Controversy is to Sinn Féin what rain is to the Irish weather: a fresh outbreak is possible at any time. The more the party’s political influence has grown, the greater the intensity and duration of the storms that break over its head.
This is understandable: the activities of a marginal party are of less interest to the media, the political class and the general public than the conduct of an organisation that could be in government in the Republic and already is in the North.
But there has never been an episode to compare with the avalanche of condemnation that developed over Maíria Cahill’s allegation that a member of the Provisional IRA sexually abused her.
A grandniece of Joe Cahill, one of the organisation's founding members, the Belfast woman claimed that the abuse began in August 1997, when she was 16, and continued for 12 months. In 1998 she complained to four women members of the republican movement, and she says that the IRA questioned her for months in 1999 about the allegations, in what has been described as a kangaroo court.
Cahill says that she was brought face to face with her alleged abuser in March 2000 but that the IRA came to no decision and that her alleged abuser left Northern Ireland. She says that she met Gerry Adams, the party's president, about the issue a number of times between 2000 and 2006.
In January 2010 she gave an interview to the Sunday Tribune newspaper. The following April she made statements to the Police Service of Northern Ireland about her alleged rapist and subsequent alleged IRA "interrogators". In April and May of 2014 cases against the alleged rapist and "interrogators" collapsed after Cahill withdrew evidence. The prosecution told the court that she was in fear of testifying against her alleged attacker.
On October 14th, 2014, she repeated her allegations about rape and IRA questioning on Spotlight, the BBC Northern Ireland current-affairs programme. Cahill said that in the first of several meetings Adams told her that abusers could be extremely manipulative and that he added, "Sometimes they're that manipulative that the people who have been abused actually enjoy it."
The Sinn Féin leader sharply denied this to RTÉ shortly afterwards: “I am personally horrified at the allegation that I would make the comments Maíria has attributed to me,” he said. “I would never make such remarks to anyone, much less an alleged victim of abuse.”
He wrote in An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, and on his blog, "Maíria alleges she was raped and that the IRA conducted an investigation into this. The IRA has long since left the scene so there is no corporate way of verifying this but it must be pointed out that this allegation was subject to a police investigation and charges were brought against some republicans who strenuously denied Maíria's allegations. They insist they tried to help her. They were all acquitted by the court.
“Maíria has also accused Sinn Féin and me of engaging in a cover-up. That is untrue. When I learned of the allegation that Maíria was the victim of rape I asked her grand-uncle, Joe Cahill, a senior and widely-respected republican, to advise her to go to the RUC. He did this but Maíria did not want to do so at that time. When Maíria subsequently did go to the police, I co-operated with the police investigation.”
Has the IRA left the scene?
What are we to make of Adams’s statement that the Provisional IRA has long since left the scene? The former tánaiste and justice minister Michael McDowell, a political opponent of Sinn Féin, says that it still exists, although it may be no longer in the public eye. In an interview for my book he said, “I don’t know what has happened to the [IRA] army council. I don’t think it’s ever dissolved itself.”
As for the IRA itself, he said, “It hasn’t ceased to exist formally. It hasn’t disbanded.” He continued, “There was never a convention to disband it, and it can’t disband, because it is in its own mind the repository of the legitimate authority of the people of Ireland going back to 1916.”
A solicitor representing four people who had been acquitted of charges relating to the IRA's alleged questioning of Maíria Cahill complained that they were being subjected to trial by media. Peter Madden of the Northern Ireland solicitors Madden & Finucane that said the fallout from Spotlight meant that his clients' acquittals "have been either ignored or devalued".
Pointing out that Cahill, as the main prosecution witness, was to be cross-examined about her version of events, which his clients disputed, he continued: “She refused to allow this to take place and would not participate in the normal method of giving evidence at a trial, where the truth of her version of events would be tested by cross-examination. My clients were therefore found not guilty of these offences.”
Reports that Cahill had been national secretary of the Republican Network for Unity, a revolutionary Irish republican party, did not reduce the heat on Sinn Féin. On its current website the Republican Network for Unity condemns the Belfast Agreement as sectarian and partitionist and opposes the police services in both parts of the island.
Cahill, who was announced this month as the Labour Party’s candidate in the forthcoming Seanad Éireann byelection, said that she had held the post for only “a few hours” in 2010 and added, “I was opposed to ‘outside influences’, in what was a perfectly legal pressure group, and was extremely vocal in this regard. Indeed, this was the reason that I left. I am on record consistently as being opposed to illegal armed actions.”
In October 2014 the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, asked Keir Starmer, a former DPP for England and Wales (and, since May this year, a Labour MP), to review the way the North’s Public Prosecution Service dealt with the allegations that an IRA member sexually abused Cahill and two other teenagers between 1997 and 2000.
The report, which Starmer wrote with his fellow barrister Katherine O’Byrne, found that, overall, the three women were let down by the Public Prosecution Service and counsel. Given the failings in the handling of the case, it was “almost inevitable” that the three women would pull out of the process: “Each of them was prepared to support their allegations at the outset, but as their cases became increasingly weakened and delayed, their willingness to continue understandably diminished.”
A second sex-abuse controversy broke out in March this year when Paudie McGahon, a 40-year-old from Co Louth, told Spotlight that he was raped by an IRA man in the early 1990s, when he was 17.
Adding to Sinn Féin’s woes was the long-running saga of Liam Adams, a younger brother of the party president, who had appealed his conviction for the sexual abuse of his daughter Áine when she was between four and nine years old. On May 5th this year the Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld the conviction and the sentence of 16 years, two of them on probation.
In October 2013 a jury of nine men and three women, by an 11-to-one majority, had found Liam Adams guilty of all 10 charges against him: three counts of rape, three of gross indecency and four of indecent assault. A previous case in April collapsed over an issue of disclosure.
Gerry Adams, who gave evidence in the first trial, was cross-examined at length with regard to his credibility but was not called to give evidence at the second trial.
In June this year, a month after Liam Adams lost his appeal against the jail sentence, the Northern Ireland Attorney General, John Larkin, issued a report about whether Gerry Adams, who has been a TD since 2011 and before that was MP for Belfast West for more than two decades, should have been prosecuted for allegedly withholding information about the sexual abuse of his niece.
In his 48-page report Larkin found that the Public Prosecution Service “correctly formed the view that the evidential test for prosecution could not be satisfied in relation to Gerry Adams”.
If Gerry Adams was off the hook over the case of his brother Liam, another unresolved issue stretched back even further. In 2014 the the Police Service of Northern Ireland questioned the Sinn Féin leader for four days about the disappearance and killing of Jean McConville. The police sent a file to the prosecution service, which decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Adams or six others who were questioned.
A recently widowed 38-year-old mother of 10, McConville was abducted from the Divis Flats, an IRA stronghold in west Belfast, on December 7th, 1972. A member of the public found her body at Shelling Hill Beach, on the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth, in August 2003: heavy rain had unearthed her remains. She had been shot in the back of the head; a postmortem also found evidence that she might have been beaten or even tortured.
Why was she kidnapped and killed? It was suggested that she had helped a wounded British soldier and that she was passing information via a secret radio transmitter.
An IRA statement on July 8th, 2006, said, “Following a public request from the family of Jean McConville the IRA carried out a thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding her death. That investigation has confirmed that Jean McConville was working as an informer for the British army.”
Brendan “the Dark” Hughes, who had been a leading IRA figure, made a similar claim. But an investigation in 2006 by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland found no evidence to back up this allegation.
Hughes, who died in 2008, had been interviewed for the Belfast oral-history project of Boston College, in Massachusetts; participants in the IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force told it about their past activities on the understanding that nothing would be published while they were alive.
After Hughes’s death it was revealed that he had alleged to Boston College that Gerry Adams, formerly a close friend, had ordered McConville’s disappearance and killing.
Hughes’s version of events was repeated in a newspaper report of an interview with Dolours Price in 2010, three years before she died. Imprisoned after the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey, the central criminal court in London, Price was also interviewed for the oral-history project; those contents have not yet been made public, but the PSNI won a legal battle to obtain any Boston College interview material that specifically referred to McConville.
It does appear, at times, that if Adams were a combination of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and the dalai lama he would still be subjected to a barrage of denunciation for anything he had ever said or done. At the same time he has a talent for putting his foot in it. His remark, in a television interview, about McConville’s fate that “that’s what happens in wars” was inappropriate and bound to offend.
Likewise, his attempt at humour at a Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in New York on November 6th, 2014, seriously damaged him. Referring in a speech to criticism of his activities by the Irish Independent, Adams pointed out how Michael Collins, the guerrilla leader, dealt with similar treatment by that newspaper during the War of Independence: "He went in, sent volunteers in, to the offices, held the editor at gunpoint, and destroyed the entire printing press."
The crowd of 650 or so people, who had paid $500 a seat, laughed when Adams continued, “I’m obviously not advocating that.” The remarks were widely criticised elsewhere.
In June this writer went along to observe the annual Sinn Féin commemoration at the graveside of Wolfe Tone, founder of Irish republicanism, at Bodenstown, in Co Kildare. Adams, who sat facing the crowd, tapped away constantly on his mobile phone, as eagerly as any teenager. It appeared somewhat disrespectful, but when I later checked his Twitter account he had tweeted 19 messages, including 24 photographs, from the occasion to his followers.
“Does my sexiness upset you?”
The Sinn Féin leader clearly revels in this branch of social media, but his critics are watching. Two years ago, for example, with a message to mark his 65th birthday, he tweeted a screenshot of
Still I Rise
, a poem by the African-American writer and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou.
It is a powerful, moving protest against racial oppression. But the seventh of its nine stanzas – not the start of the poem, as one critic of Adams claimed – drew adverse reaction towards the Sinn Féin leader. It reads:
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
When reporters asked Adams about his taste in poetry, he urged them to read the complete poem rather than focus on a small part of it.
He is also known for hugging trees and, perhaps most bizarrely, told Sean Moncrieff this year, on the Newstalk radio station, that he trampolines naked with his dog – although this comes across as a Monty Python-style fantasy.
If a leader or leaders from a different generation were to replace Adams, Sinn Féin would almost certainly have to endure a great deal less political and media controversy.
But no matter what accusations are levelled against Adams, his colleagues continue to back him. Unless some material emerges that is so damning that even his loyal supporters cannot withstand the pressure, Adams looks set to continue as Sinn Féin president for as long as he sees fit.
At the age of 67 – he was born on October 6th, 1948 – he appears fit and healthy and shows no sign of retiring to his Co Donegal holiday home.
If he stepped down, some argue, it would make the party a good deal more attractive to middle-class voters in the Republic. Others suggest that his history of involvement in the “struggle”, despite his much-derided denial of IRA membership, is ultimately more of an asset than a liability, and that Irish voters like their leaders to have a “whiff of cordite” about them, as was the case with Éamon de Valera and Charles Haughey – provided that it is in the past and not the present or, heaven forbid, the future.
This is an edited extract from Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin, by the former Irish Times journalist Deaglán de Bréadún. It is published by Merrion Press