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X case ‘horror’, ‘gay bashing’, and republican ‘headbangers’: State papers shed light on a turbulent decade

Newly declassified files span 10 years in which the Republic became more liberal and Northern Ireland gained peace

The 1990s was a defining decade for Ireland. It saw a liberalisation of society south of the Border and the end of the Troubles in the North.

The election of human rights lawyer Mary Robinson as president of Ireland in 1990 set the tone for a decade of change, aspects of which are captured in newly declassified State papers.

In 1992, the X case brought unwanted attention on the Republic as the then attorney general Harry Whelehan secured a High Court injunction to stop a 14-year-old girl who was pregnant through rape from accessing an abortion abroad. Whelehan argued that he had “no choice in the circumstances”, citing Article 40.3.3 (the Eighth Amendment) of the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to life of the unborn child.

The issue was one of the first on the desk of the newly appointed taoiseach Albert Reynolds in February 1992, but it was Robinson who received dozens of letters from home and abroad about it.

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The Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, based in the Netherlands, told her it was with “disbelief and disquiet that we heard about the young Irish girl who became pregnant after having been raped. In this terrible situation she has become a prisoner in her own country.

“The Republic of Ireland belongs to Europe but it has removed itself very far from it and it is being watched in horror.”

The National Federation of Social Democratic Women in Sweden promised to stage a big demonstration outside the Irish embassy in Stockholm. They seemed to have been under the impression that the Irish president could do something about the situation.

“We appeal to you to help the girl immediately. As far as we know you are the only that can take action now. So please use this possibility at once,” they wrote.

The council of the City of New York City Hall said the “right to travel, especially to obtain medical treatment, is a universal human right recognised by governments worldwide.”

Anna Ray-Jones and Ainé Ni Canavan, two Irish expatriate women living in the United States, said the X case showed to the rest of the world “the appalling lowly status of Irish woman and the gross entrenched ignorance of your male/church-dominated government.

“To force a raped female to bear her rapist’s child and not provide her with the necessary medical choices she needs defies all civilised and humane reason.”

Closer to home, teenagers Paula Madigan and Mairsíl Tubridy wrote from Kilrush, Co Clare, to the president. “The girl is around our age and we think what the government is doing is making a 14-year-old child have a child.” Robinson promised to bring the letter up with the attorney general.

There were also letters in support of the attorney general’s actions including one from a Sr M Lelia from Co Waterford who said the “little unborn child is in God’s workshop of the womb. God is working there ‘knitting together’ and fashioning a being in his own image and likeness.”

The High Court decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in March 1992. It decided that the teenager’s threat of suicide constituted a “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother and, under those circumstances, she could have an abortion. In the event, Miss X had a miscarriage in an English hospital.

In 1993 Ireland decriminalised homosexuality, albeit under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling was celebrated widely in the gay community in Ireland, but discrimination and violence against gay people did not stop as a result.

In 1999, the White House took a close interest in the fate of a gay American man who was knocked unconscious and left in a wheelchair after an assault in Co Sligo by two local men. Robert Drake, an author, had moved to Ireland a month earlier to be with his partner, a doctor in Sligo hospital.

The case attracted a great deal of publicity in the United States and members of the American gay community relayed their concerns to Bill Clinton’s administration.

The particulars of the case conveyed a message about Ireland in the American press that was “far from flattering”, the Irish embassy in Washington told the Department of Foreign Affairs. It was of particular interest to Larry Butler, then a senior foreign policy adviser to Clinton.

Butler had contacted the Irish embassy to state that it was important for the public image of Ireland in the United States that the investigation be thorough. He advised that care should be taken by the Garda/Director of Public Prosecutions with US media inquiries “to avoid an overly bureaucratic approach which may be misinterpreted as indifference”.

The Irish embassy drew attention to a piece on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer which referred to the attack as a “gay bashing incident”.

According to another faxed message sent from the embassy to department headquarters at Iveagh House in Dublin, Butler told diplomats the “potential for public and media embarrassment” needed to be minimised.

Two men were found guilty after a five-day trial in October 1999 of intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to Drake. In January 2000 they were each sentenced to eight years in jail for the crime.

Drake is still in a wheelchair and unable to live independently as a result of the attack. In 2013, he narrated a powerful documentary, Where I Am, about the life-changing event.

The Belfast Agreement, which was signed in 1998, transformed the landscape in the North, but the peace process continued at a snail’s pace, with the issue of IRA decommissioning being the biggest sticking point.

In early 2001 Gerry Adams, while travelling in the United States, called into the Irish embassy to see the ambassador, Seán Ó hUiginn.

The Sinn Féin leader said he wanted to see the IRA go into “peaceful retirement”, according to a note in the department. Adams also told the ambassador he wanted to attract young people with a constructive social agenda and not “headbangers attracted to violence”.

Timing was everything with the peace process, Adams reportedly said, and he wanted unionists to think of the Belfast Agreement as a 30-year project.

The global approach to terrorism changed as a result of the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001. Four days before the atrocity, president George W Bush’s adviser Richard Haass called into Ó hUiginn.

He was scathing about the status of the so-called Colombia Three who were arrested in Colombia a month before 9/11. The three alleged IRA members Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were later charged with travelling on false documents and teaching guerrilla group FARC how to build improvised mortar bombs.

Haass said the men were not on holiday and they were not promoting a peace process. “It was not only implausible to try to put across such explanations but insulting to our intelligence”.

FARC, Haas added, was a “thoroughly bad bunch. That the IRA should have got involved in such a way in a country as important to US strategic interests was hardly imaginable”.

He warned: “If any of these [US citizens] were killed through the activities of FARC and the IRA were found to have been involved in some causal way, US involvement with Sinn Féin and the peace process could be very difficult to manage.”

The three men, who always denied wrongdoing, were granted an amnesty as part of the South American nation’s ongoing peace process in 2020. However, Colombian authorities said last year that this pardon had been revoked.

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