November 25 2017
By Liam Fay
Sinn Féin defended the covering up of rape claims; its new leaders must prove they are not guilty of double standards
Contrary to what many evidently believe, there is no guarantee that the international scandal about sexual abuse and harassment will result in lasting social change. The outing of abusers is a big leap forward — but advances are often followed by reversals.
In the worst scenario, the predicted shift in attitudes will turn out to be nothing more than a blip. If you want an illustration of the speed and ease with which this can happen, look no further than Sinn Féin, a party that closed ranks when confronted with uncomfortable truths about its recent past.
Only three years ago, Sinn Féin was at the centre of a storm over allegations of a systematic cover-up of sex crimes within what’s known as the republican family. Courageous survivors came forward with sickening accounts of child rape and molestation.
Many of the most heinous acts were perpetrated by IRA members, powerful and feared individuals who behaved as though a licence for sexual rampage was a perk of the job. The public was also presented with a woefully inadequate response by a republican leadership more committed to avoiding bad publicity than protecting children.
Today, many of Sinn Féin’s top brass behave as though the revelations of a few years ago never took place. The party’s representatives are particularly aggressive in their apparent determination to shoot down any public mention of the concerted suppression of sex crime allegations by republican leaders. Whenever a political opponent dares to raise the subject, Sinn Féin’s reaction ranges from merely belligerent to the downright hysterical.
Sexual abuse seems to have been rife within the republican movement for decades. Sexual abuse is, of course, a corrupting feature of life in all sectors of society but the trauma inflicted on victims was greatly exacerbated by the peculiar circumstances of the Troubles. Engagement of any kind with the RUC was forcefully discouraged within nationalist areas so sex crimes were seldom reported.
In keeping with the grotesque pretence that the IRA served as “protectors” of the Catholic community, the organisation’s commanders conducted their own investigations into abuse allegations. These “investigations” were actually exercises in concealment. Offenders were moved around or told to lie low. Survivors were intimidated into silence. Gerry Adams, who became Sinn Féin president in 1983, was familiar with the way things were. His late father, Gerry Adams Sr, subjected family members to emotional, physical and sexual abuse over many years.
The elder Adams had been a revered figure in republican circles since the 1940s. He died in 2003 and was buried with the IRA’s version of full military honours, including a coffin draped in the tricolour. Gerry Adams did not speak publicly about the abuse until 2009, when the media revealed that his brother was facing allegations. Liam Adams is serving a 16-year sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter Aine who waived her right to anonymity. The abuse was carried out between 1977 and 1983 when Aine was aged between four and nine.
We learnt a great deal more about the attitude of senior Sinn Féiners to sexual abuse in 2014 when Máiría Cahill went public on the BBC’s Spotlight programme. Ms Cahill, a member of a well-known republican family, told how she had been repeatedly raped during her teens by an IRA man. She also revealed details of the IRA’s investigation and the kangaroo court she was forced to attend, along with the rapist.
Ms Cahill was extremely critical of Gerry Adams’s handling of her allegations. She recalled meetings with the Sinn Féin president at which, she said, he gave her assurances that he subsequently failed to honour.
Mr Adams denied any suggestion that he conspired in a cover-up. Prominent Sinn Féin members, from north and south, queued up to express support for his position. “I believe Gerry,” they chanted, in disconcerting harmony.
The closing weeks of 2014 were a torrid time for the party, as pressure mounted over what its leaders knew. Mr Adams was accused of failing to provide to the authorities information about abusers. In response, he supplied a list naming 27 alleged sex offenders to the gardaí. By way of explaining how the list had come into his possession, he said it had been posted through the letterbox of his Belfast home by an anonymous caller.
Last weekend, at the Sinn Féin ard fheis, Mr Adams announced that he would not be contesting the next general election and would step down as party president early next year.
He did so with a jubilant speech which presented a typically sanitised account of the IRA’s role in the Northern Ireland conflict. The abuse scandals weren’t mentioned. Somewhat more surprising was the absence of any reference to these episodes in the ensuing TV and radio analysis of Mr Adams’s life and career. Already, it seems, the IRA and its abuse scandals have been reduced to a footnote.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, is almost certain to become his successor. She has none of the baggage associated with armed republicanism and, for many, represents a clean break with the dark past embodied by Mr Adams. But, in order to fully vindicate this billing, she will have to distance herself from the toxic attitudes to sexual abuse that were also a trademark of former times.
Ms McDonald has made it clear that she does not condone the IRA’s involvement in kangaroo courts — but, at the height of the controversy over Ms Cahill’s allegations, she sought to justify the republican leadership’s behaviour on the grounds that it was operating in a divided society, without access to what she called “non-political policing”. Ms McDonald’s willingness to make such allowances stands in stark contrast to her trenchant and remorseless denunciations of others who have sought to play down or cover up sex crimes.
All of this leaves her vulnerable to accusations of double standards, especially in the current climate. It also demonstrates the extent to which, even with a new leader, Sinn Féin’s dark past will continue to cast a long shadow.
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