Sinn Féin once again deploys weapons of mass distraction
It's all kicked off in Stormont again. Just when it seemed that the painful package of welfare reform had been agreed through gritted teeth by all sides, Sinn Féin suddenly withdrew their support, plunging the Northern Ireland Assembly into another crisis. The North's deputy first minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of reneging on commitments. Skin and hair flew. An outraged first minister Peter Robinson abruptly pulled out of a trip to the US with McGuinness for a meeting with President Obama.
The dust-up is all the more dramatic for the suddenness of the Sinn Féin U-turn. All eyes are now on Stormont - with the inevitable consequence that less attention was focused on last night's BBC 'Spotlight' programme which revealed fresh allegations of IRA sexual abuse and claims of a subsequent cover-up by Sinn Féin.
Serendipity? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It wouldn't be the first time that the party has deployed weapons of mass distraction when the brown stuff is flying about.
The timing of the latest Belfast disagreement was remarked upon by more than one politician in Dublin yesterday.
During a press conference in Government Buildings, Tánaiste Joan Burton commented on the unexpected Belfast brouhaha. "Maybe it's accidental. It's interesting that all this is happening just when the party's under pressure again with another 'Spotlight' programme due tonight," she said.
It was a theory which was also more forthrightly aired by Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin. "There is a tendency of Sinn Féin, when negative material comes their way, they have a habit of fairly spectacular distractions. We've seen that in recent times," he charged.
And while the opportunity to score a few political points against Sinn Féin is never spurned by the other mainstream parties, it does appear inevitable that a Sinn Féin-generated kerfuffle will follow a Sinn-Féin-related controversy as sure as night follows day.
Last October 13, 'Spotlight' broadcast an interview with Mairia Cahill, who claimed she had been raped by an IRA member and was also subjected to a kangaroo court where she was forced to confront her alleged rapist.
Sinn Féin came under serious pressure in the aftermath of the shocking revelations, prompting Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to issue a succession of statements. The Sinn Féin leader also declared that Ms Cahill's claims were being politically exploited by "cynical, calculated and opportunistic" opponents.
A couple of weeks later in early November, Mr Adams became embroiled in controversy over remarks he made at a fundraiser in New York when he described how Michael Collins had dealt with a critical media. "He went in, sent volunteers in, to the offices, held the editor at gunpoint, and destroyed the entire printing press. That's what he did. Now I can just see the headline in the Independent tomorrow, I'm obviously not advocating that," he said.
Cue outrage from a distracted media. Though it seemed peculiar that Gerry Adams, veteran of prolonged and delicate peace negotiations and master of nuanced language, would employ such inflammatory language without understanding the reaction it would inevitably produce.
But Sinn Féin were back in the firing line when the issue of allegations of IRA sex abuse was debated in the Dáil on November 12, with the party excoriated by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader.
The following day, Mary Lou McDonald, one of the party's most able and effective parliamentarians, staged a four-hour sit-in in the Dáil chamber, refusing to leave the House after what started as a routine row with the Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett.
It culminated with the Dáil being closed from that Thursday afternoon until the following Tuesday, amid Sinn Féin raising the possibility of tabling a no-confidence motion in the Ceann Comhairle who, Mr Adams charged, "continually allows ministers to get away with this practice of not answering questions". Fianna Fáil's Sean O'Fearghail declared: "Sinn Féin clearly had an agenda coming into today's sitting to adopt a disruptive approach in the chamber in order to distract from recent negative coverage".
Coincidence? Perhaps. But the shut-down of parliament occupied centre stage of the news cycle, consigning the heated debate on IRA abuse to the wings.
On November 26, 'Spotlight' once again turned attention to the North's politicians with an investigation into the MLAs' expenses.
But it coincided with a very colourful war of words in Stormont when the DUP's Gregory Campbell mocked the Irish language, sparking a response from Gerry Adams who used the word "bastards" - he later apologised for using the word, explaining he has been referring to "bigots, racists and homophobes" rather than his Unionist colleagues. But the distraction was sufficient to outshine 'Spotlight'.
Now Stormont is in disarray again, just as another alleged victim of IRA abuse speaks out. Gerry Adams issued a trenchant response to Micheál Martin's linking of the two events, dismissing them as "a scandalous use of allegations of abuse for party political ends.
He also has a tendency to make the most ridiculous and misleading comments on the workings of the institutions in the North".
Diversionary tactics can work very well indeed. Maybe Sinn Féin's disruptions, finger-pointing, counter-attacks are coincidences which erupt around controversies. Or maybe it is utterly cynical. As one master of intrigue, James Bond author and intelligence officer Ian Fleming, observed, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."