Powerful words as Maíria Cahill case gets full airing in Dáil

Analysis: Above all partisan taunts, questions over Sinn Féin’s abuse record are vitally important

For anybody seeking to discover what most divides the opposing political forces in the State at this moment of time, this afternoon’s Dáil debate about how Northern republicans dealt with the sexual abuse of Maíria Cahill by an IRA man will have supplied most of the answers.

Since 2011, Sinn Féin has been the coming force in Irish politics, mixing a broadly populist anti-austerity message combined with a diluted version of its Northern republicanism.

Does its past matter to the Southern electorate?

Should the questions of the nasty things that republicans did in the name of patriotism - or the legacy issues as Sinn Féin euphemises it - be discussed at all?


Sinn Féin clearly thinks not, unless it’s a perceived injustice against republicans. It has a hair-trigger sensitivity to any criticism, and an army of tweeters ready to respond.

All other parties clearly think it should be discussed. Each side accuses each other of cynical “electoralism” or a power grab.

But above the partisan taunts, the questions in themselves are vitally important, so that people, the voters, have as full an understanding as possible of all the facts and of all the context of the republican movement’s recent past.

Fundamental questions

The Maíria Cahill case has brought all of these fundamental questions into relief. They got a very full airing today in the Dáil, with a number of remarkable and powerful speeches from political leaders of the ‘established’ parties and an obdurate and unyielding rebuff, replete with diversion and obfuscation.

Throughout it all, Cahill herself, flanked by supporters, sat in the public gallery in the direct line of vision of party leader Gerry Adams and the party's deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, whose response to the whole affair has been widely criticised.

When all the bluster and rhetoric is removed, the net question was not about people getting acquitted in a trial on IRA membership or about terrible things that happened in the South. It was about how republicans dealt with abuse cases and - more pertinently - with abusers that came from within its ranks.

The Sinn Féin response has been one of qualified acknowledgment - acceptance that Cahill was abused and that the IRA response was “inadequate”.

But when it gets to the specifics of the extent of the practice, or what actually happened in particular cases, or how many, or what was done with offenders, the shutters come down.

In his speech, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke of the institutions in the South with “high enough walls” to block abuse from common sight.

Well, there may have been no physical walls within the IRA in the North, but the culture of secrecy was the same.

In a sense, the debate was what the historian Joe Lee described of other events in parliamentary history - a dialogue of the deaf but not of the mute.

Heavy rhetoric

Kenny himself, as he has done on occasions of momentous import, drew heavily on rhetoric in his speech that was not sparing in criticism. “Republicans who thought so much of this Republic, that they would house us with their rapists, gift us their child abusers... their rejects and ejects [could] prey on our women and children,” he said.

The most hard-hitting speech was made by Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty, whose told Adams she would "not believe the Lord's Prayer from his mouth" and told McDonald she was disgusted and disappointed beyond belief by her, representing the younger generation of Sinn Féin TDs.

She accused McDonald of denying Cahill’s claims “all in the name of a cheap political power grab”. She also said she knew of eight abusers moved South.

Like Kenny and Doherty, Labour leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton also quoted the American poet Maya Angelou, directing to Sinn Féin a potent line "with your bitter twisted lies" from Still I Rise.

She likened Sinn Féin’s response as “deny and attack” and compared it to the Catholic Church’s minimal admissions of one or two “bad apples”.

She called on Sinn Féin to call off the “dogs of war” on social media.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin's speech was less emotive, with a more detailed and forensic analysis.

Martin spoke of the number of children who had been shot in punishment shootings, noted a case from 1992 where boys were abused by an IRA member in a safe house in Co Louth, and said there were 28 victims looking for a means by which the abuse they suffered at the hands of IRA members could be publicly acknowledged.

Adams’s speech was defiant in tone, with little content that he had not ventilated before.

Abusers expelled

He said he accepted Cahill had been abused, conceded the IRA response was inadequate, and said the organisation shot and expelled abusers. But beyond that he said he knew nothing of the details and asserted that a case of alleged IRA cover-up had morphed to a claim where Sinn Féin facilitated sex abuse. “I reject the charge,” he said.

He also, by the by, said he had passed on an anonymous tip-off he recently received to the Garda. The tone was defensive. In sporting terms, it was blanket defensive. There was no concession beyond the general.

He settled instead on an attack on the party’s political opponents, saying they were motivated by “electoralism”.

Surely, there is an element of electoralism - Sinn Féin of all parties knows what that’s about - but it’s more than that, and the unremitting obduracy of Adams’s response seemed to show a tin ear to the sensitivities involved.

Indeed, the only moment in which there was a tinge of emotion in his speech was when he spoke about his brother Liam’s conviction for the abuse of his daughter.

With a catch in his voice, he criticised other political leaders for the “taunts and offensive commentary about what was for us a deeply traumatic event”. He said there was “nothing more personal than the remarks”.

Which was fine and understandable, except it was in stark contrast to his tone in relation to the other deeply traumatic event which formed the basis of the debate.

There’s no doubt about it, but the dividing lines have been made clear.