November 2014        

Transforming a tragedy into an opportunity

Tommy McKearney

Readers could be forgiven for feeling that little more of value can be said about the Maria Cahill case. The Sunday Independent devoted sixteen pages of one issue to the question,* and it was not alone among the media in conducting this type of frenzied investigation. Broadcast and print journalists, internet trolls and a medley of commentators joined in what was cast as a defining moral issue.
      The choice offered was strictly limited, to the point of being Manichean: one either joined unreservedly in the condemnation or was practically deemed guilty of condoning rape and rapists.
      No civilised person countenances rape. It is a vile and terrible crime, and there can be no ambivalence or equivocation about it or any excuses for protecting those who commit it. Nevertheless every person is entitled to a hearing, and this applies also to those accused of rape.
      This remains a crucial point to bear in mind when looking at this case. No-one has been found guilty, and the most that anybody can say is that the charge remains unproved. Nevertheless, opinions and condemnations are being delivered with scant regard for this important fact.
      Moreover, it is undeniable that a determined effort is being made to transform a tragic situation into an opportunity to inflict damage not just on the Sinn Féin leadership and party but on the widest possible number of republicans. The debate is skewed in one direction, ignoring several pertinent aspects of the general issue.
      These strident commentators are giving little consideration, for example, to what they believe the organisation in question should or indeed could have done, especially in the light of existing reality in the North at the time. Are they suggesting that the accusation should have been accepted at face value and the accused punished without ceremony? Are they realistic when saying the accused should have been handed over to the same authorities that conducted undercover intelligence operations through its Kincora paedophile ring? Could that community have depended for help from a police force that valued the recruitment of agents as more important than prosecuting wrongdoing?
      Of course there are many questions that should be put to those who took it upon themselves to examine this case in the first instance. Why was the investigation of a Belfast person entrusted to people from his home city? Why did the investigators not seek the advice of a qualified social worker? There were, after all, many within that movement who would have assisted. Undoubtedly there are people in Belfast who have questions to answer, and should be made do so. However, it remains important to emphasise that any such inquiry has to be carried out in order to uncover the truth and not to conduct a political vendetta.
      Moreover, this case has to be viewed holistically. There is the question of how a young woman has been mistreated by the several institutions involved. And it should not be overlooked that there is more than one institution, and none emerge with great credit. However, there is also the question of how this undoubtedly traumatised woman has been used to further an agenda that has very little to do with seeking justice for the abused.
      A witch-hunt has been launched, and it is not focusing directly on the person accused of the crime but on an entire constituency and community. This is not just about Gerry Adams or even his Sinn Féin party: the onslaught goes much wider and is not so much aimed at a party and its leader but is being extended to include a strong current in Irish political life—a current, no matter what view one has of it, that in the recent past has dared to challenge the ruling order and tried to subvert the status quo.
      Several sections of the left maintained a consistent, trenchant and principled critique of the Provisional IRA campaign while it lasted. Their criticism focused on the limitations of the use of force or on its counter-productive potential. They viewed the IRA campaign as misguided, albeit having a desirable objective. In more recent times, sections of the left have criticised Sinn Féin for being opportunist or for entertaining social-democratic illusions.
      On both counts the commentary was meant constructively, even when robust, biting, or indeed subject to debate.
      On the other hand, right-wing supporters of the free market and neo-liberal consensus had and have a different objective when criticising republicans. In the past they feared that IRA success might pitch Ireland into socialist revolution and thus deprive them of their many advantages and assets. More recently this element is concerned that the apparent rise and success of Sinn Féin may leave a lasting impression that challenging the state does not inevitably bring defeat, isolation, and rejection. However compliant or conformist Sinn Féin may be or may become, its electoral rehabilitation risks setting a bad example as far as the forces of right-wing conservatism are concerned.
      To paint an entire generation of radical republicans as morally degenerate, corrupt and brutally desensitised would be an achievement for Conservative Ireland and its allies abroad. What is at stake is not just the future of a Sinn Féin party that is gradually becoming centrist but of a much wider constituency that makes up one of the great radical forces on this island. What the right wing is seeking is not only the head of Gerry Adams but the heart of Republican Ireland.
      Political activists blinded by distaste for the Sinn Féin leadership might well ask themselves whether the Irish Independent, Fine Gael, DUP and Daily Mail are acting as disinterested players. What, they might ponder, are the consequences of contributing to a campaign led by the most reactionary elements in the country, a campaign that has as its primary objective the destruction of a powerful anti-establishment current?
      What if this carefully crafted offensive can dislodge Sinn Féin from its present position. Would it pave the way for a progressive breakthrough, or would it merely strengthen the ruling order? What would be the implications in the future for a genuinely socialist republican movement if a template for its destruction is being created now?
      Distrust, dislike or even downright antipathy for Gerry Adams and his party should not cloud anyone’s judgement or mislead them into assisting a reactionary agenda.
      Moral outrage not supported by proof is a destructive tool that has been used all too often in Ireland, and never in a progressive cause. We should be careful not to follow the piper before finding out where he is leading us.

*Sunday Independent, 26 October 2014.

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