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Sunday 17 January 2010

Robinson seen as a joke but Adams must face serious questions

The habit of going easy on the Sinn Fein leader for the sake of peace dies hard, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

MOST of the Iris Robinson jokes are too gross for a family newspaper, but here is a printable one that is also my favourite. "Police in east Belfast are currently looking for a 19-year-old man who was last seen walking down the middle of the road, wearing a sash and singing, 'She was old but it was beautiful.'"

I've seen only one joke about the Adams family saga. No, it isn't funny and it doesn't even reflect badly on Adams. In fact, it's just another jibe at Iris, who has become a global laughing stock because of her surname and the age of her lover. Yet Gerry Adams, who has behaved much, much worse, is being given a very easy time and much public sympathy.

Let's just remind ourselves what he did. Or rather, didn't do. He admits he believed his then 14-year-old niece Aine when in 1987 she told him his brother Liam had raped her several times from when she was four, yet he allowed him to work in youth groups right in the heart of his fiefdom of west Belfast. Adams has said he told Clonard staff about the allegations. Clonard says it was unaware of any allegations about Liam Adams during the five years he worked there. What is shocking is that if Gerry Adams did indeed speak to Clonard staff, he didn't continue to press the matter, which touched upon both his own family and posed a possible risk to children in the heart of his constituency.

After the publication of the Murphy report into abuse in the Dublin diocese, Sinn Fein called for society "to expose the wrong done to those children and ensure that every step is taken to pursue the perpetrators and those who failed or purposely refused to carry out their duties to protect children and to investigate and prosecute criminals". You'd think that for an MP not to follow through on the matter of an alleged rapist working with children is a startling breach of his duty, but since the news broke about Liam Adams, the Shinners have shut up about child abuse and are demanding that the Adams family be left alone to deal with what is apparently 'a private family matter'.

Iris Robinson has had to leave politics and her husband may lose his job. If Adams were in any other political party in the United Kingdom or Ireland, he'd now be an ex-MP. Yet he remains president of Sinn Fein and his friend, the newspaper publisher Mairtin O Muilleoir, assured the BBC last week that Adams would be returned at the election with the biggest majority in the UK. And he probably will.

What message will that send to Ulster Protestants who care about morality in public life? And what do they make of the fact that few journalists are asking him hard questions? The habit of going easy on Adams for the sake of the peace process dies hard.

These two sex scandals shine a bleak light on the two cultures that have been at war in Northern Ireland for so long. Iris Robinson is a conflicted woman. One part of her is a product of a harsh, fire-and-brimstone evangelical faith. When she described homosexuality as "an abomination", she was saying what she has been taught and truly believes: her present parlous psychological condition must be exacerbated by her belief that adultery is wicked. The other Iris is warm-hearted, flirty and acquisitive, and from lacy lingerie to chandeliers, has the tastes of a matron from Dallas.

Ulster Protestants think that sin should be punished: Iris was finished with even the most tolerant of them when they learned of her dodgy financial dealings. Irish Roman Catholic culture is much less concerned with morality. It horrifies Protestants that while loyalists get almost no votes, Catholics merrily vote for murderers.

The Prods won't have been shocked by the Murphy revelations as they've always assumed the Catholic Church condoned child abuse. And they weren't amazed by the stories about Charlie Haughey as they vaguely assume most of our politicians are bent. They would expect Adams's constituents to stay loyal to him even if he's found in flagrante with a goat. That, they think, is the Catholic way.

The Adams story, as with priestly abusers and episcopal cover-ups, is as much to do with power as religion. Ulster Protestantism is riven by dissent: if you didn't agree with your pastor, you could set up your own church. But Irish Roman Catholic culture has always been intensely authoritarian and hierarchical, as is Sinn Fein, which expects unquestioning obedience to the leadership. It is a culture much closer to Islam than to Protestantism.

Maybe rather than laughing at the Robinsons, we should feel shame about the lack of morality in our own culture. We have turned on the bishops. Why then aren't we demanding the resignation of Gerry Adams for failing his niece and the children of west Belfast?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards