Sunday 16 December 2018

No amount of Sinn Féin spin can undermine these victims' stories

Niall McLoughlin cartoon
Niall McLoughlin cartoon
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

How much does Gerry Adams know? How much information is he willing to reveal? And how much is he keeping back - and why?

Every once in a while, a series of questions emerges which fits within those parameters. They are troubling to ponder in relation to a party leader, even one who helped to deliver the Northern peace process; and who must, it stands to reason, have baggage.

Equally alarming is the need to keep returning to them as cases of illegality emerge - forcing attention towards the interface between Sinn Féin and the armed tradition from which it springs.

These questions about Mr Adams drive to the crux of ethics, a non-negotiable moral framework for any political leader because so much power resides in the role. He put it best himself on 'Morning Ireland' yesterday when he said: "I'm not a law-enforcer, I'm a law-maker."

The public needs to have absolute confidence in law-makers - we must be able to believe what they tell us. Urging people to go to the gardaí with complaints, or saying you weren't TD for Louth at the time Paudie McGahon came forward - these statements contain truths but they are not the same as honesty. When Mr Adams speaks, the impression is of someone tutored, who is parsing his words with care.

His attitude towards Paudie is noticeably more victim-centred compared with the bullish way he reacted when Mairia Cahill told her story. Crucially, he says he believes Paudie was raped, whereas doubt was cast on her version of events. The Sinn Féin leader has learned from the Cahill episode. His language is peppered with references to justice for victims and supports for them.

And yet, and yet. It has a rehearsed note, and the ring of platitudes. Reverberations of almost identical language can be heard when other party members speak on the subject. There is a sense of people mass-memorising a brief about recognition for victims' needs, with hollow-sounding apologies advanced for those who were damaged. Even Mid-Ulster MP Francie Molloy, who veered off message with a nasty "another load of rubbish" rebuttal, was reined back quickly by the party's excellent spin doctors and was soon back on the victims' rights wagon. Some damage was caused there, all the same.

A message is being advanced that what happened, and how it was handled, in both rape cases has to be viewed in context: either the Troubles, or the swirling aftermath. Just as we're told that all the killing and maiming through those lost decades has to be seen against the background of an unjust society.

Listening to the way Sinn Féin people speak about victims sexually abused by their members, and abused in a different way by those operating kangaroo courts, I hear echoes of an earlier form of rigidly rehearsed language. I hear the unconvincing apologies offered for the 'collateral damage' caused when civilians were killed in explosions. That was supposedly all about context, too.

Has nothing been learned? Nothing at all about humility or fellow feeling? I understand that war strips people of some or all of their humanity, and that a number of those in the upper echelons of the party have come through a war. I accept it is a brutalising process. These men and women look whole, but they aren't. They left part of themselves behind.

But there is a generation behind the Troubles leaders in Sinn Féin. Where is their compassion for rape victims? Why are they unable to step outside the formulaic phraseology about victims, and communicate directly? Why do all of them toe the party line so obediently on every issue, even this one?

Perhaps that deference is why the leadership is unwilling to admit to cover-ups, or accept publicly that serious mistakes were made. Its modus operandi owes more to a military machine than a political grouping - and that's a culture in urgent need of change if Sinn Féin is to become fit for government in the Republic.

Presumably, questions about Mr Adams in relation to the McGahon case will be batted away. They usually are. A hostile media, or opportunistic rivals hoping to secure votes at Sinn Féin's expense, are always the bogeymen whenever the party's links with its armed force wing are mentioned.

However, there is now a weight of evidence to support Mairia Cahill's disturbing account of the way the republican movement dealt with sex offenders. Paudie McGahon's story has parallels. How many more cases will emerge?

Sinn Féin and its leader of almost four decades, Gerry Adams, weathered the storm raised by Mairia, and both he and the party will survive this latest reversal. He is a proven vote-winner. Besides, those who vote for Sinn Féin have factored in so much dirt that a 17-year-old boy raped in his home, and threatened with being found dead in a ditch if he protested, may be low on their shockometers. Or perhaps they will adopt the Francie Molloy approach and dismiss it.

That doesn't mean either Mairia or Paudie's testimony has been in vain, though. The public has taken note. As pencils hover over ballot papers, Mairia or Paudie's faces may come to mind and change a voter's mind about that intended transfer tick. A brave woman, a brave man, they remind us of the ethical vacuum yawning behind the contextualising and the cant about victims.

Sinn Féin is in government in the North, and within sight of forming a government in the Republic - the party straddles power as never before. And with power comes responsibility. But that responsibility didn't manifest itself in relation to Mairia Cahill, and neither is it apparent with regard to Paudie McGahon. Isn't it time for a new cohort of leaders who aren't in thrall to the old guard?

Irish Independent

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