Shinners' Stepford Wives can't just plead ignorance
The rise of the Sinn Fein women reminds us that gender is no guarantee of greater compassion, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Last week's ruling by the European Court of Justice that individuals can force the removal of certain items from Google search results had an immediate and predictable consequence. So far, scores of people have come forward to ask that unfortunate parts of their pasts be edited out of the public record, including a convicted cyberstalker, a man who tried to kill his family, and another convicted of possessing child pornography.
According to the BBC, more than half of those who have requested that their records be removed from Google searches since Tuesday have been convicted criminals, giving rise to concerns that the ruling may not only be a new charter for censorship but a boon to conmen and criminals too. Not to mention politicians with something to hide.
Disturbing as this trend undoubtedly is, a more worrying development in Ireland may be that there's no need for a careful editing of the past because we just don't care enough about certain people's misdeeds to hold it against them when they run for office. Economic crimes will not be forgiven or forgotten. Crimes against human beings are much more easily dismissed, as Sinn Fein's rise in popularity attests. Republicans haven't had to run to the courts to hide their dirty laundry. They've scattered it around and found that many voters don't even mind the smell.
The idea that SF will be any more principled or effective in office is an adolescent delusion. If you want to see how these people actually behave when they're in positions of authority, go to West Belfast, a ghetto fiefdom ruled by chancers with iron fists; liars backed by thugs. The problem is that giving them enough rope at the election to hang themselves subsequently in office comes at too high a price, namely that it means ignoring what they've done to get where they are today.
The abduction and murder of Jean McConville is iconic because it exposes something about the nature of the republican movement for which the republican movement has no answer; but there are other ways to Disappear women than taking them away from their children, torturing them into confessions, then shooting them in the back of the head. Victims can be Disappeared simply by ignoring them; by refusing to believe them when they speak out; by mocking them when they tell of their experiences. They might as well not exist when that happens.
That's what SF has done with victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse who still lie heavy on its conscience after republicans colluded in the cover-up of their cases and spirited away perpetrators to the four corners of Ireland in the hope that the scandals would just go away. To ignore them is to deny the testimonies not only of the women themselves, but of organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre who have spoken publicly of these women's harrowing stories, and of what happens to those who stand up to paramilitaries on the issue; it is to suggest that the office of the Victims Commissioner in the North, which has confirmed the existence of these women, doesn't know what it's talking about; it is to imply that everyone who's raised what was done to the victims, from journalists to the SDLP, is on some grand deception to lie about the republican movement.
Politics is a dirty business. Power is a great prize. It's no wonder that Sinn Fein wants all these matters to be forgotten. What's shocking is that so many women – from those attractive young female party
candidates whose posters line the streets, down to ordinary women voters at home – are willing to go along with a pretence that none of this happened or that it can be excused with some pat references to the tragic messiness of recent history. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising. Women can be as callous and ambitious as any man. Ireland has other things on its mind. Struggling to pay the bills hardens the heart.
But somehow it still is surprising when it happens. We've all absorbed a little of the comforting feminist myth that Women Are Better Than Men and Women Wouldn't Behave Like This. The rise of the Sinn Fein women reminds us that gender is no guarantee of greater compassion. These women are not stupid. They know that women and children were raped by IRA volunteers; that the leadership covered up those crimes to protect itself, and moved abusers to various safe houses around Ireland which turned out to be far from safe for further victims exposed to danger; that victims were pressurised into not going to the police or social forces, not only in the dark days of the Troubles but post-ceasefire as well; they know that, when the truth did start to come out, Sinn Fein did everything in its power to ensure that their dirty deeds never saw the light of day. The women of Sinn Fein know all this, and somehow, at a deep level, they have absorbed it, rationalised it, and decided that it doesn't really matter.
Fianna Fail was passed details of one case where the niece of a senior IRA figure in Dublin revealed that he had been raping her from childhood, and the only thing which stopped the gardai from charging him was that she wouldn't make a complaint. Another woman, herself a republican, was raped on her first day out of jail by another well-known republican; when her boyfriend confronted Sinn Fein, he was beaten by IRA heavies. In at least one other case, the rapist was a member of a community restorative justice programme, which Sinn Fein was expecting victims to use as an alternative to the police.
Sinn Fein might pretend to be advancing feminism by running more female candidates in this week's elections than other parties, but real feminism ought to be about standing behind vulnerable women at moments of greatest crisis, not throwing them to the wolves in the name of a greater cause. Women are better served by male candidates from a party which doesn't think women should shut up about their traumatic experiences rather than female candidates from a party which thinks that they should. The least Sinn Fein's Stepford Wives can do when the truth does finally emerge in all its ugliness is not weep crocodile tears and pretend they'd have acted differently if only they'd known, if only someone had told them. They do know. They were told. They just don't care.