politics

The guns are gone, but misogyny still stalks Northern Ireland | Susan McKay


When David Tweed died in a crash in County Antrim at the end of October, Ian Paisley Jr, Tweed’s MP, spoke of his sadness: “David was a well-known Ulsterman.” He had been a “leading Ulster and Ireland rugby star”, a “political activist” and an “elected official”. He sent prayers to Tweed’s family at what he said must be “an unimaginably heartbreaking time”.

Tweed was a former Democratic Unionist party councillor. Local DUP politician Mervyn Storey said he had known “Davy” and his family for most of his life and could not begin to imagine the sorrow they must have been plunged into. “Just on Sunday past he sat in front of me in church,” he reminisced. “He was a larger than life character and not just only in his physical presence.”

Both men have had to revisit their early condolences. Tweed’s courageous and furious daughters immediately came forward to challenge what they described as a false narrative based on “blind loyalty”. His stepdaughter Amanda Brown put it starkly. “He was a predatory paedophile and a violent thug who smashed our mother’s face to a pulp,” she told a Sunday newspaper. She was eight when he first sexually abused her. He ruined her childhood. Five of his daughters spoke of horrific years of rape, physical and emotional abuse, of constant dread and terror. Victoria Tweed said he was a monster. His sister, Hazel McAllister, said he should have been in prison.

Last Tuesday, Paisley and Storey issued a statement. They would want nothing in what they had previously said “to take away from the subsequent powerful and distressing words of his daughters who have bravely told of the horrific abuse they suffered”. They had never intended to add to any hurt. Members of the family acknowledged the retreat. However, Tweed’s violence against women and children was publicly exposed years ago. He was sent to jail for eight years for child abuse in 2012.

Harrowing victim impact statements read out in court included the revelation that one girl tried to kill herself. Tweed admitted being violent to his ex-wife Margaret. She spoke of a 23-year marriage during which: “He would beat me black and blue.” He threatened her, and others, with loyalist paramilitaries.

This threat was not idle. Tweed’s “political activism” included taking part in aggressive protests to which paramilitaries lent their muscle. I met him at many of these events – he was always happy to provide belligerent and sectarian soundbites. The Harryville blockade in 1996 was terrifying – he and dozens of other men strode around roaring abuse and menacing Catholics as they tried to go to mass at a Ballymena church. When the parish priest appeared, Tweed would shout at him: “Paedophile!”

As a member of the Orange Order he was a stalwart in the 1990s at Drumcree and Dunloy, when the Order attempted to unite the unionist family, including its thugs, to derail the peace process. When the Ulster Volunteer Force played its part by burning to death the Quinn children in Tweed’s home town of Ballymoney, Tweed denied the murders were sectarian. After a loyalist gang beat to death Catholic teenager Michael McIlveen in Ballymena, Tweed said he had questions about how well brought up the boy had been.

Tweed left the DUP in protest when his old hero Ian Paisley Sr signed up for power sharing in 2007. He became a councillor for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party. Its leader, Jim Allister, also declared himself “deeply saddened” by the death of Tweed, a “larger than life character”. It was “a devastating blow to his family and wide circle of friends”. After Brown spoke out, he denied any disrespect. He said Tweed’s conviction was overturned and he was “not going to be bullied into saying the court was wrong to acquit”. Brown said she was “disgusted”, pointing out that in 2016 the conviction was quashed on a technicality.

A day after the DUP men pulled back, Allister acknowledged that some of his comments “whether as reported or because they could have been better chosen” might have added to the hurt felt by Tweed’s daughters. Since then Tweed’s brother-in-law, James Boyd, has revealed that his daughter, Gemma, killed herself in 2013. Tweed had abused her, he said, and “she couldn’t get past it”.

A “service of thanksgiving” for the life of David Alexander Tweed was held at Ballymoney’s Hebron Free Presbyterian church. The order of service had a photograph of him in his Orange sash and bowler hat. Although the Order had expelled him when he was convicted of child abuse, some of the Orangemen present wore their sashes as a sign of respect. The “Qualifications of an Orangeman” state that he “should seek the society of the virtuous, and avoid that of the evil”. The Order’s grand secretary, Presbyterian minister Mervyn Gibson, said of the controversy: “We have no comment to make.”

Mid-way through the UN’s 16 days against violence against women, it should be noted that Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK and Ireland that has no strategy to tackle gender-based violence, that it has the highest rate of domestic murder in Europe (sharing that dishonour with Romania). The latest rape statistics show that out of more than 1,000 cases reported to the Police Service in 2020-21, only eight led to convictions. Many recommendations made in a report by retired judge Sir John Gillen after the notorious “rugby rape trial” in 2018 have not been implemented.

Earlier this month, Sinead McGrotty, who worked as a civilian in the police, told her disquieting story. She said a male detective subjected her to sexual assaults and rape threats which left her feeling violated and suicidal. She felt vulnerable as “a young Catholic girl” in a largely Protestant workplace, but reported him in 2012. The Public Prosecution Service found insufficient evidence to prosecute. An internal disciplinary process ignored most of the complaints. The detective admitted one incident of inappropriate touching and was fined £250. He was not suspended and kept his job. In August, nine years after her complaint, she got an apology from the chief constable for the way the situation had been handled.

Last week the justice Minister, Naomi Long, was subjected to a pile-on of cruel and abusive social media posts directed at her weight and appearance after she spoke about potential new restrictions arising from the Covid pandemic. Long said she was strong and well supported, but added that she worried for “young women growing up surrounded by misogyny, sexism, bullying and body shaming.” She quoted Maya Angelou: “You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Northern Ireland was well described as an “armed patriarchy” during the Troubles, but while the guns have long since been decommissioned, the mindsets of the patriarchs have not. Bullies and bigots are just “larger than life”. Women who have suffered at the hands of hateful, violent men need respect, compassion and justice. Here they have to bare their souls and fight like warriors.



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