Sinn Fein walks an excruciating line between McAuley the hero and McAuley the villain

On the morning of the 7th of June 1996 in the Co Limerick village of Adare, heroic Irish soldiers, acting under the authority of the legitimate Government of Ireland, attempted to liberate vital funding and – in the course of their duties –were forced to open fire upon cowardly agents of the traitorous Free State government, killing one.

If you don’t recall it quite like that, there’s a good chance you’re an establishment stooge or – like me – an FF/FG/Labour lackey. It may even be possible you’re Endangering The Peace Process. I remember two Gardai deliberately targeted by a Provisional IRA gang and shot – one fatally – while they protected an An Post social welfare delivery.

At Sinn Fein’s 2003 Árd Fheis, Pauline Tully read out letters from her then-husband Pearse McAuley and from the three other men then imprisoned for the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. The assembled Sinn Fein delegates – then campaigning for the early release of Garda McCabe’s killers – rose for a standing ovation.

When McAuley was released in 2009 – having served ten and a half years – he was picked up at the prison by Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris.

Last week, McAuley was sentenced to twelve years – with the last four years suspended – for assault causing harm to his estranged wife Pauline Tully last Christmas Eve. “Assault causing harm” doesn’t do justice to his brutality.

McAuley punched Ms Tully, kicked her and then stabbed her thirteen times with a steak knife. She suffered horrific physical injuries and unimaginable psychological trauma.

During the course of a calculated and cruel attack lasting nearly three hours – “It wasn’t frenzied,” Tully told RTÉ’s Marian Finucane, “It was intermittent” – McAuley brought their two small children “down to say goodbye to” their mother.

It seems certain that Tully only survived the ordeal because McAuley eventually passed out from drink and she was able to crawl from her house to get help.

The deputy leader of Sinn Féin, Mary-Lou McDonald, came out at the weekend to criticise what she saw as a lenient sentence.

“Yet again we see a very light sentence in my view, given the scale, the viciousness and the premeditated nature of that crime.”

I agree with her completely. There is no doubt that we have a serious problem with sentencing in the Republic, especially in the areas of sexual assault and violence towards women. After all, Ireland is a country where a man can actually confess to rape and still serve no time in prison.

McDonald – a shrewd media operator – knew she was on thin ice talking about the former Republican hero and she reacted defensively when asked about Martin Ferris collecting McAuley from prison.

“Listen to me, let me tell you; lots of people across society unbeknownst to themselves, know, work with, live beside people who are domestic abusers and who are violent to their partners.

“The culpability and responsibility for that violence and for those actions reside with the individual who carried them out. So I think it is entirely wrong to try and drag in third parties and to name them in different contexts as though that were part of the scenario and the awful situation that Pauline and the boys went through.

“I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s appropriate and I don’t think it does a service to victims of domestic violence.”

There’s Sinn Féin’s dilemma. To the public right now, McAuley is a monstrous figure who deserves to be reviled for what he did to his former partner.

He’s also an untimely reminder that McAuley is a Sinn Féin hero for killing a Garda during what Sinn Féin is attempting to sell to the voting public as a just war. Sinn Féin’s political opponents will do everything in their power to connect and highlight those two facts.

Isolating the violence carried out by McAuley when he was in the IRA from the violence carried out by McAuley when he was in Pauline Tully’s house – in essence telling us that the murder of a Garda is a different beast altogether from what goes on behind closed doors – would be a tall order for most but that is precisely what Sinn Féin is trying to do.

This suggests yet again that Sinn Fein will do and say whatever it thinks the audience wants to hear or whatever it thinks will get it through the latest crisis du jour.

So now the line to be walked is that in times of war, terrible things happen but violence for political ends – while regrettable – is justified. To Sinn Féin, political violence is the good violence whereas domestic violence is the bad violence.

Of course, for the Provisional IRA’s campaign to have been war rather than terrorism, Sinn Féin will have to convince those of us who lived through the Troubles that we’re remembering it wrong.

For the Provisional IRA to have been a legitimate army fighting a just war, they would have to have had – as they claimed – the mandate of the government of Ireland. The problem with that is the vast majority of the electorate does not believe the legitimate government of Ireland is the IRA Army Council.

It’s a hard sell to try and persuade voters in the Republic that the legitimate government of Ireland was (and possibly still is) a bunch of hard chaws in the back room of a West Belfast pub.

In 1996, Pearse McAuley was part of the IRA gang which shot and killed Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. Sinn Féin demanded his early release. In 2014, Pearse McAuley inflicted horrific violence upon his former partner. Sinn Féin’s deputy leader says he should get a harsher sentence.

Mary-Lou McDonald is absolutely right about our lenient sentencing regime, but Sinn Féin – having previously campaigned for his early release – has a breath-taking cheek to say Pearse McAuley deserves a longer sentence for failing to kill someone than the sentence he served for actually succeeding in killing someone.