The dead past keeps on coming back

Over at Slugger, amongst much discussion of this issue, Brian asks why the Adams story isn’t getting quite the media play of the Robinson story:

On Adams, Suzanne has been doing much of the grind work and much of the rest of the press have been riding on the back of it, just as everyone seized on BBC Spotlight’s exclusive whistleblowing. Although restraints have been cast aside, some caution is still needed on Adams, if only in the interests of fairness, as Mick has rightly warned. The Sunday Tribune have been taking considerable risks over defamation, confidentiality and reporting detail that could prejudice a trial. The Cahill case goes very far indeed, as if the paper believes there’s little chance of a prosecution or need to shield the victim, despite her voluntary testimony. Note too the police’s warning to Gerry Adams over his own persistent attempts at self-exculpation. That line may actually have been crossed some time ago, albeit arguably in the public interest…

I think this is basically correct and, as Dave knows, being online is no protection against the defamation laws. In criminal cases you enter much dodgier territory, which is why I’m being extremely careful on this – and not only on this issue, it’s not as if I don’t have thoughts on the Tommy Sheridan case but I’m not going to open a discussion thread on it until the legalities are resolved. There is the further element of prejudice – certainly, Liam Adams’ defence team would be remiss if they didn’t make reference to some of the more sensationalist media coverage in the north. It seems to me too, and here I must enter the caveat that I Am Not A Lawyer, that the Tribune has indeed been running some risks. AFAIK there is no public interest defence for naming a sexual abuse complainant who has not voluntarily waived her anonymity, and withholding names while providing more than enough detail for close-knit communities to identify individuals looks like thin ice to me.

But let’s return to Brian:

How do I rate the Adams affair as a story? Cumulatively gripping, but quite a slow burn which could yet ignite. The long fuse partly consists of Gerry Adams himself under pressure. The allegations against both Adams brothers may well be about a greater immorality than anything Iris Robinson committed. But news judgements are essentially amoral although moral judgements may figure. The painstaking trawl through newspaper records about who said what and when, if at all, lacks the punch of the Iris affair, particularly for broadcasters. Moreover the political fallout has been conspicuously less so far. Almost certainly Adams’s exposure would have been greater had he been deputy first minister. But those still on the hunt can take comfort: this is surely a story that hasn’t peaked yet.

Up to a point. Actually, the Robinson story still has legs, in terms of the business connections of the Developers’ Unionist Party, not least in the Strangford constituency. Plus, even if you’re primarily interested in the sex angle, it’s entirely possible that an enterprising journalist can turn up one or more trouser-dropping DUP reps for our collective entertainment. If even a tenth of the rumours floating about are true, the Wee Frees are going to have conniptions.

But back to Gerry. It’s becoming very easy to lose sight of the actual issues – although see this for a sobering reminder. There are, as I’ve said, lots of people who don’t like Gerry, often for very good reasons, and it’s understandable that some folks are very excited at the prospect of bringing down Gerry and some of his honchos. It’s also unsurprising that Gerry himself is capable of being deeply manipulative even during what’s evidently a personally very difficult time – although his efforts to keep the party out of this seem to have had the opposite effect. There are, though, difficult questions for him to answer in the longer term.

But don’t underestimate the extent to which Gerry is bulletproof. There’s nobody about to launch a putsch against him internally, and there’s no external foe with the stature to seriously challenge him electorally. West Belfast is a virtual one-party state, and is so by popular demand. Who are his external opponents? Alex Attwood? The Workers Party? The small dissident formations? None of these are going to sweep the broad masses any time soon.

That’s why it wasn’t surprising that, listening to the vox pops earlier today at the Kennedy Centre, most of the punters seemed inclined to give Gerry the benefit of the doubt. There was, it’s true, a little graffiti calling on him to resign, presumably the work of some dissident youth, but it’s been painted over already. It’s quite possible, indeed almost certain, that some people have been leaned on, but you always have to keep in mind that the west Belfast para-state rests on a serious base of popular support. Not only that, but any shit that could conceivably have been thrown at Gerry already has been, multiple times.

Take, for example, the anticipation of the Dark’s posthumous memoir, which the media have been telling us Gerry is deeply worried about. But, Gerry’s denials notwithstanding, everybody knows he was in the Provos, and everybody knows he was leading the Provos in Belfast at a particular point in time when some very bad things happened. Unless the Dark knew (and recorded) something really sensational – and only Gerry really knows what Brendan knew – it’s unlikely he’ll tell us much we either didn’t know or couldn’t have guessed. It’ll be worth finding out, anyway.

Mind you, these abuse cases do point up something worth commenting on. When we talk about the high level of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society, we always have to bear in mind that the perpetrator is usually someone known to, and most often related to, the victim. The exposures of clerical abuse since the Brendan Smyth case are more than just a drop in the ocean – and clerical abuse rightly attracts particular odium because of the breach of trust involved and the fact that the clergy are expected to set a higher standard – but the iceberg is what happens in families.

That said, there are good reasons why, in all the advances our society has made in dealing with sexual abuse, it’s been much easier to train one’s fire on institutions. From the point of view of a victim coming forward after 25 or 30 years, it’s often easier to do so when you’re taking to task a priest who may be dead or an industrial school that may be long since closed, than taking on a family member, with all that that implies. The pressure on the victim is greater when it’s a family matter. And let’s not forget that institutions can be reformed – the reform of the Irish Catholic Church may have been painfully slow and overwhelmingly driven from Rome, but it is taking place – while reforming families is a much bigger ask, and not something you can put forward a large-scale solution for.

So it is in this current situation in the north, that while the abuse has been internal to families – although republican families – it’s an institution, in the form of Sinn Féin, that finds itself in the spotlight. One may ask, without supporting the party, whether this is entirely fair. I don’t think that republicans are more likely to be abusers than anyone else in our society, but if we’re talking about what went on in nationalist Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s there are a number of factors to be borne in mind. One was a policing vacuum, and a police force seemingly more interested in recruiting victims as informers than getting them justice. Also, a social services infrastructure that was a lot less clued up in these matters than it is today. You have a Provisional movement that valued discipline, loyalty and secrecy above all else – which allows you to see how republicans who’d been guilty of quite serious crimes could escape the movement’s rough-and-ready policing regime. And all this in the context of a society dislocated and brutalised by the effects of the Troubles.

And now? Today, the party has a policy that says any member suspected of sexual abuse is immediately suspended without prejudice and reported to the statutory authorities – authorities the party now recognises, which it used not to. This policy dates from as recently as 2006, which tells you how rapidly ideas are changing on this issue, and changing for the better. As far as the more distant past goes, the potential damage will be determined by the significant distinction between an active cover-up (as in the McCartney murder) and a failure to act; and, not least, by how straight party reps are on the matter.

And as for Gerry – well, it’s possible he’ll just get tired and jack it in. But my instinct is still that he’ll jump when he wants to jump and nobody is lining up to push him. In that sense, he’s better placed than Peter.

Rud eile: For those of you who like lefty trainspotting, the Real SWP were out leafletting in Cornmarket on Saturday. Given that they’ve taken the guts of the branch, my instinct is that they’ll be pursuing a tack of doing what the branch was doing, only without the national party. And since the aggravation from the centre often outweighs any material support you might get, they may even make a go of it.


  1. Mark P said,

    January 20, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Sorry to comment on the minor footnote rather than on the interesting main text, but anyway:

    It’ll be interesting to see what the Real SWP do as far as publications are concerned. Print publications are expensive but not, these days, prohibitively so. Organise! have a paper for instance, the ISN have their free paper and the WSM long managed a free paper and a magazine when they were a fair bit smaller than they are now. So a print publication is feasible but carries a significant overhead.

    For a group of less than a dozen starting from scratch, in the age of the internet, it’s not entirely obvious whether it’s worth having a print publication or not. And if it is worth having one, what sort it’s worth having.

    They may also find that building on the low politics, high activity (“best builders”) basis the modern SWP leans towards is possible for a national group or for a local group with no intention of spreading outside of their home turf, but is quite tough if you are a localised outfit who want to be more than that. You aren’t going to recruit in Dublin or even Derry on the basis of your high activity levels in Belfast. And in any case, unless they can put some clear water between themselves and the SWP how exactly are they going to recruit in places where the SWP already fills that niche, already has people on the ground and so on?

    How exactly, if they simply do what the SWP and argue the same things, can they possibly explain to someone who isn’t familiar with the ins and outs of whatever machinations went on in Belfast SWP that they should join their organisation rather than the original brand?

  2. ryutin said,

    January 20, 2010 at 10:18 am

    just to respond to that, one area a local socialist formation can have an advantage over a national one (especially if its the swp) is that you dont have to deal with dizzying changes of line or emphasis from the centre, for instance – when i was a member of the swp, in the uk not ireland admittedly, we built up a small base of support among council tenants in a particular area in our town, the most deprived area as a matter of fact, however when the leadership decided to reel back broad party stuff and the fact that our new actually working class audience probably didn’t want to come to meetings on ‘state and revolution’ it was all lost. one of a number of reasons i became more than a little disillusioned with ‘the revolutionarty party’

    though thats not to say local-based groups dont have their problems, just an observation….

  3. Phil said,

    January 20, 2010 at 10:26 am

    I’m afraid I’m not going to touch the topic of the post either, because something you wrote here brought into focus something unrelated that’s been bugging me.

    a policing vacuum, and a police force seemingly more interested in recruiting victims as informers than getting them justice … a Provisional movement that valued discipline, loyalty and secrecy above all else

    So, about the WP. I’m not and have never been a supporter of the Provos, but passing information to the RUC has always seemed to me to be crossing the line; I think the two phrases I’ve quoted help clarify why. Firstly, WPers point out that SF are all in favour of working with the police now, so it was just a case of being right a decade or so early. Now, if this is going to stand up as an argument – and not just as a jibe at SF supporters – we have to assume that the PSNI is now a “proper” police force, serving all the law-abiding people of the province and deserving their respect on that basis. Room for discussion there, but it’s arguable. But even if we assume that the PSNI passes that test now, surely few people would argue that the RUC qualified back then. The WP’s position, insofar as it wasn’t just an unusual form of gang warfare, seems to amount to making a point of principle of treating the RUC as if it had already been reformed. Odd principle.

    And (secondly) it gets worse. Even if we argue that WP members could reasonably believe that treating the RUC as a neutral police force would help it become one, how was that ever going to go down with that other, larger group of people – the ones who valued discipline, loyalty and secrecy above all else? Surely nothing could be more calculated to say to the Provos, “This isn’t some local disagreement, and nobody’s going to patch it up – we are your enemy for all time”.

    Collaborating with the RUC – as policy – seems both politically incomprehensible and strategically crazy.

  4. Garibaldy said,

    January 20, 2010 at 11:12 am

    The logic was very simple Phil, and laid out on numerous occasions. Firstly, the Republican Clubs produced a document on policing in 1975 (I think) that called for a reformed police force under democratic control. So at no point was the RUC the sort of police service the party was looking for (despite at least one example of over-heated rhetoric from a WP representative). However, a lot of ordinary working people were losing their lives due to sectarian violence. One way to contribute greatly towards an ending of that violence would have been for people to give information that could have led to convictions, and thus to less deaths. And so that is what The WP called for. So the principle motivating this was anti-sectarianism.

    As for your second point. Abandoning the shibboleths of nationalism certainly caused the loss of a great deal of support in the north. It was also absolutely necessary to transform the Movement into a revolutionary socialist party. And one, let us not forget, that had unprecdented success in southern politics. I’ve said this before so forgive me for repeating myself, but the focus of the Republican Movement and The WP was never the north, and this is central to any understanding of everything The WP did. Rowing back on socialist principles to chase a certain type of support in the north would have hampered the development of the political programme as a whole. Have a look at the history of the IRSP to see where that ends up. There’s also the point that our aim was and is to build socialism across the community in NI as well as in the island. Workers unite does not just apply to those seeking a united Ireland.

    • Socialism in one Bedroom said,

      January 20, 2010 at 9:13 pm

      “Abandoning the shibboleths of nationalism”; how’s that working out for the WP, any progress on it yet?

  5. yourcousin said,

    January 20, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Workers unite does not just apply to those seeking a united Ireland.

    But isn’t that the point? Left/right rhetoric is woefully inadequate in dealing with national issues (not just in the Ireland, but say the Balkans as well). Unless you put the national question into a box such as Democrats talking about abortion or just say something along the lines, “sorry no talking about the “n” word in polite company”, how are you going to sqaure the two up? Because as we have seen the national question does divide workers, either in the maintainance of the status quo or the establishment of an Irish Republic. And since I don’t see the capitalist states of the ROI or GB teetering on collapse and having the red standard raised either in Westminister or Leinster House the national question has to be honestly addressed for what it is, not what we would like it to be.

    Damn I really must get some posts because they deal with this very question. Also, G. I did read the paper on the UI and France. If I ever find time I’d like to shoot some stuff your way.

    Sorry SS, this really is a good post, don’t mean to drag it back to a debate on TLR.

  6. January 20, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Real SWP? … I thought, they were surreal

  7. D_D said,

    January 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Howzabout this for surreal? A local group that might want a national reach. With politics in the general field of the SWP but without (outwith) the whip. Where might they look to? The PBPA?!!

    Well. I suppose it all depends whether the break was into the wider world or further into the conservation of the revolutionary high ground. But radio silence is still being maintained on all that isn’t it? Anyway the newly departed often like to get as far away as possible.

  8. Captain Rock said,

    January 20, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    To digress from the fascinating discussion on the WP just briefly. The allegations about Adams are vastly more damaging than ‘was he, wasn’t he’ in the ‘RA etc. The republican base can rally around Gerry on any of that stuff. The revelations from Aine Tyrell, and the obvious porkies re Liam are more difficult to deal with it. It’s sordid and seedy and the revelations about his dad seemed to be too well timed for the sympathy factor. This won’t go away.
    P.s. For comedy value, Mary Lou’s performances have been less than stellar.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 20, 2010 at 11:53 pm

      Yes, anything that might be in Dark’s book will be the sort of stuff the base would already have factored in, but this is quite different. As I’ve said before, Aine is about the only person coming out of this honourably, and while the base may be inclined – for the moment – to give Gerry the benefit of the doubt, that may not last if he keeps digging. And with court cases in the offing, it’s going to drag on a very long time.

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