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Eilis O'Hanlon: Chilling how Sinn Fein's next generation is willing to go along with the silence

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Paudie McGahon

Paudie McGahon

Paudie McGahon

If Sinn Fein urged Louth man Paudie McGahon to go the gardai, haven't they already done as much as could reasonably be expected? That's the line which is now being taken by republicans in the wake of another scandal involving the internal investigation of a sexual abuse case by the IRA.

It's easy for one-half of the republican movement to make the right noises, by publicly telling victims to go to the police. It's much harder for victims to actually do so when they have been warned privately by the other half of the same movement that this is not an option which they would be wise to consider. What did Sinn Fein do to ensure that victims would be safe from reprisals if they came forward? Paudie told BBC's Spotlight that he was warned his body would be found on a border road if he spoke out. Nothing that happened subsequently was likely to assure him that he was safe.

This gets to the heart of why Sinn Fein's response to this latest awful story is as untrustworthy and inadequate as its response to the last one. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It's the lying, stupid.

Senior figures in Sinn Fein still refuse to acknowledge that kangaroo courts and the fobbing off of victims was not some isolated, unfortunate aberration from the norm. It was the norm. This was how allegations against certain republicans were handled. Sinn Fein is persisting with the lie that they have no more information to give; that they don't know who, or where, these people are; that they have cooperated fully in the process of uncovering the truth about their activities and whereabouts.

The republican movement is in possession of vast amounts of information about these people. In rare cases where it doesn't already know the precise details, it could find out within hours. The republican movement still retains a network of intelligence-gathering which would put the KGB to shame. In these instances, it chooses not to put those resources at the disposal of victims. And it's still going on. Marie Brown, director of Foyle Women's Aid, told Donegal's Highland Radio last week that paramilitary investigations are still being conducted in cases of sexual violence.

Seamus Mallon of the SDLP famously said the Belfast Agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners". Recalling the report which first lifted the lid on the Catholic church's handling of clerical child abuse, the unravelling of the truth about the republican movement's handling of sexual abuse could be said to be turning into the Ryan Commission for slow learners.

They tried to treat Mairia Cahill as an isolated case, in essence betting the farm on a hope that no other victims would come forward for fear of being subjected to the same sneers and smears. That was madness because, as Paudie himself said, the testimony of one victim gives courage to the next; but Sinn Fein seems intent on treating him as an isolated case as well, even while knowing there are other victims preparing to go public.

It's a huge risk, but they're gamblers, with the false confidence of all reckless high rollers. Until they go broke, they'll always chance another punt against the odds.

It's certainly absurd to say that the reason SF is still being coy about the extent of its knowledge of these investigations is out of some high-minded concern about what they call "trial by media". There's a long tradition of investigative journalism which "names names" and exposes those who have escaped justice, and there would not be a single word of complaint from Sinn Fein if their enemies were at the receiving end of it. Spotlight alone has broadcast hundreds of editions in its history directed at unionists and the British state. There was never one complaint afterwards from republicans about due process. Only when republicans are the subject of these investigations do they ever raise an objection.

Exposing stories such as Paudie's is all the more important because so few cases of sexual abuse come to court. To say that the judicial process is the only place where the experiences of victims can be shared or heard is to effectively tell the majority of the abused to shut up; and it's chilling to see how readily Sinn Fein's next generation of representatives are willing to go along with that silencing in order to protect certain figures within the IRA who presided over the practice of kangaroo courts. It's a reminder of where the real power lies in that political relationship.

Understanding that dynamic involves confronting the abiding mythology of the republican movement. Namely that the IRA considers itself subject to a different code of law and morality than everybody else on the island. Others have no right to judge them, because they were doing their duty by "Ireland", that abstract concept which justifies any number of dead or abused children. The sickness of that culture has been exposed again by Paudie. The excuse all along was that the nationalist community in the North did not trust the police, therefore the IRA was reluctantly forced to take on an investigative role for which it was not suited. That was the argument advanced by Gerry Adams in his blog, in which he admitted that the IRA shot and exiled abusers.

That logic, if it can even be called that, manifestly does not apply in this case. Paudie's abuse did not happen in the North; if reported, it would not have been investigated by the PSNI; what's more, the kangaroo court in question took place four years after the Belfast Agreement. What his experience confirms is that the IRA did not investigate such allegations unwillingly, but rather because it believes that it is entitled to do so, and that no one has the right to judge the actions of IRA members other than the IRA itself.

Abusers did not act in the name of the republican movement, but these internal investigations were not only done in the movement's name, they were absolutely symbolic of where the republican movement sees its special place in the lives of "its" people.

Given all that, it is insulting of Sinn Fein representatives to call on other victims to come forward. In an interview last week, Mary Lou McDonald even tried to rewind the last five horrible months by commending Mairia Cahill for coming forward with her story, when she sat silently in Belfast at a special convention last year as her leader effectively threw Mairia to the dogs. Adams did it again at the party's ard fheis last Saturday.

He didn't mention her by name, but his reference to the "tsunami of untruths and smears" which republicans had lately faced was unmistakable. There wasn't much commendation of Mairia's bravery in Derry, was there, Mary Lou?

Far worse, Adams actually prepared republicans to dismiss any future allegations of abuse, which he hinted were coming with the words: "Brace yourselves". Sinn Fein knew by this point what Spotlight was about to reveal. The BBC had contacted the relevant players in advance. Knowing this, Adams was already priming his followers not to believe the programme, and, by implication, not to listen to Paudie McGahon as he found the courage to speak about how he was treated both by Sinn Fein and the IRA. That is genuinely shocking.

To say that republicans have urged, or are urging, people to go forward when this is what they can expect when they do is insulting. It's even more insulting for them to claim that they support victims when they do go forward. In order to proceed with prosecutions, the police need evidence, and SF deliberately goes out of its way to thwart them when they try to gather it. That can include party representatives issuing identikit statements which deliberately contain no usable information whatsoever.

How is that supporting victims in their moment of need? In his first statement to the police about the abuse perpetrated by his brother, Adams himself failed to mention Liam's personal admission in 2000 that he had molested his daughter. He only added that crucial detail at a later date. It's hardly leading by example.

Sean O'Rourke asked Mary Lou McDonald the relevant question. Who is best placed to reveal the truth about what happened - the gardai or Sinn Fein? The gardai, insisted McDonald disingenuously. Faced with a wall of silence, the best people to get to the truth are those who are sheltering behind the wall, not those on the outside who are trying to break it down.

Sunday Independent