Denials and fabrications
Challenges to autocratic organisations are invariably met by efforts to intimidate their critics and, if they cannot be silenced, to discredit them. Sinn Féin and the republican movement have a solid record in that regard. Their initial treatment of Maíria Cahill, a young Belfast woman who alleged she was raped by an IRA member and then interrogated – in the presence of the accused – by members of a kangaroo court, were the actions of an inherently misogynist organisation. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin compared its response to that of the Catholic hierarchy when confronted by cases of clerical sex abuse. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams even offered the bishops’ excuse of “a lack of understanding” in defence of what took place.
Mr Adams claims that his political opponents are exploiting Ms Cahill’s story for low political ends and there is no doubt that the controversy is playing out against the backdrop of a highly competitive political environment. But as insults and allegations are traded in the Dáil, it is important to remember that Ms Cahill is the victim in all of this. Not alone was she raped and abused as a teenager in 1997 – something a number of Sinn Féin TDs now acknowledge – she lost her home because of her refusal to remain silent within a rigidly-controlled community. Her challenge to Mr Adams’s version of events led on to allegations that she was pursuing a dissident republican agenda. She has been treated atrociously.
The Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland and its Director of Public Prosecutions have expressed concern about the manner in which her case was handled by the PSNI. A special inquiry has been ordered into why there was a four-year delay in bringing the matter before the courts. The impact of such a delay and the inevitable pressure it places on a complainant is well documented in rape cases.
Mr Adams has insisted there was no attempt at a cover-up and that he urged Ms Cahill to go to the RUC. His protests are risible. Indications that, in other sexual abuse cases, IRA offenders were sent South as punishment are disturbing and could damage the party’s election prospects. Denials and fabrications are major weapons in Mr Adams’s armoury. That might be understandable in a twilight world of subversion and terror. But, as the leader of a party that espouses democratic principles in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, higher standards are required. His values and integrity became matters of public discussion in the past year because of the murder of Jean McConville and the sexual abuse of his niece. On each occasion – and in spite of glaring inconsistencies – Sinn Féin politicians resolutely defended him. As the party seeks to broaden its appeal in this State and share in government, however, such unconditional support may become a liability.