ONE of the more irritating myths about women is that they're like Care Bears with ovaries, whose presence would immediately make politics more nurturing, more consensual. The reality can be strikingly different.
Take Mary McArdle, who's just been given the job of special adviser to the Northern Ireland minister for arts and leisure, thereby striking a stunning blow for ambitious, independent women everywhere -- though it might've been a better contribution to women's rights had she not also chosen, in 1984, to take part in the brutal IRA murder of a young primary school teacher, Mary Travers, as she walked from Mass with her magistrate father in Belfast's leafy Malone Road district.
Mary McArdle didn't actually pull the trigger that day, but was caught 10 minutes later with two handguns and a wig hidden in her surgical stockings. She was walking a dog. Strange how the little banal details stick in the mind. McArdle was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder; she was released following the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Last week, it all came back with the news that Sinn Fein minister Caral Ni Chuilin (or plain old Carol Cullen, as she was known when she went to the same school as me in Belfast in the Eighties) had appointed McArdle as a taxpayer-funded special adviser. Well, at least it wasn't women's rights -- though I wouldn't put that past them either . . .
If it all came back to those growing up in Belfast at the time, imagine what it must be like for Mary Travers's family. Her sister, Ann, appeared on Liveline in midweek. She'd only just heard that day from a BBC researcher about the appointment, because of course no one involved in Sinn Fein or the Stormont Executive bothered to warn her in advance that the murderer of her sister, when Ann was only 15, was about to get a comfortable seat aboard Northern Ireland's lucrative post-conflict gravy train. (Her salary will be equivalent to that of a senior civil servant.)
Shocked, hurt, incredulous, Ann spoke movingly of her family's continuing anguish, and their moral opposition to convicted murderers being handed influential positions over those whose lives they destroyed. Her voice resonat-
ed with quiet authority. There were a few rumbles from listeners about so-called "character assassination", but most callers felt exactly the same way as the Travers family.
It was one of those moments when the arrogance of Sinn Fein, constantly playing the hurt underdog whilst trampling on the feelings of real victims, was manifest for all to see.
Republicans, naturally, can't see what all the fuss is about. Gerry Kelly, who himself blew up the Old Bailey in London, issued a statement pointing out that half of Sinn Fein's Assembly team were former prisoners. He has a point. Stevie Wonder is the only person who could walk through the average Sinn Fein meeting without having his sightline filled with people who have blood on their hands. In the Dail, Gerry Adams, Dessie Ellis and Martin Ferris all have dodgy pasts too; as does Ni Chuilin, who served eight years on explosives charges before deciding to give elections a go.
Hence the notably chilly and unsympathetic tone in the party's public statements on the matter, not least a subsequent press release -- written and signed, incidentally, by yet another woman, doing her gender proud -- which showed no surrender to sentimentality, or indeed any human feeling at all. Later they made it plainer still: McArdle is going nowhere (except perhaps to the cash point to celebrate), and victims will just have to put up with it.
They even tried to portray women like Ann Travers as the problem for not "moving on", a particularly unfair accusation when families such as hers painfully accepted the Belfast Agreement, which released convicted killers and put Sinn Fein in government. Ann Travers even says she wouldn't have denied Mary McArdle's right to sit in the Assembly if the voters had put her there.
But why add insult to injury by making a particularly controversial appointment which was bound to reignite painful memories when there are so many other people who could do the same job without causing offence?
"I'm allowed to grieve," Ann Travers pointed out on Liveline, "my family is allowed to grieve, and I wish they'd stop telling me to move forward. Every time I try to move forward, they go and do something else. It's like they've taken a knife and just turned it that little bit more."
Sinn Fein actually had the spite to cynically accuse those objecting to Bloody Mary's appointment of putting the party's elected representatives at risk of retaliatory violence. So Ann Travers and her family are now the ones who've made Northern Ireland unsafe? That's the lowest in a long line of low blows, especially when Martin McGuinness would not go further, when asked recently to comment on the murder of Mary Travers, than to remark blandly that it was "regrettable but understandable".
"Regrettable" is one of those weasel words which have crept into the lexicon to slither out of taking blame. "Understandable" is plain sick. Trying to murder a junior magistrate is stretching the definition of combatant to its limits. (It's also staggeringly hypocritical, in light of Sinn Fein's outrage at the murder of solicitor Rosemary Nelson. Were lawyers legitimate targets or not?) Trying to kill Tom Travers's wife as well, and actually killing his daughter, denudes the word of all meaning.
In a way, there's no point condemning them for this. They're perfectly within their rights to appoint whoever they want, and only a fool really believed Tony Blair when he promised there would be "No Terrorists in Government" if people voted for peace. But just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.
Responsible leadership involves understanding the sensitivities and acting accordingly. How would nationalists feel if the Dublin and Monaghan bombers were given jobs in government? There's no difference.
Sinn Fein didn't have the decency last week to come out and defend the appointment of McArdle on the airwaves. This was one time when it clearly wished the Broadcasting Ban was still in operation. Liveline called all the press officers, TDs, MLAs. None of them was available to comment. Funny, that.
"Do you know what that suggests to me, Joe?" commented Ann Travers.
"It suggests to me that they're ashamed."
I wish she was right, I really do, but I don't think they're ashamed at all. Sinn Fein/IRA don't do shame. In their eyes, what they did was simply part of "the situation". That philosophy would be easier to take if they weren't such hypocrites about what they choose to remember.
Meet the Queen? Too early, apparently. Last week they also issued a statement demanding a public inquiry into the loyalist murder of Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton in Donegal.
Moving on, it seems, is for other people.