DUBLIN (AP) — The leaders of Ireland's other major parties accused Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams of directing IRA violence in the past and seeking to endanger jurors today as they waged their first head-to-head debate ahead of Ireland's Feb. 26 election.
Adams spent much of Thursday night's 90-minute live televised event isolated versus Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton and opposition Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin.
Kenny's centrist Fine Gael hopes to retain power in cooperation with Burton's left-wing Labour Party. Their coalition since 2011 has led Ireland out of an international bailout and recession and returned the country to its previous status as Europe's fastest-growing economy.
Despite that record, recent polls suggest the Fine Gael-Labour coalition faces an uphill struggle to retain enough parliamentary seats, with Labour at grave risk of losing out to populist Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and smaller socialist voices. Polls indicate none of the parties will do sufficiently well to govern without coalition partners.
But Fianna Fail's Martin emphatically rejected the possibility of forming a government with Adams, citing his Irish Republican Army background and lack of credibility on matters of law and order.
Addressing Adams standing beside him, Martin accused the Sinn Fein chief of overseeing the IRA's abduction, killing and secret burial of Belfast civilians branded informers; the intentional crippling of hundreds of Belfast youths deemed guilty of crimes in so-called "punishment" shootings; and sheltering of IRA fugitives wanted in Northern Ireland on charges of child molestation.
"It's the height of hypocrisy for you to parade yourself as a civil libertarian," Martin said.
Adams has stumbled during the campaign over Sinn Fein's pledge to abolish Ireland's Special Criminal Court, a three-judge venue that hears cases involving the IRA and organized crime without a jury. The government is committed to forming a second court to clear a backlog of dozens of cases, mostly involving IRA factions that reject the 1997 cease-fire and 2005 renunciation of violence delivered by Adams.
Adams has insisted that juries should hear the IRA-related cases, despite the long history of IRA intimidation of witnesses and killing of judges.
In Thursday night's debate, he said jurors could have their identities concealed from the court. Others said his plan would end with jurors fleeing overseas and living under fake identities.
When Adams suggested that Labour shared Sinn Fein's desire to close the court, Burton icily shot back: "That's a direct lie." When Adams accused her of making "a mess of justice," Burton retorted: "You made a mess of terror in this country, Gerry."
Adams' closing appeal to voters emphasized that the other three parties oversaw years of painful austerity and cutbacks whereas his own Northern Ireland-rooted party had yet to feature in any modern Irish government, making it a novel new option.
He said voters "have tried this," pointing to Martin's Fianna Fail, which lost power in 2011. "And they've tried that," he said, pointing to Kenny. "And both of them have failed the people."