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A new Sinn Fein politician meets an old animosity

Ex-IRA leader's daughter ridiculed

At 26, Toireasa Ferris wondered whether she was cut out for a career in politics. Then she went on national television in Ireland last month, showed a little leg, and all hell broke loose.

In the newspapers and on the airwaves, she was ridiculed as a bimbo for wearing a revealing skirt. And as the daughter of a former Irish Republican Army commander, she was vilified for refusing to condemn the IRA murder of a policeman that took place 10 years ago.

Now, Ferris is determined to seek higher office. In their fervor to humiliate her and drive her from public life, Ferris said last week during a visit to Boston, her critics have convinced her she should run for the Dail, Ireland's parliament.

''I was called a slut and a tart. Some people seemed so determined to push me out of politics, it got me thinking: They must be afraid of something," said Ferris, who is a Sinn Fein councilor and leader of Kerry County Council, in southwest Ireland, and the daughter of Martin Ferris, once one of the IRA's most senior commanders, and himself a member of the Dail.

In many post-conflict societies, it is not unusual for former fighters and their children to become civic leaders, but in Ireland this transition has been marked by lingering animosity. Twelve years after the IRA called the cease-fire that ended widespread violence, and eight years after the Good Friday Agreement provided a road map to a peaceful future, there is still enormous bitterness directed at the Sinn Fein party, long regarded as the political wing of the IRA.

That anger persists even after the IRA disarmed last year and directed its fighters to devote all their energy to achieving a united Ireland through peaceful, democratic methods. Even as Sinn Fein has grown to represent most Catholics in Northern Ireland, and become a growing force in the Irish Republic, some dismiss the party's leaders as apologists for terrorists.

In Washington, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was dogged during St. Patrick's Day festivities by the families of two dead men -- one from Belfast, the other from Dublin -- who say Sinn Fein has not done enough to bring their IRA killers to justice. The families of Robert McCartney and Joseph Rafferty say that if Sinn Fein members want to be treated as democrats, they must expose thuggish elements in their midst.

Toireasa Ferris said she is part of a new crop of Sinn Fein politicians -- those who want to talk about bread-and-butter issues, like healthcare, as much as ending the partition of the island. But she said some people refuse to get beyond ''the politics of condemnation," in which Sinn Fein officials are constantly attacked for past actions of the IRA. While Sinn Fein supports the IRA, the party insists it cannot be held accountable for the IRA's actions, and that efforts to force it to do so are politically motivated.

As Toireasa Ferris spoke with a reporter at the Boston Harbor Hotel, the water over her shoulder provided a dramatic and ironic backdrop: 22 years ago, a fishing trawler laden with $1 million worth of weapons bound for the IRA sailed out of Boston Harbor; her father was arrested after he collected that arms shipment off the coast of Kerry. He spent 10 years in prison, emerging as one of the leading IRA figures to argue it was time for the fighters to let the politicians take control of the republican movement.

When Toireasa Ferris appeared on ''The Late, Late Show," Ireland's most-watched talk show, she described how difficult it was for her and her five siblings growing up while their father was in prison. The host, Pat Kenny, asked her to condemn the IRA men who shot and killed police officer Jerry McCabe in a 1996 robbery in County Limerick, but Ferris refused, saying she sympathized with the McCabes but would not single out one death in a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives.

Ferris speaks three languages and has two college degrees, but she was derided in some press accounts as stupid. Eilis O'Hanlon, a columnist in the Sunday Independent of Dublin, dismissed Ferris as ''breathtakingly fatuous," and said the young politician symbolized how ''a movement which positioned itself as a serious-minded and credible alternative to mainstream Irish politics" had descended ''into pantomime and farce."

''Once their appeal could be summed up by the whiff of cordite," O'Hanlon wrote. ''Now it's glimpses of cellulite that they most have to worry about."

O'Hanlon's sister, Siobhan, now an adviser to Adams, was an IRA member who served four years in prison, and their uncle was Joe Cahill, the IRA's former chief of staff -- suggesting how deeply personal this can get.

Ferris said the attacks on her were sexist and politically motivated. She said she got letters of support from many ordinary people, even those who said they were not Sinn Fein supporters.

''The only thing that really disappointed me in all of this was the silence of women's organizations," said Ferris. ''The skirt I wore was not short, but even if I had chosen to wear a short skirt, what's the problem?"

She said when her Sinn Fein colleague Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the European parliament, put on weight recently, McDonald was vilified in the press for being fat. ''Mary Lou is pregnant," she said. ''These attacks are ugly and personal."

In Ireland, it seems, everything is personal. And so it is for Toireasa Ferris, as she withstands the brickbats and looks to higher office. To paraphrase what her party leader once said about the IRA, she isn't going away, you know.

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