to bring British piety to an Adams family tragedy.
We could, though, learn something useful from Adams’ difficulties, and his survival.
We know that child sexual abuse is dangerous. People like Gerry Adams, were trying to confront it, sort it, cope with it, trying to get it right but doomed to get it wrong.
Uniquely in Europe, Ireland is well-educated about child sexual abuse. It is a culture in which Adams, who was not the problem, could be part of the solution.
FOR A DAY in July 2014, the advocates of children in care institutions who have been sexually abused by adults — including suspects shielded from scrutiny by the Establishment — tasted triumph: their campaign for an inquiry into historic abuse and cover-up had finally been rewarded, there was to be a public inquiry.
Then the government appointed a retired judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to lead the inquiry. The campaigners tasted defeat.
A woman of integrity, said her supporters. Yes, a member of the Establishment, but an honourable woman, well-placed because of her judicial inquiry into a child abuse in the county of Cleveland in the north east of England in 1987.
I wrote a book about the Cleveland crisis, the Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry and the consequences. My only encounter with her was when I asked her permission allowed to interview witnesses to her tribunal. After I’d submitted to her the stories written for the New Statesman, she agreed, on condition, of course, that my book would follow publication of her report.
Day by day after her appointment to head up a new inquiry, worrying evidence billowed around her — and not just because she is a quintessential Establishment figure charged with investigating the Establishment’s cover up of sexual crimes against children, but because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney General in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and allegedly implicated in cover-ups.
Oh no, nothing to do with me, she protested.
Baroness Butler-Sloss (Photo: PA)
Then, on 11th July 2014, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a report on Butler-Sloss, including a recording of a marvellous moment: a speech she made in 2003 at Gresham College in the City of London.
She gave a light-hearted insight into the Establishment modus operandi when Gresham Professor of Law, Richard Susskind, asked her: “Who instigated the inquiry? How does such an inquiry get set up?”
“I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor,” she said.
“So the Prime Minister wanted somebody and my brother said it probably would be politic because there was some Marxist Leninist feminine…feminism area on there. The social worker had some strong views and there was a certain element of women against men.
“And so I think my brother said ‘well I think you’d better have a woman judge’ and there were only three women judges and by a process, I have to tell you, of elimination — because the other two were not available — I found myself doing it.”
This was simultaneously a laugh-out-loud moment — her exquisite difficulty with the f-word — and a bomb.
The Establishment recruited a woman to do in women in the child health and welfare professions at a radical moment in the history of childhood and protection from adversity and abuse. Thereafter, Butler-Sloss reserved her ire for the women in this case — seemingly impossible women, fortified with authority and knowledge; women who just would not yield, witches; women who mesmerised and discombobulated men, women who created professional alliances with men, women who weren’t afraid of men, of staring abuse in the face…’feminine’ and ‘feminist’ women, whatever…
Now we know.
That crisis was, of course, thoroughly gendered — but not for the reasons proposed by Butler-Sloss, not because there was a ‘women against men element…’
The crisis was something to do with men: men who buggered little children; physical signs on the bodies of children whose average age was six, suggested penetrative abuse; And a police force that refused to investigate suspected crimes against children.
By 12th July 2014, neither the government nor Butler-Sloss could cling on. She withdrew. Her demise takes our gaze beyond the horizon of the elite gene pool: it was not just her dynastic connection to the Establishment that offended people; it was her brother’s role in alleged cover-ups that went all the way to the top; that involved not only the elite but the security services.
And the problem was her way of doing business: Her Cleveland report, published in 1988, was a defining moment: it framed the terms of engagement thereafter between the state, professionals and children suffering sexual oppression. It set the template for how those who are not victims or abusers may come to some understanding: it isn’t possible unless you open your eyes and ears to survivors, or those who work with them.
Her report was compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith. This doesn’t mean she was a bad woman, or a corrupt woman, it merely means she was unavailable to challenge the status quo, to learn or to listen to people with less power — always very hard for an Establishment person.
Ultimately what was more important than anything else, it appeared, was to have and to hold a myth.
In the millions of words published in her Cleveland report, two stand out: she accused doctors seeing signs of abuse of refusing to ‘suspend belief’.
Ever since then, health, welfare and criminal justice professionals — together with society in general — have been obliged to suspend belief.
Meanwhile, here is an extract from the 1997 edition:
ONE MORNING early in the summer of 1987 a story appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, which didn’t make sense. The story ran and ran and ran, measuring more column inches than any other single saga that year – and yet the story went on not making sense. Nevertheless, it became a defining moment in the British state’s response to childhood adversity.
This was the Cleveland case, the story of 121 ‘innocent’ children being snatched from their ‘innocent’ parents by practitioners perceived as witchdoctors so suspicious of sexual abuse that they saw signs of it everywhere – including in children’s bottoms. ‘Innocence’ itself became an actor in this drama, an impersonator, disturbing the safe categories of victim and culprit, which had shaped the statutory services in the image of Freudian fantasy: after all, sex doesn’t happen to children – unless they incite it. And sex doesn’t happen in bottoms. Unless you’re queer.
These fundamental principles of sexual ideology were confounded in the Cleveland case: the ghost of budding Lolitas inciting incontinent men was undermined by the average age of the Cleveland cohort: six. And the orthodoxy of the orifice was shaken by the evidence that a baby in a buggy, with a very sore bottom, was being buggered by her father.
The Cleveland case challenged our world view about sex. It also became a crisis of knowing, of what is known and how it may become knowable. As the months and then the years went by, we were not allowed to know what had happened in Cleveland.
Just as there was a determined not-knowing in 1987, there was equal resistance to any attempt to follow up those 121 children, and reluctance to co-ordinate referrals. Some children did return to the attention of the statutory services. Some children did go on enduring abuse by adults who – having been acquitted by the public debate – had permission to carry on…
The government, suddenly that summer, announced a judicial inquiry, not into the phenomenon but into the response to it…
The inquiry conspicuously evaded the questions on everyone’s lips: ‘what has happened to these children? What brought them to the attention of the statutory services? What do the signs scripted across their bodies mean?
The government guaranteed that these questions would not be asked or answered.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse there has always been something more important than knowing – and that is not knowing.
I am abashed at what we thought was controversial.
For example, the first edition of this book contains an interview with a man and a woman whose children all showed worrying symptoms. The father was already a convicted sex offender. He was candid: yes, he had ‘previous’; yes, he’d confessed and then retracted. His explanation for anal and vaginal medical signs? He didn’t have one. I didn’t believe his protestations, but I faithfully reported his story. And I didn’t ask why his career as a sex offender and his absurd alibis weren’t relevant.
If this case was deemed controversial, it was not because a convicted sex offender was given custody of his children. It was because Dr. Marietta Higgs’ diagnosis had ignited an investigation. If this case was controversial, it was not because the convicted sex offender made a confession — like his previous record, that didn’t matter.
It was as if Dr Higgs, not the man with convictions and a confession, had to be found guilty. Revisiting his case was a revelation: what would now be interpreted as a significant — convictions and a confession — were then irrelevant; they were put to one side and made to not matter. Since then, he has been the subject of a new investigation – based, this time, not on signs but on a story of sexual abuse.
During 1987 the civil courts were pre-empting the outcome of the judicial inquiry by throwing out many of the local authority’s applications. The Butler Sloss inquiry’s report did not criticise the dismissal of these applications.
So, although the government acted as though nothing had happened, it read her report knowing that something had indeed happened to many, if not most, of the children.
What did they know? That the signs scrolled on the bodies of children suggested serious sexual abuse. They also knew that, if the children had indeed been abused, then the signs were telling us something more – that the children were so marooned in their abusers’ needs and pressure and point of view that silence was itself a survival strategy. A tactic of accommodation was revealed by the signs: the architecture of the body suggested the anatomy of adaptation, of small bodies adapting to overwhelming intrusion, orifices scarred and altered by incoming objects, orifices speaking into the silence of their young subjects.
Not all the children were silent. Some spoke loudly and clearly. Some spoke obliquely and hesitantly. But the adult community chose to interpret the silence — rather than the signs — as the relief of suspicion, rather than as a clue to the difficulty of disclosure. Instead of interpreting the matrix of signs and silence as a dynamic, as a drama of physical suffering and survival shrouded by secrecy, it chose an interpretation of this eerie scenario that reinstated the ideologies and institutions that were so stiffly challenged by these children.
Thereafter, a determination to act as if it did not know what had happened to the Cleveland children defined the disposition of the government. The ‘top men’, the medical and legal establishment gossiped over cocktails and confided to each other that well, yes, those doctors probably got it right…
When the judicial panel inquired into the response by professionals it never investigated perpetrators — the absent presence in the whole debate. Experts who worked with perpetrators were shunned. The only evidence the inquiry heard about alleged abusers came from an American advocate for the accused, Ralph Underwager, an itinerant ‘expert witness’ who specialised in giving evidence on behalf of defendants, whose confidence in the campaign to discredit children’s evidence of abuse prompted him to pronounce only five years later that paedophiles should proudly proclaim their sexual desire for children as the will of God.
The government and the inquiry report never asked or answered the question: What do we do to protect endangered children when the children themselves do not, or cannot, protest? Just as silence as a strategy, as a source of agency amid calamities that did not originate with the child, was not assimilated, neither was the weight of children’s fear, nor their dissociation as another survival strategy to protect themselves from chronic, extreme pain. Far from learning from the children’s difficulties, the government’s procedures actually relied upon them, regulating even more intensely the limits upon the space and time available to children to begin to speak. That is the scandal.
In 1987 the Department of Health was already well aware of all this and more. When it set up the judicial inquiry, the Department, social services staff and the police were themselves already addressing a different difficulty: how to help children who had a complaint to make. All over the country statutory services were struggling with the same things; how to help children who were speaking, protesting, to get justice; how to listen, gather evidence, consolidate a case, and protect children in danger; how to help doctors become definite instead of defensive; how to help the child psychiatric services embrace the possibility of an external event.
The typical difficulty for child protection workers was the absence of medical signs to corroborate strong stories that rarely survived the rough journey to the criminal courts. Here were physical signs that had been regarded as forensic gold. If the revelation of Cleveland was the closed circuit of strong signs and silence (although we must never forget that some of the Cleveland children did speak), then the inquiry’s shift from the signs to the silence was an intimation of collusive cynicism – once the argument about the signs was settled, the inquiry turned its mind not to the question of silence, but to how to patrol the possibility that children might speak.
Procedures, according to one child protection specialist, were designed to police the professionals and to control the conditions in which children might speak.
Those with an investment in silence, accused adults — sometimes parents — appeared as the victims of a new contagion: system abuse. And the arrangements created in the aftermath gave even convicted sex offenders the right to participate in planning the futures of the very children they had oppressed. ‘The fact that they were parents was more important than anything,’ said the specialist. ‘When I saw the list of participants at a case conference and read that minutes were to be sent to the father in prison, and that the Governor was to be approached to invite him to the next meeting, I knew it was all finished, particularly for his children who were terrified every night they went to bed that he’d come and get them again. Of course, they were right. The procedures ensured that he would.’ That is the codicil to Cleveland’s bequest to British children.
The first edition of this book was written during the controversy, when anger was directed not at alleged abusers but at children’s advocates.
Now, I wonder why. And I wonder why, like most other people, I reserved my restless discomfort for the people who had decided to do something about the evidence before their eyes. That disposition did not mute a critique of the outrageous mutiny by the police, the most masculinised public serve, who seemed to abandon their duty to investigate and to co-operate with their colleagues. They were the detonators, but their behaviour never aroused anger. Was that because Britain was already pessimistic about the police, the one agency that cannot be called to account? The report’s criticism of the police didn’t matter: no one noticed; no one was disciplined. But, nevertheless, that discomfort still lies like permafrost across the enduring controversies about child abuse. We still think nothing happened. We’re still angry with the wrong people.
I talked to child protection professionals and members of survivors’ movements elsewhere in Britain and in Ireland. They weren’t surprised by the signs that were so contested in this case – they’d already encountered them. They weren’t surprised by the combustion, either, because professional conflicts and political panic were endemic to sexual crime.
Now I understand the meaning of the meeting in 1987 initiated by child protection workers in Nottingham, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, who were trying to tell politicians that the scale and seriousness of the problem were straining their resources, too. They were also asking: ‘What are we supposed to do about this?’ Why weren’t people like this invited to the inquiry?
When Elizabeth Butler-Sloss reported that she had no reason to doubt the medical signs, professionals and the public could reasonably infer that the doctors might have been right. But that would have been wrong, because the message inferred by some from that report was that it didn’t matter. Those doctors had – with the arrogance of innocence – blown the whistle. They thought their suspicions of abuse that imperiled the well being of their patients might have mattered.
They were wrong. What mattered more was that the sovereignty of services built on an acceptable level of abuse was retrieved. I did not understand that then.
Confidential documents (never acknowledged by the Department of Health) confirm what was only coded at the time: that the government and the health authorities had reason to believe that the doctors were probably right, but that no one would be allowed to know. That is the scandal.
No sooner does child abuse get aired than we are warned against witchhunts, obsession, and hysteria. Always. It is happening again; it is de rigueur.
Andrew O’Hagan’s ruminations in the London Review of Books on Jimmy Savile and the dark corners of light entertainment, offer a glimpse of the just how difficult it is for anyone to confront child abuse.
‘Don’t launch inquiries on the back of lurid claims’:
Gesturing towards new knowledge abuse, Aaronovitch then cautions:
But it seems we have had to pay an unnecessary price for our new understanding. In Cleveland in the late 1980s, alongside real abusers, completely innocent people were deprived of their children on the basis of the beliefs and a faulty diagnosis of a paediatrician and social worker. Not long afterwards there was panic on Orkney and in cities such as Rochdale and Nottingham, amid claims that there were networks of abusers using satanic rituals as a pretext for acts of abuse, including infanticide and cannibalism. Books were written, front pages were splashed, serious conferences convened, in which dark caverns and human sacrifice were earnestly discussed.The unattractive (because complicating) truth is that sometimes people do lie about being abused. When it all collapsed, as it had to…
It doesn’t matter that this stuff is punctuated by historical inaccuracies and a repetition of the mass hysteria/moral panic line. That never matters. What matters is what this kind of stuff is NOT interested in, and what it is NOT about.
Andrew O’Hagan threw no light on the questions thrown up by Jimmy Savile, perhaps because is not interested in child abuse, nor in how easy it is to get away with it. His rendition of Savile as a man ‘made to the public’s specifications, ’ ignores the other publics who have been challenging marauders like Savile.
British society is not homogenous, it is fissured by sexual abuse, how it happens, to whom, and how it comes to be known.Why did the BBC harbour Savile?
What was it about his horrible persona that the BBC wanted? Was his allure, precisely, misanthropy and misogyny? It was not the public, it was the BBC that made a public according to Savile’s specifications. The broadcasting media do not reflect public taste, they participate in the creation of it.
Crucially, his reputation and room for maneouvre were secured by both the BBC and the Big Society.
Savile traded on the NHS and schools’ dependence on charity. Without charity he would have been just another coarse, grotty DJ. Without the Big Society, he would not have been showered with virtue, blessed by popes and princes and politicians. Without the Big Society he would not have been given the keys to any hospital, school or prison.
Where would Savile have been without the counter-revolution from the late ’80s (apparently endorsed by Aaronivitch) against evidence of sexual crimes against children?
O’Hagan’s contempt for so-called political correctness, and the instant invocation of terms such as ‘moral panic’ and obsession’ whenever child abuse is aired, has licensed grumpy old and young men to grope whoever they like, to proclaim the right to be right-off and swank about it on telly.
Savile’s savvy access to almost anywhere warehousing vulnerable people, from children to patients and prisoners, is a model of grooming and stealthy exploitation. His reputation and the unsteady exposure of his abusiveness, exemplify the condition of knowing and not knowing that describes Britain’s befuddled ‘common sense’ about abuse. Enough people knew for it to have been an open secret.
Ever since sexual abuse was added to the inventory of statutory concerns about children in the 1980s, child protection has been a war zone. Actually, it is defeated.
For three decades child welfare institutions have been unable to withstand the overwhelming and outraged resistance from accused adults to civil libertarians.
Yet, still, there is a determination to tell the story. The ‘choke and sting of experience’ – the Indian anthropologist Veena Das’s poignant phrase – finds its way, somehow, into public knowledge.
It is routinely met by the smug sort of piety that, sadly, was aired again in O’Hagan’s piece:
Child abuse is now a national obsession,’ it produces ‘an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat to children posed by adults ‘ and by ‘the hysteria, the prurience, the general shrieking that surrounds discussions of discussions of sexual conduct…
What does he make of the somewhat muted, hesistant, ashamed voices of Savile’s victims? Does ‘general shrieking’ describe the hundreds of people who say they were abused by Savile – witnesses spanning 50 years – who finally felt able to quietly share their story with the police/NSPCC?
And what of the dull, defensive response of the institutions?Does ‘shrieking’ and ‘obsession’ describe the dismal response of the criminal justice system to the majority of rapes and sexual assaults reported to the police – a scepticism, by the way, that is an embarrassment to the Metropolitan police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Where, exactly, in the company O’Hagan keeps, is all this hysteria and shrieking? Isn’t denial of child abuse the national obsession?
On 11 January 2013 the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC published their report, Giving Victims a Voice, on the evidence of 450 people concerning Savile’s 50 year career as a prolific sexual predator.
(An earlier, shorter version of this appeared in a letter to the LRB).