Sinn Fein’s contradictory stance between moral certitude of the Provisionals and its modern promises to Ireland

In 1997 Ray Burke informed RTE after his hour long session in the Dail that ‘the line is in the sand, from this day on this is D day, I move on’. Within a month he resigned as Minister for Foreign Affairs following an allegation of corruption which led to the setting up of what became the Flood Tribunal.

Burke was jailed for tax fraud in 2004.

By contrast the retribution of the state seems to hold little fear for Sinn Fein, in the sense that it does not by its own lights represent disgrace but can be represented publicly as some form of repression.

The casting of critics as enemies has its origins in the midst of the IRA war against the British.

Attempts to suppress any political representation of the party or of the political thinking behind IRA military actions were widespread and invasive in both jurisdictions.

What the liberal press (or indeed liberal bloggers) might have to say about internal house keeping matters has never particularly worried the faithful.

Indeed there is ample evidence that criticism from these quarters serves to motivate activists to engage more robustly with the electorate.

However we’re heading into week three of the Mairia Cahill story, which despite its unpromising prognosis may be an indication that the story is not going away anytime soon. Thus far Sinn Fein have made several attempts to draw a proverbial line in the sand. And yet the tide presses forward.

One of the most acute observations of the last week comes from the writer Martina Devlin. Despite writing a column for the much hated Irish Independent Ms Devlin is most certainly not one of the usual Provo hating suspects:

Sinn Fein has lost its deft touch and is stalled at a crossroads – left there by a woman who has toppled the republican tradition’s sacred cow of silence.

Mairia Cahill is eloquent, believable and utterly determined. Exactly the sort of woman, in fact, that Sinn Fein normally would run for office.

She is forcing it to confront its past – something the party steadfastly avoids, if it can. Yet if Sinn Fein wants to be considered seriously by voters as a potential party of government, its past cannot be wrapped in prevarications.

This is precisely marks the real problem Sinn Fein now faces.

Ironically the military discipline which underpinned the IRAs long war of attrition against the British state in Ireland was in part inculcated into the younger generation of Adams and McGuinness by ‘old soldiers’ like Joe Cahill.

Cahill was at least as responsible and probably more so than Adams for the hard edge of the Provisional’s first onslaughts. And he was one Adams’ most ardent supporters through the various splits within the movement right up to the decision to go on ceasefire in 1994.

But after 75/6 Adams became one of the critical architects of the long war strategy. Critical to that became the need to strengthen the moral framework within which IRA volunteers would operate. One of the key lines from the Green Book (attributed by some to Adams and Seamus Twomey), provided it:

The Irish Republican Army, as the legal representatives of the Irish people, are morally justified in carrying out a campaign of resistance against foreign occupation forces and domestic collaborators. All volunteers are and must feel morally justified in carrying out the dictates of the legal government; they as the Army are the legal and lawful Army of the Irish Republic which has been forced underground by overwhelming forces.[emphasis added]

Contrary to common myth very few IRA volunteers were actual psychopaths. Most were ordinary men and women who opted into the Fenian tradition of physical force tradition of Irish Republicanism.

The core purpose of the Green Book therefore was to provide a legitimising psychological structure and moral authority to volunteers send out to kill or maim often at very close quarters.

After the IRA’s first act of decommissioning in April 2002, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain noted in the Magill Annual of that year how it marked a departure between old and new discourses:

The recent decommissioning event has caused a creeping moral ambivalence to seep into the belief system of IRA volunteers. This is no small matter. The Garda special branch approached social scientists in Maynooth in the 1980s with a simple question: “How do we beat the IRA?” The answer was simple: “Destroy their belief system.”

One of the main casualties for the republican movement in entering this process was the belief system that equipped volunteers to sustain their operational effectiveness as much as did the guns. The ‘event’ now opens the door guarding that moral certitude slightly. Doubt may creep into those who spent their youth preoccupied with the guns and their deadly use.

All of which works pretty well, whilst: one, the war remains ongoing; and two, the IRA remains dealing with hard core security related issues. In fact this is pretty much the position of the old IRA during the war of independence. What complicates matters for the Provisionals is their chosen long war scenario.

Denying civilians access to the statutory authorities in the relative short term of the earlier troubles is one thing. Denying it for a generation forced the modern IRA into a social task which as Adams has rather belated admitted for which it was ill-equipped.

This relates to a point dealt with a slightly more abstract way made by Gladys in her 2008 tome Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland:

Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland – Gladys Ganiel

Sinn Fein is somewhere between no change and some change. Although as noted in The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast this week, it’s not something the party themselves are inclined to share with political journalists.

So Martin McGuinness, with a public profile to protect, says he believes Mairia Cahill was raped, whilst Seamus Finucane (occupying a similarly senior but private position within the party) makes it clear he does not share the deputy First Minister’s public view.

In this matter, it is the military voice which carries the internal authority. Almost all the party’s public statements on the matter have sought to brand Cahill rather than Adams as the liar between two irreconcilable accounts.

It all adds up to a disconnected ragbag of responses designed to try and see the story out until such times as it definatively goes away. In the meantime, journalists are being repelled with the proverbial wall of silence.

One of the oddest stories of the week sought to brand Joe Cahill as an abuser in the London edition of the Daily Mirror.  It’s not one which took hold in Ireland north or south. But in a week where Westminster declined to wrap Kincora into the more powerful Woolf Inquiry, it was an odd incursion into the fray.

Unlike Burke’s Fianna Fail, in this case the IRA and its Green Book ethic remains in charge. There is little chance that the new generation will rebel. The idea that Mary Lou harbours a serious ambition to take over from Gerry is challenged by her utter fealty to him in what are by her own principles are indefensible circumstances.

As Dan O’Brien noted last Sunday, Sinn Fein’s political culture owes a lot to the length of its long war in Northern Ireland:

Being at war requires, perforce, the nurturing of military values and practices ­- obedience, secrecy, suspicion and summary justice. These are the exact opposite of the values and practices that make for high-quality democracy ­ – the questioning of authority, transparency, trust and the rule of law.

The North’s long war lasted from the late 1960s into this century. Two generations went from youth to middle age knowing nothing else. That deeply embedded a martial culture in the republican movement. It is far from clear that that has changed a great deal.

If you believe her account Mairia Cahill’s rights as a woman came nowhere next to an IRA’s volunteer’s right to carry on ‘the dictates of the legal government’. Dictates which had no provisions for rights of victims. In this case the victim in the eyes of the Provisionals had zero rights, nor will she in perpetuity so far as they are concerned.

Not that those actions don’t have serious contemporary consequences for the Republic. But like the Catholic Church denying its own culpability in spreading the problem by shipping offending priests out of the parish Sinn Fein plainly resents external interference in what it regards as its own and no one else’s affairs.

We just don’t know who these abusers are, whom they’ve abused or whether or not they comprise another Father Brendan Smyth. It’s also important to note that the Church back then had hit its heights, and was already in decline. By contrast Sinn Fein is rising in popularity and will not willingly concede anything to history.

Martina Devlin again…

[Sinn Fein] now accepts that she was abused but denies the cover-up – a shift in position. When you’re telling the truth your position doesn’t alter. Confirmed Sinn Fein supporters may well dismiss Mairia Cahill’s testimony, but anti-austerity voters inclining towards the party will have second thoughts.

Especially if more victims emerge. I have no doubt there are other women with reservations about how they were dealt with by the republican leadership when they made complaints.

Machiavelli noted that “a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty”. And cruelty is a good word for what the movement has subjected Ms Cahill to in the last week.

Much as it may shock an Irish media become accustomed to think otherwise, the party we call Sinn Fein today is a creature wrought from the Provisionals not the other way round. Dominant within the movement since the mid 1970s Mr Adams did not get to where he is today by being kind to children and small animals.

Two things strike me about this episode. One is just how all over the place the party has been in its response. And two, just how strange the man who has been at the head of the party might actually be if Ms Cahill’s recounting of her meeting with him is in the least bit reliable.

Ms Cahill’s demand remains a simple one to Gerry Adams: to tell the truth. That appears to be the one thing Mr Adams cannot give her, or indeed anyone else caught up in the nightmare of child sexual abuse. Which, if this ‘operation’ proves to be a more successful line in the sand than Burke’s, will still not be a great a result for anyone.

In those immortal words, “Houston, we have a problem…”

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