Catholic Church and Sinn Fein: “Like all extreme powers, this one fed corruption…”

Last week was really a rather extraordinary week for Sinn Fein with a double whammy of another sex abuse cover up, and an (apparently) temporary ditching of the Stormont House Agreement, in order to… well, that bit has never really been adequately explained.

Nor, I suspect, will it ever be. So far as Sinn Fein is concerned there are always two narratives: what it says, and what anyone else says. The first is always, to repurpose a critical term from it’s early days, provisional.

This is why, as Fintan O’Toole puts it, the prospect of Sinn Fein in government may be much less daunting to Ireland’s conservative political tastes than may first be apparent:

Even in the area where Sinn Féin’s rhetoric is most radical – rapid moves towards a united Ireland – it is highly unlikely to have any real effect. The institutions established under the Belfast Agreement may be wobbly but the underlying consensus represented by the agreement is firm.

The vast majority of people on both sides of the Border have no discernible interest in pushing that consensus towards an immediate crisis. The Republic, in any case, has plenty of experience of being governed by people who ramp up nationalist rhetoric but operate the status quo.

There is no reason to think of Sinn Féin in government as being much different in this respect from Fianna Fáil in the 1930s.

The party’s manoeuvres in Northern Ireland have met with little success, other than to weaken the SDLP (and northern nationalism’s proportionate strength) whilst strengthening the hand of their unionist partners in government the DUP (and unionism in general).

The prefered cover story for this failure to show is to point at the limitations on power within Northern Ireland, and yet in education the effect of abolishing the 11+ has been to make it even less amenable to future policy interventions.

Collapsing the SHA (however temporary) is a tactical evasion Adams and co played throughout the Provisionals war days. Nothing is precious in the longer run: certainly not winning of the war, and perhaps not even the struggle for ‘national liberation’.

Even Standard and Poors remain unconvinced of their determination in the war the against austerity.

O’Toole’s stronger case for Sinn Fein exceptionalism was made on Saturday, which recounted the moral rather than political weaknesses of the party’s proposition (€):

In recent Irish history, just two bodies have had the power to order a citizen into exile. No government, no court of law, no official body, however powerful, could apply the sanction of banishment. But the Catholic Church could. And so could the IRA. Both the church and the so-called republican movement had oath-bound members, sworn to obedience, who could be shifted at will across borders.

Like all extreme powers, this one fed corruption. It was very useful indeed when either organisation needed to make an embarrassing problem go away. But when that problem was a man who enjoyed raping children, both organisations also knew that he was not just going away – he was going somewhere else, where he might well do it again.

He continues:

Sexual exploitation and in particular the abuse of children can happen anywhere. And it can be covered up by any kind of institution. Left to their own devices, institutions will always tend to put their own interests first. Their first instinct will be to avoid damage by silencing the victim and keeping the perpetrator under wraps.

As Sinn Féin supporters were quick to point out on social media this week, the BBC, which broadcast Spotlight’s investigation into Paudie McGahon’s allegations that he was raped by a senior IRA figure in the early 1990s, was guilty, in relation to Jimmy Savile and others, of just such an institutional cover-up itself.

There are, nonetheless, some factors that are quite specific to the church and the IRA. One is that power of exile, the ability to remove alleged perpetrators from the source of immediate embarrassment while giving them access to a whole new set of possible victims.

We know that the church did this routinely – shifting alleged abusers across the Border or to Britain, the United States or even to Africa. And we also know that Sinn Féin did this too.

And he adds:

Another distinctive characteristic peculiar to both organisations is that each had its own code of law which it regarded as superior to the civil law enacted by parliaments.

Bishops dealing with abuse cases believed they were doing the right thing if they adhered to the internal requirements of canon law. A private code sanctioned behaviour which in other circumstances would have seemed obviously obnoxious.

The IRA, meanwhile, saw itself as the true government of Ireland and its own internal regulations as better law than any passed by the Dáil or enforced by the Garda. Thus both the church and the movement set up their own kind of kangaroo court, in which the victim’s rights would always be subordinate to the needs of the organisation.

Thirdly, both the church and the IRA could intimidate victims in special ways. Perpetrators always threaten their victims with bad consequences if they tell what has happened. But the church and the republican movement could back up those threats with terrible power.

In the case of the church the power was spiritual – obey us or go to hell. In the case of the IRA it was the power of sheer thuggery. This was an organisation whose primary function was to kill people. Even after the Belfast Agreement there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that its members could inflict extreme violence on anyone they chose.

Fourth, the church and the republican movement both had a long-established leadership that considered itself untouchably righteous. When scandals began to emerge in the church, the response of senior bishops and cardinals was not just one of personal upset.

It was characterised by a barely repressed anger [for example], not that these things had happened but that anointed men were being rudely questioned about them.

Sinn Féin has its own anointed, most obviously Gerry Adams. His public responses to questions about Liam Adams, or about Maíria Cahill or Paudie McGahon have had a tone of lofty impatience strikingly reminiscent of that adopted by cardinals Cahal Daly and Desmond Connell when they were under similar pressure.

And he concludes:

And if the details of those doubts and denials have to change, the truth, the party’s flexible friend, can change with it. Most starkly in the case of Liam Adams, all of Sinn Féin’s leading figures have announced that whatever Gerry Adams said about it was true, even when he said things that were not compatible with each other.

All of this proved, of course, fatally damaging for the church and became ultimately unsustainable. What’s not at all clear is whether this will prove to be the case for Sinn Féin too. The evidence so far is that the party’s supporters don’t really care all that much. Sinn Féin has managed another kind of exiling – its past is another country.

The rapes and the cover-ups are seen as having happened in that murky, morally uncertain place called “the conflict”, where they did things differently. This seems to work even for events that actually happened long after the IRA’s “war” was over.

And this may be where the question ultimately lies: so long as so many people have a mental reservation over the conflict itself, Sinn Féin’s past will be a protected space.[Emphasis added]


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