Adams isolated in party leaders' debate

The leaders of the country's major parties have accused Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams of directing IRA violence in the past and seeking to endanger jurors today as they waged their first head-to-head debate before the February 26 election.

Mr Adams spent much of last night's 90-minute live televised debate in Dublin isolated against Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin.

Fine Gael hopes to retain power in co-operation with Ms Burton's left-wing Labour Party, claiming the coalition had since 2011 led Ireland out of an international bailout and recession and returned the country to its previous status as Europe's fastest-growing economy.

However, recent polls suggest the Fine Gael-Labour coalition faces an uphill struggle to retain enough Dáil seats, with Labour at grave risk of losing out to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and smaller socialist voices. Polls indicate none of the parties will do sufficiently well to govern without coalition partners.

Mr Martin, however, emphatically rejected the possibility of forming a government with Mr Adams, citing background and lack of credibility on matters of law and order.

Addressing Mr Adams standing beside him, Mr Martin accused him 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," Mr Martin said.

Mr Adams has stumbled during the campaign over Sinn Féin's pledge to abolish the Special Criminal Court, the three-judge venue that hears cases involving the IRA and organised 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 ceasefire and 2005 renunciation of violence delivered by Mr Adams.

Mr 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 Mr Adams suggested that Labour shared Sinn Féin's desire to close the court, Ms Burton shot back: "That's a direct lie."

When Mr Adams accused her of making "a mess of justice", Ms Burton retorted: "You made a mess of terror in this country, Gerry."

Adams' closing appeal to voters emphasised that the other three parties oversaw years of painful austerity and cuts 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 Mr Martin's Fianna Fáil, which lost power in 2011. "And they've tried that," he said, pointing to Mr Kenny. "And both of them have failed the people."

KEYWORDS: Election 2016


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