Mary Lou must face down SF leadership to get truth for Mairia
THE Irish people have long ago made up their own minds about Gerry Adams' extraordinary take on his own strange past.
But Mary Lou McDonald, the leading light of Sinn Fein's "post-war generation of leaders", is quite another matter. And Ms McDonald's inadequate response to the hugely-credible allegations of Mairia Cahill - that she was the victim of a sexual assault and there was a subsequent Republican cover-up - leave the Sinn Fein deputy leader and her party with huge problems.
And Sinn Fein's cries of "political football" are just not good enough here. The party was, rightly, stridently critical of the Catholic Church's shameful response in the past to the scandal of sexual abuse. Everyone is now entitled to apply the corollary of that one and demand clear answers from the Sinn Fein leadership - and the spotlight will fall naturally on Ms McDonald, who is known for her strong feminist stances.
Two separate opinion polls taken before the local council and European Parliament elections last May tell us everything we need to know about Irish people's assessments of assertions by Gerry Adams about his past. An Ipsos MRBI poll showed that seven out of 10 people, and six out of 10 Sinn Fein supporters, believed Gerry Adams had been a member of the IRA - the exact opposite of his own absurd assertions down the years.
In a second survey, by Millward Brown for the Irish Independent, almost half of those questioned said "Yes" when asked if they believed Mr Adams was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, the widowed mother of 10 children. Fewer than 25pc of those surveyed believed that he was not involved and one in three just did not know. Let's recall that Mr Adams had been detained by the PSNI and questioned about Jean McConville's abduction and murder around the time these surveys were undertaken.
Taken together, these surveys tell us that middle Ireland accept Gerry Adams's attempts at explaining away his past as precisely that, an explaining away. Some voters are also showing that they are at least able to compartmentalise these matters and vote Sinn Fein.
At least part of the reason why Sinn Fein wins support south of the Border is the ability and political professionalism of some of their leading lights, who are part of a newer intake and not linked to the three decades of IRA activity which cost 1,700 human lives. These people include Pearse Doherty and Padraig Mac Lochlainn in Donegal, Senator Trevor O Clochartaigh in Galway West, and Mary Lou McDonald from Dublin Central.
At one stage the received wisdom around Leinster House was that the future leadership of the party was between Ms McDonald and Pearse Doherty. Both are extremely competent media performers projecting a younger and more telegenic image of a modern political party. With them, there could be less and less need to hark back to "war" and more and more chances to focus on economic and social matters.
Pearse Doherty got potential leadership points for being an Ulsterman, albeit from the Republic, and also for being a native Irish speaker in the only party where competence in the first national language may still count. But the more recent view of things was that Ms McDonald was way ahead in terms of strength of Dail and media performances, especially in radio and television debates. Her Dublin Central base - at the heart of where of a third of the electorate live and over one quarter of all TDs are based - was also a huge bonus. These advantages appeared to more than make up for her limited competence in Irish.
It has to be said that Sinn Fein's culture of omerta at Leinster House makes it difficult to learn about leadership succession. Each week journalists, as a matter of course, take soundings about the tone and content of discussions at all political group meetings - bar those of Sinn Fein. But even with that health warning, Ms McDonald was seen as a very strong contender to succeed Mr Adams as party leader in the fullness of time.
But Ms McDonald appeared far from sure of herself after the extraordinarily-powerful testimony of Mairia Cahill came to light last week via BBC's 'Spotlight' programme. Ms Cahill alleges that she was raped by a member of the Provisional IRA in 1997, when she was aged 16. She says she was repeatedly interrogated by Republicans as part of an internal inquiry more focused on protecting their own organisation than establishing the truth.
Ms Cahill is a grandniece of the late Provisional IRA founder Joe Cahill, a close associate of Gerry Adams. She later went to the police and a case was brought against the alleged rapist and those said to have been involved in the IRA inquiry. But all charges were dropped after Ms Cahill withdrew her evidence.
She insists that members of both Sinn Fein and the IRA were aware of the facts. More worryingly, she also says that many other young people were also victims.
Last Thursday, Ms McDonald showed a marked lack of empathy with Ms Cahill as she insisted that Sinn Fein members did not have any knowledge of the case, which had already been dealt with by the courts. "Nobody can second-guess what has happened in a court of law - that applies to Gerry as much as to anybody else," she said. By Saturday her tone was less strident - but her message was not, as she laid great emphasis on defending Sinn Fein.
What is missing here is some consistency. Ms McDonald needs to show the same admirable stridency challenging her own party as she did in the case of the Catholic Church. By Ms McDonald's own lights, Sinn Fein members' knowledge of these heinous events must be fully investigated.