Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has hit out at his political opponents and the media over what he says is the politicisation of the Maíria Cahill sexual abuse controversy.
Mr Adams told an audience at a Sinn Féin event in Belfast's Balmoral Hotel today that the Taoiseach, the Fianna Fáil leader, Stormont politicians and others had politicised this "sensitive and difficult issue".
Ms Cahill, from Belfast, claims in 1997 she was raped as a teenager by a suspected IRA member and then interrogated by the IRA about the matter.
She later went to the police and court proceedings followed.
When Ms Cahill withdrew her evidence earlier this year charges were dropped against those said to have been involved in the IRA inquiry and the alleged rapist was acquitted.
Gerry Adams said “no one doubts that Maíria has been through great distress” and that “like every other citizen she is fully entitled to truth and justice”.
“Over the course of the past week Maíria Cahill has made serious allegations against myself and other Sinn Féin members,” he added.
“While I am very mindful of the trauma she has suffered, I and the others she has named reject these allegations.
“And they, these allegations, have been seized upon in the most cynical, calculated and most opportunistic way by our political opponents.
“Their aim has little to do with helping victims of abuse but everything to do with following their own narrow political agendas.
“The serious and sensitive issues of abuse must be dealt with in a victim centred way by the appropriate authorities, instead they have been politicised in the Dáil, the Assembly chamber and the media.
“I am very conscious that a young woman is at the centre of this controversy so let me be very, very clear, abuse is wrong.
“It cannot and must not be tolerated.
“Let me be equally clear, Sinn Féin has not engaged in any cover up of abuse at any level of this party.”
Mr Adams described the accusations of an abuse cover up as a "vile slur" against republicans across Ireland.
He said all Sinn Féin members who spoke to Mairia Cahill about the abuse she claims she suffered as a 16-year-old had assured him they did “all they could to support her and that’s what I did also”.
Mr Adams explained he strongly objected to the Taoiseach, the Fianna Fáil leader and some media commentators drawing comparisons with the actions of Sinn Féin members in Maíria Cahill's case and that of the Catholic Church in dealing with abuse allegations.
“A cursory examination of the facts gives the lie to that ridiculous assertion,” he said.
“The Catholic hierarchy and the State......presided over institutionalised abuse for decades.
“It was systemic and deliberate practice.
“In sharp contrast Sinn Féin has encouraged victims to speak out.
“All the Sinn Féin members who spoke to Maíria Cahill acted in good faith toward her.
“They advised her to speak to her family, to seek counselling or to approach social services.”
The Sinn Féin leader called on the governments and all political parties to join Sinn Féin in addressing the legacy issue of sexual abuse
“How the various protagonists dealt with the issue of sexual abuse is clearly one of the legacy issues that needs to be resolved as part of the necessary business of dealing with the past,” he added.
Mr Adams said the IRA was not equipped to deal with abuse allegations “but the clock cannot be turned back”.
“Sinn Féin cannot change what happened in the past but we can acknowledge failure and that is what I have done,” he added.
“Everyone, including us, has a duty to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
“IRA actions did fail victims of abuse. As Uachtaráin of Sinn Féin, I have acknowledged that. I am sorry for that. I apologise for that.”
Mr Adams accused Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin of setting aside the judicial process and rights of citizens before the law and challenged the Taoiseach on whether he had contacted An Garda Síochana and the PSNI regarding new abuse allegations he said he was made aware of.
Mr Kenny has claimed he has knowledge of alleged child abusers being moved from the north to the Republic.
Gerry Adams ended his speech in Belfast by calling on former IRA volunteers to pass any information they have about allegations of child abuse to the appropriate authorities and reiterated that Sinn Féin was not “part of any conspiracy to protect child abusers or to cover up abuse.
“So, the difficult issues raised by Maíria Cahill must be addressed,” he added.
“There are processes for doing this, they should be applied and respected.
“But let me be clear also, this will not be achieved by the blatant efforts to demonise Sinn Féin and republicans throughout Ireland.”