FOLLOWING last week's sentencing in the North of Gerry Adams's brother Liam on rape and sexual abuse charges, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said that he was aware of at least two other instances where "there was an attempt made to deal with other cases of abuse internally in the republican movement".
After long meetings in Leinster House on Thursday, Sinn Fein's finance spokesman Pearse Doherty came out to a press conference and declared that these allegations were "unfounded and untrue".
Doherty was asked by reporters on a number of occasions if the republican movement had dealt internally with rape allegations involving its own members and repeated again: "It's unfounded and untrue. It's as clear as I can make it."
His words certainly were clear, and the riposte to Martin was backed up by statements from SF vice president Mary Lou McDonald, who described the FF leader's statement as "absolutely disgraceful", and by party leader Gerry Adams himself who said on Twitter: "Michael (sic) Martin is completely out off (sic) order. A new low."
As indeed it would be. If the allegations were as "unfounded and untrue" as Sinn Fein is claiming. The only problem is that the allegations are both well-founded and true. There are other victims out there besides Gerry Adams's niece, Aine. As Martin indicated, he knows of at least two such cases, and has written to relevant authorities in Northern Ireland about this matter. There are only two possibilities. Sinn Fein is either not telling the truth, or its party representatives are entirely unaware of these cases.
On the assumption that it could surely only be the second possibility, I contacted Pearse Doherty via Twitter offering to set up a meeting with a victim whose experience of sexual violence was dealt with by the republican movement in the same way described by Martin.
At first there was no reply from the Donegal South West TD. But yesterday, he said, "I believe that my party leader has been in correspondence with you regarding this matter," a reference to the fact that Gerry Adams has agreed to meet the victim in question.
Of course, it's arguable that Martin's timing was askew. Issuing an announcement this week left him open to the accusation that he was making political capital out of a horrible situation. That is exactly what happened. SF sidestepped the serious allegations that he made and concentrated on a personal attack on his integrity. But FF's error, if such it was, is as nothing compared to the mistake made by Pearse Doherty.
Up to now, Sinn Fein had what could be called a "Gerry Adams problem".
It was Adams who was under fire for his handling of his brother's crimes; Adams who was having to deal with the fallout from the recent programme about the Disappeared, which repeated the late Brendan Hughes's claim – hotly disputed by Adams – that the SF president ordered the abduction and murder of mother of 10 Jean McConville; Adams who was also the focus of two more programmes this week alone – TV3's Sinn Fein: Who Are They? and BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight, both of which dealt with the Belfast man's past.
SF was clearly irritated by what it saw as a media onslaught against the party leader and pulled out every trick in the book to minimise the damage, from claiming that there was an establishment plot to head off an inevitable republican advance to alleging that criticism of SF was fuelling dissident IRA activity (yes, that one again).
But it was still essentially a "Gerry Adams problem". Doherty's statement turned an Adams problem into a Sinn Fein problem. By denying that any cases of victims of sexual violence were dealt with "in house" by republicans, the party was taking collective ownership of the ongoing allegations thereby shifting attention from the person of Adams on to its own shoulders and becoming, in the process, a hostage to fortune.
Mary Lou McDonald did not say that there were no such cases as Martin described. Her statement on the matter was much more carefully worded than that. But Doherty couldn't have put it more bluntly.
"Unfounded and untrue" are two words that will now either damn or vindicate Sinn Fein – and, in coming out to back him up in that, Sinn Fein as a party was forced to bet the farm that no further victims would come forward to prove otherwise. It could have backfired badly. And it has.
Politics is all about timing. SF in recent years has built up momentum. They now have a window of opportunity to capitalise on that success. It won't stay open forever.
Labour is already recovering slightly, either because of an increased feel-good factor that comes from exiting the bailout, or because SF was damaged by the recent focus on Adams's credentials. Gilmore's party will either get back into government after the next election, where it will reap the electoral rewards of the economic recovery that will surely be under way by then, or it will be out of office – regrouping, rebuilding and competing for the left-wing vote.
Either option leaves Sinn Fein on the defensive and potentially losing the gains they've made in recent years. Who knows when the next opportunity will come? Ten years? Twenty years? Never? The coming election is Sinn Fein's best opportunity in a century to maximise its political strength.
That's why there is all this attention from the media. Not because journalists are determined to smash Irish republicanism, but because Sinn Fein is being taken seriously for the first time as a future party of government.
As such, they're being held accountable in the same way as every other party – and that, naturally, means holding them to account where they're most vulnerable.
Until now, the major weak spot was Adams.
Last week, Doherty opened up another weak flank by denying that there were victims whose terrible stories of sexual assault by republicans had been investigated secretly by republicans.
But on Saturday, he said "I used the phrase 'unfounded and untrue' in relation to Micheal Martin's claim that implied that Sinn Fein was akin to the Catholic Church in covering up incidents of sexual abuse."
It cannot be stressed often enough. These victims exist.
Some have gone to the police; some have gone to the police and subsequently withdrawn statements; some are still too scared to say anything because they live in communities where they would face hostility and isolation by speaking out; some may never feel confident enough to speak out about their experiences, except to dedicated counsellors at the Rape Crisis Centre and other agencies.
There are, at the same time, legal minefields to negotiate when it comes to naming perpetrators as well as those who organised and facilitated and participated in internal IRA investigations.
The point remains that all these victims, however they are personally dealing with what they have endured, have a right to be respected, believed, heard.
I am confident that Doherty would not continue to claim that the allegations made by her and others with similar experiences are "unfounded and untrue" if he met face-to-face with women to whom such nightmares happened.
The SF finance spokesman should at the very least stop insulting and upsetting victims by continuing to claim that they don't exist.