The disclosure by Gerry Adams that his father was a paedophile and a thug has come against the background of a countrywide sense of shock at abuse within the Catholic church.
Now the hierarchies of two historic institutions within the same community are under suspicion. The Catholic church and the IRA have a long history of antipathy but they have seemed at times almost mirror images of each other in their value systems, their reverence for martyrs, for instance. Now, as bishops come under pressure to resign because they failed to deal directly with child-abusing priests, the most revered republican in Ireland is having his own acquaintance with abuse scrutinised. It started last week when Áine Tyrell gave an interview to Ulster Television claiming that her father, Liam Adams, brother of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, had sexually abused her for years, from the ages of four to 12.
She revealed how she had reported this to the police and to Gerry Adams himself and how, over many years, Gerry had tried to bring Liam and his daughter together “to bring closure to Áine”. Gerry Adams has called on his brother to give himself up to the police. This in itself is indicative of the change in republican culture. In the past, those who were found to be sex abusers were shot dead by the IRA.
And a republican such as Liam Adams would have been prime pickings for blackmail and recruitment as an informer. It was in a second media interview about this that Gerry Adams dropped the bombshell news that his own father, Gerry Sr, who had been an IRA gunman in the 1940s, had also abused his children. Gerry said he had no personal memory of having been abused himself and that, though he lived in a family with 10 children in a small house, he had not been aware of this abuse until he was almost 50. The story that unfolds now is of a Gerry Adams who, through all the protracted negotiations to resolve the peace process in the past decade, had other burdens to carry, the revelation that his father had been a paedophile and the suggestion that a pattern of abuse had extended into his own generation.
Gerry Adams is now faced with exactly the same kind of questions that bishops are confronted with. In the case of the bishops these have become the test questions by which they can survive in their posts or must resign.
If Gerry Adams were a bishop he would be gone now. He has accepted that he handled things badly. When he brought his niece face to face with her allegedly abusive father, he acknowledged on BBC Radio Ulster that he should have done this within a therapeutic context. He acknowledges that he was slow to act when he discovered that Liam Adams was working with children, and that when he did act it was to approach Liam rather than those who employed him. And he says that he had Liam drummed out of Sinn Féin without explaining to the party why he believed he had to go.
The big question is whether any of this can damage Gerry Adams politically. One likely response is sympathy for a man who had borne a great family secret when he had political work of national importance to deal with at the same time. Another may be to pick at the details of his mismanagement for evidence of collusion or incompetence. But questions such as that can only damage him if they come from within his party. And he is still held in reverence by many there. But for many there is now a sense that Gerry Adams is not the man they thought they knew. He is more complex and more vulnerable. They always understood that he was a man with secrets from an IRA past he still denies. But such secrets as these?
Gerry has a problem in that he is expected not to tell the straightforward truth. He denies that he was in the IRA and most people understand that he has to do that. He doesn’t do candour.
Now he wants to be understood as speaking from the heart about his family problems and people are just looking for the political motivation or the hint of another game.
There are many reasons why he would have wanted to conceal the allegations of abuse made against his brother. Let me list some of them:
1. Those who had had members of their family shot by the IRA after being accused of sex abuse or other crimes would have charged Gerry with absolving his brother for no other reason than that he was a family member. They would have said that the IRA operated one law for ordinary Catholics and another for its insiders.
2. Many would have asked whether he was able to advance the peace process with these other family problems to deal with. The argument that he step aside would have been strong.
3. The allegations against his brother and the revelations about his father would have reflected badly on the republican movement. People would ask, as they do, if it is abuse and trauma that drives republican anger rather than British imperialism.
4. People would have asked if Gerry was capable of choosing reliable people. His chief administrator and head of security would be outed as British agents. A brother being investigated by the police for paedophilia would have compounded the impression that Gerry’s whole team was flaky.
5. The news that Liam Adams had been reported to the police for alleged child rape but not charged would have raised suspicion in republican circles that he was an informer and some would have wanted him interrogated on the basis of those suspicions.