Last night’s UTV Insight special painted in disturbing detail the ordeal of Aine Tyrell, niece of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Tyrell was sexually abused for eight years by her father (Gerry Adams’ brother), Liam, during the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Tyrell’s testimony on the programme was poignant because of her desire for justice – through Northern Ireland’s reformed police and the judicial system – and because of the eloquent way in which she expressed her desire for acknowledgement of her suffering.
Tyrell had reported Liam Adams’ abuse to the police when she was a teenager, but ultimately decided not to pursue a case at that time. She and her family were anxious that any hint of scandal could impinge negatively on the republican cause in which her famous uncle was so prominent.
Tyrell said that she wanted to come forward now in order to achieve some ‘closure’ about her ordeal. There is a warrant for Liam Adams’ arrest, but he has fled Northern Ireland and Gerry Adams says he does not know where he is.
The programme also detailed attempts over the years by Gerry Adams, and later by Fr Aidan Troy, to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Tyrell and Liam Adams. Although Tyrell ultimately felt let down by Gerry Adams and insulted by Fr Troy, her eagerness for a meeting was bound up with her wish for her father to admit – to her – what he had done. Watching the programme, I could almost imagine that she wouldn’t have come forward publicly now, and pursue a legal case, if she had had the chance to confront her father, and to hear him admit his deeds.
The need that many victims of abuse feel for acknowledgement of what has happened to them is well understood by scholars in this area and by the victims themselves. Aine Tyrell’s story throws this issue up in stark relief.
People throughout the island – victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubles and victims of clerical abuse – feel this same need. This is a need that can’t be met solely through judicial processes. On this island, ‘official’ attempts to publicly acknowledge victims often have been clumsy or half-hearted. Last week’s chilly response of the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Committee to the Report on the Consultative Group on the Past is symptomatic of this. It is not clear that our instinctive turn to tribunals or inquiries is what is really best for victims and the wider society.