Sunday 16 December 2018

Sinn Fein is holding a gun, rather than a mirror, up to the truth

The IRA is back on the stage, Eilis O'Hanlon writes, and Sinn Fein must make up its mind if it wants it to stay or not

Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein
Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's a strange experience to sit in the public gallery of a parliament chamber and watch elected representatives smirking during a debate on rape and child abuse; but that's what happened last Tuesday when the Stormont assembly in Belfast met to debate a motion of censure against a Sinn Fein member for failing to report the abuse of Mairia Cahill.

Ann Travers, whose 22-year-old sister Mary was murdered by the IRA as they walked home from Mass in 1984, went along to support Mairia. She's used to being on the receiving end of such treatment. She was instrumental in gathering support for the SPAD bill, which bars anyone with a serious conviction from being a special adviser at Stormont, after being shocked to learn that the woman convicted of involvement in the murder of her sister was working in the Department of Culture. As a result, Ann found herself being dubbed a "celebrity victim" by one Sinn Fein councillor.

Now it's Mairia's turn.

The Sinn Fein benches were practically bristling with indignation on the day. How dare anyone suggest they would ever mistreat a rape victim! The irony that there was one sitting in the gallery at the time clearly escaped them.

The motion was passed. Junior minister Jennifer McCann's admission that she was told in 2005 by Mairia of her rape but did not report it to authorities will now be scrutinised to determine if she breached Stormont's ministerial code of conduct, particularly given that McCann has responsibility for the ongoing inquiry into historical institutional abuse up North.

But whether any more will come of it remains to be seen. Sinn Fein is still in that place where the Catholic church found itself in the mid 1990s of feeling it has nothing to apologise for and has committed no wrong.

The official response has switched from trying to dismiss Mairia as a liar to now acknowledging most of what she says as truth whilst decrying that her story is being used as a "political football".

The Stormont debate showed that tactic for the meaningless waffle that it is. It's sugar-coated words for the cameras. In private, Sinn Fein is furious with her for blowing the lid off its dirty secrets, and last week made no attempt to hide it. This was Old Sinn Fein, not Sinn Fein Nua.

That's another secret which has been exposed by the response to Mairia. Sinn Fein prides itself on being the largest party on the island, but in reality it's two parties. Sometimes that works to its advantage. That's how it is able to simultaneously ride the twin horses of austerity and anti-austerity, implementing cuts in the North whilst insisting that it will fight cuts to the last breath in the Republic.

The argument there is that it has no choice in Northern Ireland because "the Tories made us do it", but that's no more convincing from Sinn Fein than "the ECB made us do it" is from the Irish government. There are always choices.

Sometimes the divisions between the party in the two separate parts of the island don't work so well for Sinn Fein. That's what's happening right now with Mairia's case, a situation which the party in Dublin would much rather cordon off as a legacy issue of conflict "up there", but which stubbornly refuses to stay on its own side of the Border.

There are some Sinn Fein representatives in the South with IRA connections, but mostly the party has done a good job of not tainting itself with the whiff of cordite. Now suddenly they're being forced to confront the IRA question once more, mainly to defend an embattled Gerry Adams, who is almost a physical manifestation of the party's awkwardness as it attempts to straddle the Border.

Mary Lou McDonald being backed into a corner where she has to say the IRA were "decent" people - who just happened to do evil things because "the Brits made them do it" presumably - is simply the most painful expression of the bind the party is in. And it keeps getting worse.

Two weeks ago, Adams travelled to Belfast to give a "keynote" address which turned out to be one of the most belligerent speeches he has delivered since the end of the Troubles. One detail which wasn't picked up on in that speech was how he went out of his way to praise the "activists who served the republican cause in the ranks of the IRA, and Sinn Fein".

The order in which those two parts of the movement were eulogised was deliberate and chilling. Sinn Fein is being dragged into a moral morass in order to protect the Provisional IRA, blowing apart any effort by the party in Dublin to keep the terrorist connection at arm's length.

Now Adams has done it again, speaking in the United States of the days when republicans could hold guns to the head of newspaper editors and destroy printing presses.

Adams always loses the run of himself when he goes to America, but, even by his own low standards, donning the beret and wrapping himself in the tricolour in this way was irresponsible, dangerous behaviour from a man who, his supporters believe, will soon be Taoiseach.

This wasn't an off-the-cuff remark. It was contained in a carefully crafted speech.

Again, the same dilemma. Either he knows how his words might be taken, which makes him a coldly calculating gambler with a contempt for decency; or he has no idea what an appalling thing this is to say, which suggests that his thought processes cannot be trusted to stay within the bounds of normal rectitude.

As an echo of what republicans have in store for the centenary of the Rising, it was bad enough. As a shot across the bows of a news organisation, two of whose journalists actually were murdered in recent memory, it was beneath contempt.

RTE has not done enough to highlight Sinn Fein's inextricable IRA connections, even as Adams wallowed in them in recent weeks. The national broadcaster was slow to realise the importance of the Mairia Cahill story, and was reduced to playing catch- up as Newstalk, particularly Lunchtime with Jonathan Healy, did all the running; even then, RTE's response has sounded half-hearted.

Last week, a nadir of sorts was reached as Six One News reduced the announcement of DNA tests confirming that the body found in a bog in Co Meath were those of Disappeared victim Brendan Megraw to a perfunctory 22 seconds, not even mentioning that Megraw had been murdered by the IRA, merely stating that he "went missing in 1978 at the age of 23".

This amnesia from RTE would be astonishing if it wasn't so commonplace; but even its apparent obliviousness to Sinn Fein's stain of IRA entanglement will surely struggle to brush off the republican movement leader's latest disquietingly casual references to holding a gun to the head of newspaper editors who dare to question the men in balaclavas.

Or maybe not. This week, the debate on IRA/SF's complicity in child abuse switches to the Dail, but if one thing is becoming increasing obvious, it's that Gerry Adams now considers himself untouchable. He can say and do anything, however outrageous, and no one in the party will chide or challenge him. That is unprecedented in any modern democracy, though it is quite common in dictatorships. As is dangling the threat of violence over the heads of your opponents.

Brushing off the implications with the weasel words "I'm obviously not advocating that" won't wash.

That's what Henry II said after exclaiming about Becket: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" It didn't stop Henry's acolytes from taking him literally.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss