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New guard getting drunk on last of the autumn whine


Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Anyone who expected Gerry Adams to step down as a result of the controversy surrounding the republican movement's cover-up of sexual abuse by its members, seriously overestimated the decency of the party that he leads.

No leader heads to the exit without pressure from within, and, as of this week, Adams has been President of Sinn Fein for 31 years - almost one year for every county in Ireland - without a single challenge to his authority. It's unprecedented in a democracy. Adams has now surpassed even Stalin's longevity. If he makes it to the centenary of the Rising, he'll have overtaken Chairman Mao too.

And why wouldn't he still be in the top job in 2016? It must be obvious to any observer now that the republican leader could be caught eating babies live on camera and the party faithful would still blame the Government for not providing tastier options for him on the menu in the Dail canteen. Not only is he the only political leader who could have survived this scandal - not just around Mairia Cahill, but in relation to his brother Liam continuing to work for the party, and with children, after Adams learned he was a child abuser - he's actually come out of it with his position strengthened, and is using it to malign ends. Far from moving on from the past and putting clear water between the current political generation and the bad old days of car bombings, disappearings, kneecappings, Adams has responded to the ongoing furore by wallowing in a fairytale about the IRA's glorious past of resistance, presumably trusting that no one will point out that many more nationalists lost their lives at the hands of the IRA than British soldiers.

A man who can survive this can survive anything, even the other cases of SF/IRA cover-up which are starting to emerge.

The one hope when all this began was not that Adams would relinquish his role as lord of all he surveys, but that someone else in a leadership role inside the party would realise that these contradictions needed to be resolved, and that they had to present a more humane face to the country, because doing otherwise would merely infect another generation of republicans with the moral Ebola which armed struggle represented.

Most people surely expected that Mary Lou McDonald would be the one to step up to that responsibility. She had no baggage. She didn't come weighed down by decades of being linked to people doing bad things, even if it was in the name of what some might feel was a good cause. Her failure to do so is why it's Mary Lou that Sinn Fein's opponents are now talking about, and the overwhelming feeling when they do is one of disappointment.

They expected no better of Adams. They did expect better of her. Even Sinn Fein's harshest critics have expressed admiration for her as a politician, not least for her role on the Public Accounts Committee. If anyone could play good cop to Adams's bad cop, Mary Lou was the natural choice. Instead she joined the attack, making the fabled bull in a china shop look like a model of delicacy.

It's probably unfair to expect women to behave more compassionately towards victims of sexual abuse; basic decency isn't exclusive to one gender. But the fact is we do have particular expectations of women. Seeing a woman being so aggressive in the face of another woman's pain feels like a violation.

Female representatives of Sinn Fein increasingly resemble nice, middle-class girls instinctively defending the bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks. They're the Shangri-Las singing along to support their very own Leader Of The Pack.

By refusing to put her own stamp on this narrative, Mary Lou has lost some of her identity as a public figure. She has certainly lost much of her moral authority to speak on issues of rape and sexual abuse by other organisations. When circumstances called for her to shape the party in her own image for the future, she instead allowed the party's worst elements to shape her; and it begs the question, if she does become leader of Sinn Fein at some point, what sort of party it will be? Political commentator Janan Ganesh made an interesting point last week about the British Labour Party. "Labour's view of the press has soured to the point of self-harm," he wrote in the Financial Times. "The party talks of the Murdoch-owned tabloid press as a remote Other. It is just about conceivable that Labour can win power while ignoring anyone who disagrees with it. How it expects to govern a plural nation with such a sectarian cast of mind is harder to understand." This is where Sinn Fein is at right now as a party. "Unhinged by indignation" in the words Ganesh used to describe Labour. As Mairia Cahill pointed out on Twitter midweek, Sinn Fein has now turned angrily against the BBC, RTE, The Irish Times, thejournal.ie, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, TV3 . . . Soon there won't be anyone left that the party has not branded as the enemy.

There was even an extraordinary moment last week when Niall O'Connor of the Irish Independent sent out a tweet reporting that victims' groups and organisations representing journalists had condemned Adams's flippantly nostalgic remarks in America about the IRA holding guns to editors' heads back in the day, to which Sean Mac Bradaigh, an official communications official for Sinn Fein, immediately replied: "You are an idiot."

Even if he believed this to be so, what was the benefit, political or otherwise, of saying it? No other party officials would conduct themselves this way in public, and, if they did, would be swiftly chastised. Adams instead backed up his loose-tweeting colleague.

The party is now in a state of open hostility to everything and everyone except the hardest of the hard core. That inchoate antagonism was manifested symbolically with Mary Lou's sit-in at the Dail, which was presented by Sinn Fein as an honourable stand against a refusal, as they saw it, of the Tanaiste to answer legitimate questions.

Opposition parties never think that Government ministers have answered their questions. There has never been, in history, an exchange which ended with the Opposition saying: "Well, that answered all my concerns. Good work, Minister." Mary Lou admitted as much, but insisted that she felt the time had come to take a stand. Albeit seated.

Mentioning timing was certainly a Freudian slip, because it was immediately spotted by most people that this was happening the day after the Dail debate, during which Sinn Fein pointedly refused to answer a series of pertinent questions about its role in relocating sex offenders and silencing victims - and that the last time she got herself thrown out of the Dail was the day after the Spotlight documentary featuring Mairia Cahill.

Coincidence? Sinn Fein would have us believe so, but then they'd also have us believe that Gerry Adams has managed to be the republican leader longer than Stalin was leader of the Communist Party while being blissfully unaware of anything that was going on under his nose. Most recognised it as a blatant distraction from the party's own woes. Meanwhile, Mary Lou goes on tweeting her indignation. "Government frantically spinning with the media this evening," she declared on Thursday. Again this obsession with the media. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me.

Buoyed up by opinion polls, giddy with the prospect of making hay during the 1916 celebrations, Sinn Fein clearly thinks it doesn't matter what it does right now, because it will come through strongly at the next election anyway. But even if they were to sail to power on a wave of discontent with austerity, it would look increasingly less like a normal transition of power which happens after each election, and more what in business circles would be regarded as a hostile takeover by people drunk on bad history and self-pity.

Mary Lou McDonald must have had dreams of being the first of a new generation of Sinn Fein leaders who were freed from the shackles of the past. It looks instead as if that will have to wait for another generation of republicans. If she ever does become leader, it will be as the last of the old guard rather than as the first of the new. Only she can say if that was worth it.

Sunday Independent