Brian Stanley TD’s misfortunes are only the latest example of Sinn Féin’s tortuous balancing act, rewriting history, laundering the past, and keeping the hard men onboard without frightening the voters.

Few in Sinn Fein mention Pearse McAuley nowadays, but until about five years ago he was Republican royalty, a former Provisional IRA prisoner and a man whose words received a standing ovation at their 2003 Árd Fheis. 

Pearse McAuley first made international headlines in 1991 when he and fellow PIRA prisoner Nessan Quinlivan shot their way out of Brixton prison with a smuggled gun. McAuley and Quinlivan had been awaiting trial on charges of plotting to murder former brewery company chairman Sir Charles Tidbury. The two fled to the Republic.

At 6.50am on the morning of June 7, 1996, in the Co Limerick village of Adare, Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and Detective Garda Ben O’Sullivan were escorting an An Post delivery van carrying IR£81,000 (€102,850) when their garda patrol car was rammed from behind by a stolen Pajero jeep.

Two men wearing balaclavas jumped from the Pajero, with one firing 15 AK-47 rounds into the garda car. Three rounds hit Jerry McCabe, killing him. Eleven rounds hit Ben O’Sullivan, injuring him seriously. The gardai were armed, but had no time to draw their guns.

The attack occurred four months after the end of the PIRA’s first ceasefire, and no money was stolen. O’Sullivan would later say he believed the attack was targeted and deliberate.    

In 1999, McAuley and three other men were convicted of manslaughter in the Special Criminal Court. McAuley was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The PIRA Army Council initially denied involvement, before then claiming the raiders had contravened orders. The then SF leader Gerry Adams, who as we all know was never in the IRA, claimed the raid was “not authorised by the Army Council, but authorised at a lower level by an authorised person”.

At SF’s 2003 Árd Fheis, Pauline Tully (then a SF member of Cavan County Council, and, since the 2020 general election, now a TD for Cavan-Monaghan) read out letters from her then-husband Pearse McAuley and from the three other men then imprisoned for the killing of Jerry McCabe. The assembled SF delegates – then campaigning for the early release of Garda McCabe’s killers – rose for a standing ovation.

When McAuley was released in 2009 – having served ten and a half years – he was picked up at Castlerea prison by SF TD Martin Ferris.

On Christmas Eve morning, December 2014, McAuley assaulted his then estranged wife, punching her, kicking her, and stabbing her 13 times with a steak knife. She suffered horrific physical injuries and unimaginable psychological trauma. During the course of a cruel and calculated attack lasting nearly three hours – “It wasn’t frenzied,” Pauline Tully would tell the late Marian Finucane, “It was intermittent” – McAuley brought their two small children “down to say goodbye to” their mother.

It seems certain Ms Tully only survived the ordeal because McAuley eventually passed out from drink and she was able to crawl from her house to get help.

The following year, McAuley was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with the final four years suspended. Mary Lou McDonald – then SF deputy leader – was quick to criticise the leniency of the sentence.

“Yet again we see a very light sentence in my view, given the scale, the viciousness and the premeditated nature of that crime.”

Deputy McDonald was absolutely correct. The Republic has long had a serious problem around sentencing for sexual violence and assaults against women. This is the country where a man actually confessed to rape and – initially at least – escaped a prison sentence.

McDonald reacted at the time defensively when asked about Martin Ferris having collected McAuley from prison.

“Lots of people across society unbeknownst to themselves, know, work with, live beside people who are domestic abusers and who are violent to their partners.

“The culpability and responsibility for that violence and for those actions reside with the individual who carried them out. So I think it is entirely wrong to try and drag in third parties and to name them in different contexts as though that were part of the scenario and the awful situation that Pauline and the boys went through.”

Separating the violence carried out by McAuley when he was in the PIRA from the violence carried out by McAuley when he was in Pauline Tully’s house – in essence telling us that the murder of a Garda was good violence but domestic abuse was bad violence – would be a tall order for most but that was precisely the line SF walked, with McAuley apparently deserving a longer sentence for failing to kill someone than the sentence he served for his role in actually succeeding to kill someone.

Deputy McDonald’s dilemma was, and continues to be, the need to reconcile those voters for whom the Troubles are but a historical footnote with those hard-line Republicans – “They haven’t gone away you know,” as her predecessor warned – who as unelected “advisors” still run SF.

In February’s general election, SF secured 32% of the under-35 vote. As Fintan Toole notes in the Irish Times, the average person in the Republic is aged 37, while in Northern Ireland they are 38, meaning the average Irish person was 15 or 16 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

“That’s a blessing but it’s also a danger,” says O’Toole. “Objects in the rear-view mirror may be much closer to the perilously unsettled reality of a still-divided island than they appear.”

Last week saw SF Deputy Brian Stanley, chairman of the high-profile Public Accounts Committee, delete his social media accounts in the wake of a tweet comparing the 1979 Narrow Water PIRA bombing to the 1920 Kilmichael Ambush.

An irritated Mary Lou McDonald called his tweet “a singular, one-off mistake”, but Stanley’s sentiments were hardly unusual in a party which never misses a chance to link the Provos to the IRA that fought in the War of Independence.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has called the idea of “an unbroken chain” from Padraig Pearse to Gerry Adams “a dangerous and corrosive myth”.

This myth, perpetuated only last week by Mary Lou McDonald tweeting “Happy birthday to us,” ignores that the original Sinn Féin split in 1922 over the Treaty, and that Eamon de Valera founded Fianna Fáil in 1926, and that the High Court in 1948 ruled in the Sinn Féin Funds case that the then current version of SF was not the same party as the original. The present-day SF dates to a 1970 split.   

Former Fine Gael justice minister Charlie Flanagan last week described SF’s mythmaking as a bid to “to launder the IRA campaign”.

“The Stanley tweet actually goes to the heart of it,” Flanagan told the Irish Times. “He’s seeking to legitimise the IRA of 1979 by linking it to the IRA of the War of Independence.

“The War of Independence had broad public support, and the democratic legitimacy of the 1918 general election.”

Ironically, the Kilmichael angle seemed to backfire on a rattled Mary Lou McDonald in a radio interview with Claire Byrne this week, with Byrne’s question about Kilmichael mastermind General Tom Barry’s condemnation of Provo tactics proving an ambush worthy of the General himself.

Fintan O’Toole says SF’s “wildly revisionist” attempts to rewrite history pretend that the Provisional IRA – which was responsible for half of all the deaths of the Troubles – was only defending Catholics from loyalist murder gangs and “taking on” the British Army.

“The IRA killed 28 loyalist paramilitaries – 1.57% of its total kills. The IRA actually killed almost six times more republicans (in feuds and as alleged ‘informers’) than loyalists.

“By far the biggest single category of IRA victims is made up of civilians,” O’Toole notes, with gun battles between the PIRA and armed troops extremely rare.

Sinn Féin has been remarkably successful in building its populist anti-establishment vote. Its further success will depend on its ongoing ability to rewrite history, reinvent its terrorists as the legitimate heirs of the War of Independence, and sell the actions of the Provisional IRA as good violence without scaring voters.

As the Decade of Commemorations proceeds, the laundering will continue, with atrocities celebrated until they become politically awkward, and thugs like Pearse McAuley lauded as heroes until they cross the line into bad violence.