Sinn Féin and its leader Gerry Adams have been left reeling by Maíria Cahill's determination to challenge the republican movement about the way in which it dealt with her alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a leading IRA figure in Belfast.
The controversy has gone on for more than a week and is clearly proving a huge embarrassment for Sinn Féin. The question is whether it will do its prospects in the Republic lasting damage or whether it will be a temporary setback, like previous controversies about the republican past.
The issue dominated political debate in the Dáil and stole the media headlines yesterday following Cahill's visit to Government Buildings where she met Taoiseach Enda Kenny for 90 minutes to tell him her story.
Afterwards, Cahill repeated her claim that she had discussed her allegations with Adams at a meeting with him.
There were tense exchanges in the Dáil when the Taoiseach turned Leaders’ Questions back on Adams, challenging him to confirm if he knew if Cahill had been required to attend in a room with three men and her abuser. He also asked Adams if he was aware of people being moved to the Republic, having been involved in sexual abuse in the North.
An angry Adams denied the “allegations that have been made about me and about Sinn Féin members who assure me that all they did, in their engagements, conversations and their work with Maíria Cahill, was to help her”.
Later, in a statement, Adams apologised to victims of abuse who were let down or failed by the IRA’s inability to resolve these issues. He said those who wish to should report complaints to the appropriate authorities, North or South.
Cahill’s courage and persistence has ensured Adams and Sinn Féin have been forced to confront an embarrassing episode from the past when they were intent on pressuring the Government over ongoing problems in Irish Water.
Already she has forced the republican leadership to acknowledge sexual abuse took place within the movement and was dealt with internally, but she will not be content until her version of what happened is accepted by Adams and other Sinn Féin leaders.
Cahill has also put the focus on the party’s deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who has staunchly defended Adams throughout the controversy. Cahill said yesterday that McDonald had used Twitter to send her a direct message urging her to get in touch should she wish to do so. Cahill responded by saying she would meet McDonald, but only when she and other leading Sinn Féin figures are “prepared to say I’m telling the truth”.
McDonald will not go further than saying she believes Cahill was abused and continues calling on anyone with any information about child sexual abuse to go to the authorities immediately. To entertain Cahill’s other allegations would put McDonald in conflict with Adams.
This, Cahill says, is why other abuse victims are not coming forward: they are watching how she is being treated and are afraid they too will not be fully believed.
The support given by McDonald and other leading Sinn Féin figures to Adams could prove to be the most politically damaging aspect of the controversy for the party in the Republic. It not only evokes memories of the bad old days in the North but suggests Sinn Féin, for all its rhetoric about women’s rights, did not respond appropriately to the concerns of an abuse victim.The party has struggled to gain as much support among women as men in the Republic and this controversy won’t do much for its chances of eliminating that negative.
It is also interesting that in his response yesterday Adams apologised to victims of abuse who were let down or failed by the IRA’s inability to resolve these issues. If, as he has consistently maintained, he was never a member of the IRA why is Adams apologising on its behalf?
This is just one of the issues with which he will have to deal in the days ahead.