A roughly scrawled graffito has appeared in Beechmount Avenue in the Falls area of Belfast, which reads: ”Gerry tell the truth?” It’s a rare public challenge to the hegemony of Sinn Fein’s power base. The party hold five out of the six Assembly seats in West Belfast.
It sits around the corner from one of the youth clubs Gerry Adams’ brother Liam worked in for a total of seven years from 1998, until about the time Liam’s daughter Áine restarted a formal police investigation in 2006. He was recently convicted of her multiple child rape.
Up to now and over the twenty five year period Gerry admits to knowing about the case, the calculation within the northern media has been that Adams, like Bertie Ahern, is made of Teflon, and that none of the details emerging from Liam’s trial would lay a scratch on him.
The weight of previous experience would certainly back such a view.
Despite the Northern Bank robbery, and killings of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney and the ever renewing controversy around the 1972 abduction of Jean McConville, Mr Adams has come through if not smelling of roses certainly prospering at the ballot box and in the polls.
The problem here is that the rape of his niece as a child by her father was not a ‘political crime’. Mr Adams’s story of how he dealt with that crime has gone through innumerable changes each time he has been confronted with new evidence
Adams admitted in testimony in April that he had first heard and believed his niece Áine Adams’s accusations against her father as early as 1987. This is what he told UTV back in 2009.
Yet he also claimed he was estranged from his brother because of what she’d told him. It then emerged in court that Liam had lived with his brother for six weeks after starting at Clonard Monastery Youth Centre. He also attended his brother’s wedding to his second wife.
Gerry also told the court his brother had left the country after Áine first told him of her abuse at his brother’s hands in 1987. Whilst Liam had visited Canada and the US in 1983 he’d not gone further than a couple of holidays Spain after that time.
Asked to identify his brother in a photograph with Martin McGuinness in 2003 at Clonard Adams claimed he could not remember whether his senior colleague had been deputy First Minister in 2003.
He also insisted that he had reported Liam’s offences to both Clonard and Beechmount Youth Clubs. And yet neither had records of any such disclosure.
In short, there is no evidence that Adams did anything other than support his brother despite the fact he knew what Liam had done.
In acquiescing in its leader’s cover story, Sinn Fein has at best been silenced on one of the most chronic issues in Irish public life: i.e. child sex abuse. At worst it is storing up problems for itself further down the line.
This is of course a problem for the northern party. But it also imposes costs on the second generation leadership in the south who have fought the party’s way into political relevance on solid bread and butter issues.
Defending the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle and its place in history is one thing. But how many of the party’s talent in the Oireachtas signed up to defend the denial of victims of rape proper access to due process and the courts of justice.
So is he vulnerable now?
Reporting of northern politics has been cautious, particularly with regards to criticising Sinn Fein. Such caution is often animated by a fear that anything too heavy handed might cause the Good Friday settlement to unwind.
Peace remains delicate flower, as Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI Judith Gillespie put it last week.
But this story was not part of a political attack on Sinn Fein. There has been no loud blast of incoming political fire. It emerged from someone with a very close and personal relationship to the party leader himself.
Any damage arising therefore is more likely to be internal, and self inflicted.
In the south the party’s silence contrasts starkly with the Taoiseach’s and indeed Sinn Fein’s own public stance, on the Catholic church over the protection of paedophile priests. Claims to be a party which seeks to ‘protect the vulnerable’ fall a little short of the mark.
In the north Áine Adams has successfully jumped a long queue of victims patiently awaiting proper redress and finally had her father face justice twenty five years after first telling her uncle Gerry.
As she told the court, “looking back he was buttering me up. In the end I realised it was all about PR and protecting his own image.”
Gerry Adams is one of the longest-serving political leaders in Irish history. He acceded to the presidency of his party back in 1986 at a time when Sinn Fein ballot box tactics played second fiddle to the armed struggle of the Provisional IRA.
Internally Adams faces little in the way of challenge. Most important decisions are made at the top and handed down. In June a controversial planning bill was pressed on the parliamentary group at Stormont without discussion or prior warning.
And the party’s team in the Dail was kept waiting for weeks whilst the internal hierarchy hammered out a decision on which way to vote in the Seanad Referendum.
It is one of those kingdoms Machiavelli described in which it is almost impossible to take power but, once acquired, almost impossible to lose it.
For good or ill, the party’s pennant is firmly nailed to the Adams mast. In west Belfast unlike Robinson’s east of the city, work remains extremely hard to come by (PDF). People are far more focused on the benefits cuts coming down the line than Adams’ cover for his brother.
But in the longer run, it is perhaps his status as an unreliable witness may prove to be the poison in the party’s internal water supply.
A version of this article was first published in the Sunday Business Post as a news feature on 28th October 2013.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty