Calumnies sting without disabling; and those stung are moved by hatred of their detractors

“Oh, yes–you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me.”

Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People

It’s taken two weeks for a mainstream journalist to commit to print some kind of defence of Sinn Fein and raise questions about Mairia Cahill’s credibility. Roy Greenslade has interesting views on the matter, not least because he breaks the news that…

…the programme itself is now under fire. It is claimed that the makers failed to take account of the fact that the woman, Maria (aka Maíria) Cahill, was a leading member of a dissident republican organisation with an anti-Sinn Féin agenda.

It is further claimed that she remained a Sinn Féin supporter for many years after the alleged rape and only sought to go public with her sexual abuse allegations after she had turned against the organisation for political reasons.

Critics suggest that Spotlight’s presenter and producer were too willing to accept Cahill’s story and did not point to countervailing evidence.

He adds then that…

That is not to say that she was not raped. Nor does it negate her view that the IRA handled her complaint clumsily and insensitively. But in Northern Ireland, where almost every aspect of life has a political context, it does mean that vital information was denied to viewers.

That’s the news which broke over the weekend that Ms Cahill joined the Republican Network for Unity after leaving Sinn Fein. It fell to Newton Emerson to point out the bleedin obvious in the midst of a pretty intense Twitter storm of party pro anger on Sunday:

The truth is that Sinn Fein feel themselves to be under attack not simply by Ms Cahill but also their political opponents. But as one veteran commenter remarked to me yesterday there are serious limits to the extent to which you can traduce an opponent whom you already accept was raped.

There aren’t many good options here.

Even Seamus Finucane has now gone on record to distance himself from one particularly nasty ‘suppressive act‘ [no link to the blog provided] by an Irish American blogger who tried to blame Ms Cahill herself for what happened to her and which Finucane had posted on his Facebook page.

Even this far better and more detailed response from closer to home makes the insiderly mistake of believing that politics nullifies the public interest issues raised in Jen O’Leary’s Spotlight Documentary, A Woman Alone with the IRA, and by Ms Cahill ever since.

One of the truly disturbing aspects of this story is the seeming sidelining of the justice system. Mr Finucane’s solicitor, his own late brother Pat’s partner Peter Madden has pointed out that his client has been proven not guilty.

Such obvious sidelining of due process for the court of public opinion lends a weird craziness and unpredictability to the whole affair. And not in a good way for Sinn Fein, whose only serious political reverses have come at the hands of smart and politically disenfranchised Catholic women in the media.

Not for the first time the party is becoming a butt of other people’s humour as its own version of the truth sharply impacts with the picture most of the rest of us are seeing. Even Fintan O’Toole is at it this morning:

Over the last fortnight, one after another of its smart young TDs has come out to tell us that what really matters to them – and thus what should matter to the rest of us – is not evidence about what Gerry Adams did or did not do. It is the way their personal knowledge of Gerry makes them feel, which is, inevitably, an unshakeable sense of trust. Pádraig MacLochlainn put it most touchingly: “I know the character of Gerry Adams and I absolutely believe him.” It’s that “absolutely” that should alert those of us outside the party that we are in the realms of pure truthiness.

It’s no excuse for my error, but I presume you have to do some kind of course to achieve this level of truthiness, some training where you finally “go clear” of mere concern with objective truth and become whatever the Irish is for Operating Thetan. But, not having done the course, there is still one problem, rooted no doubt in false consciousness, that bothers me. I now completely accept that what matters is what people who know Gerry Adams believe absolutely in their gut. What I still can’t grasp is which Gerry Adams they believe absolutely.

Very funny, or not as your own political conviction may predispose you. The problem for Sinn Fein is not that everyone is out to get you (almost everyone is on this story), but rather that they themselves cannot or will not openly testify against Ms Cahill in their own favour.

This is a prime weakness in Professor Greenslade’s analysis, particularly where he reports that BBC NI has…

…conceded that Spotlight did not seek to establish the truth of Cahill’s rape allegations, but investigated her “treatment by the republican movement and in particular her account of how, as a very young woman who said she had been abused, she had been made to meet her alleged perpetrator.”

It did address the fact she continued to work with Sinn Féin for some time after the alleged abuse and she was asked if, in speaking out, it was her intention to damage the party, which she denied.

The BBC said Cahill “contests the allegation that she is a dissident” and that her membership of the RNU was “extremely brief”. (Cahill has stated separately that she was “national secretary of RNU for a period of a few hours in 2010”).

Machiavelli had much to say about politics, much of it more positive and progressive than our received understanding of his work. In his work on Titus Livius, he had this telling remark about the harm caused by lack of open and transparent redress in society:

…it is before the magistrates, the people, or the courts of justice that men are impeached; but in the streets and market places that they are calumniated. Calumny, therefore, is most rife in that State wherein impeachment is least practised, and the laws least favour it.

For which reasons the legislator should so shape the laws  of his State that it shall be possible therein to impeach any of its citizens without fear or favour; and, after duly providing for this, should visit calumniators with the sharpest punishments.

Those punished will have no cause to complain, since it was in their power to have impeached openly where they have secretly calumniated. Where this is not seen to, grave disorders will always ensue.

For calumnies sting without disabling; and those who are stung being more moved by hatred of their detractors than by fear of the things they say against them, seek revenge.

When even the deputy First Minister says he believes Ms Cahill was raped, but she herself cannot get an effective case through the courts we appear to be in situation where some people in Northern Irish society remain unimpeachable.

That’s not a safe state of affairs for the inconveniently innocent, whether in Machiavelli’s historic city state of Florence or contemporary Northern Ireland.

This matter, as we have said, was well arranged for in Rome, but has always been badly regulated in our city of Florence. And as the Roman ordinances with regard to it were productive of much good, so the want of them in Florence has bred much mischief.

As Alan noted in his recent preview of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People:

The contaminated water comes from another morass, the morass of our politics … The scandal must come to light.

Or not, as the case may be.

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