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Opinion: Sinn Féin continues its Stand By Your Man policy... but will it sour public opinion?

Sinn Féin prides itself on its militaristic discipline in staying on-message – but that Stepford uniformity could eventually turn voters against it.

Donal O'Keeffe

DESPITE INTENSE POLITICAL pressure and sustained media scrutiny of Gerry Adams’ handling of the Maíria Cahill case, Sinn Féin continues to cling for dear life to its Stand By Your Man policy.

If we are to believe last weekend’s opinion polls - which showed Sinn Féin is now the most popular political party in Ireland - it’s clearly a winning strategy. 
Stand By Your Man worked in the case of awkward questions surrounding Adams’ alleged involvement in the Disappearance of Belfast woman Jean McConville, the widowed mother of ten whose remains were found on a lonely beach on the Cooley Peninsula, 31 years after her small children screamed as she was abducted.

It also worked when apparent contradictions emerged about Adams’ handling of abuse accusations against his own brother. It even works every time anyone asks what kind of eejits does Gerry take us for when he says he was never in the IRA.
To paraphrase Enda Kenny, any one of these scenarios would see any other leader of any other political party gone in five minutes.

But as the Taoiseach and the leaders of the other political parties know only too well, Sinn Féin is not any other political party and Adams is not any other leader.
Imagine a party leader (apart from Fidel Castro) reigning for three decades. If a week is a long time in politics, 31 years is surely a geological age – but the then 35-year-old Gerry Adams assumed the Sinn Féin presidency in 1983. Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach. Thatcher was in Downing Street and Reagan in the White House. Paddy Hillery was in the Park.

Where are the dissenters? 

Imagine a political party without dissatisfied members. It’s an unfortunate phrase in this context, perhaps, but every party has a dissident wing. So where is Sinn Féin’s Eamon Ó Cúiv, or John Deasy, or, well, half of the Labour parliamentary party? Where is Sinn Féin’s Awkward Squad?

The only crack in their iron discipline was when Peadar Tóibín went on a solo run on abortion and even that was worked out with clockwork precision. Peadar lost the party whip over an issue of conscience, something which would have done him no harm at all with his constituents, did his six months on the Naughty Step and is now again a member in good standing. 
Nothing, it seems, can make Sinn Féin’s supporters break ranks. Not even, apparently, Maíria Cahill’s harrowing story.

She claims she was, at 16, subjected to sexual abuse and rape by a senior republican. She says she was subsequently put before an IRA kangaroo court and forced to confront her alleged abuser. She says they told her they would be able to tell from her body language if she was lying. She further accuses Gerry Adams of telling her that victims can be manipulated into thinking they enjoy their abuse.

Adams says he believes her claim that she was raped but denies that she was interrogated by the IRA. He admits that the IRA did murder and sometimes “exile” alleged paedophiles, often sending them to the Republic. He hotly disputes that he said abuse victims might think they enjoy it.

Imagine this story starring Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin or Joan Burton. Imagine how long they’d last in their jobs.

Will such loyalty eventually turn off voters?

Cliché says there’s only one poll that counts. Sinn Féin is flying high in opinion polls but can they translate that into actual Dáil seats? Will recent events render the party even more transfer-toxic? The whiff of cordite may still be attractive to core voters, but will public anger at Government policies prove sufficient to overcome qualms about Sinn Féin’s violent and often sordid past?

Sinn Féin prides itself on its militaristic discipline in staying on-message but could that Stepford uniformity eventually turn voters against it? A superb Dáil performer, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader (and presumed Adams heir) Mary Lou McDonald is a real star. It has been strange and very unsettling to see such a passionate feminist playing Tammy Wynette in the face of another woman’s evident pain.

But then it would be hard to find a neater summation of Sinn Féin’s blind loyalty than that offered by former IRA member Anthony McIntyre in the Sunday Times: “If Adams was to tell Mary Lou that he’s a Persian prince from the 16th century, she would go on national television and say it was so.”

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And, seeing as “what about” is a favoured term with Sinn Féin’s militant Twitter wing, what about Maíria Cahill? Unlike the IRA, which Gerry Adams says “has long since left the scene so there is no corporate way of verifying” her claims, Maíria Cahill hasn’t gone away, you know.

“Although I feel like I am being abused all over again by the IRA in a very public manner,” Cahill told the Irish Independent, “it will not deter me from continuing to deal with the serious issue of Republican perpetrators of abuse being moved around this country and covered for by Sinn Féin.”

Contrast that with Gerry Adams, quoted the same day in the Irish Examiner as saying the Maíria Cahill case has seen him “victimised by the Government to distract from its own problems”.

The future of McDonald’s widespread popularity 

For a party which pays such lip-service to the past, Sinn Féin is all about the future and that future would seem to be Mary Lou McDonald. But has her unstinting loyalty jeopardised the widespread respect she enjoys with voters of all parties and none? Has her popularity amongst female voters been tarnished by her support for a man who can claim that it is he who was victimised in a case involving the alleged rape of a young girl?

Can SF still fullfil its ambition of being in government on both sides of the border by 2016, with Mary Lou anointed to leadership so Gerry can retire to the Áras in 2018? That depends on whether opinion polls can translate into seats and whether the unquiet ghosts haunting Sinn Fein finally bring down the man who has led them since Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” was Number One in the charts.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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