On Wednesday evening, as the long-serving Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams armed himself with a Dáil statement as he attempted to tip-toe through yet another Provisional IRA minefield from the past, it felt like it had all been seen before.
A family at war with Sinn Féin over a murdered loved one.
Government and rival opposition parties baying for answers and political blood.
Sinn Féin TDs pulling out the well-worn “what- about-ery” defence to side-step legitimate questions and claim all aspects of a republican paramilitary murder should not be investigated because British army murders have not been either.
For the likes of sexual abuse survivors Paudie McGahon and Mairia Cahill; the family of one of the most well-known Disappeared, Jean McConville; and the parents of Paul Quinn, a young man beaten to death by south Armagh fuel smugglers, the image was nothing new.
However, while the picture painted was a near flawless copy of the all-too-many previous versions, there was one important distinction which — while in itself a mere footnote in this week’s controversy — shows that not everything is quite as it once was.
As Mr Adams rose to give his Dáil statement on the 1983 murder of Brian Stack on Wednesday — a cohort of 20 other Sinn Féin TDs such as Dessie Ellis and Martin Ferris sitting loyally beside him — ever-present deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and fresh-faced TD Eoin Ó Broin were nowhere to be seen.
Ms McDonald, waylaid by what she later explained was “a very bad sinus/bronchitis infection”, was at home nursing her illness, while a spokesperson yesterday said Mr Ó Broin was at a Right2Water meeting which he could not reschedule at short notice. By themselves, the reasons are understandable explanations for why two younger, ambitious TDs with no direct links to Sinn Féin’s troubling past would fail to stand side-by-side with their under-fire party leader in the usual show of solidarity from the most regimental of Irish political parties.
People get sick, and schedules sometimes clash. It happens.
But taken in the context of another situation where Mr Adams’ credibility has been widely ridiculed, another murder victim coming back to haunt Sinn Féin, and another reminder of what lies beneath the fresh lick of green paint plastered over the party’s bullet-riddled past, the non-appearances carry a second interpretation.
Fair or not, reasoned or unreasonable, Wednesday’s no-show by Ms McDonald and Mr Ó Broin highlights how Mr Adams’ leadership clock is ticking.
For two high-profile TDs to fail to stand with Mr Adams because they were sick and had other plans would previously have been unthinkable. But in an era where Mr Adams is edging closer to stepping down from his 33-year reign, it makes perfect sense to offer support — just from a distance.
Yes, Mr Adams and his Twitter teddies remain the party’s official poster boys, for now.
But when you’re trying to widen your electoral base to convince people you’re a caring, sharing, cuddly democratic party, it doesn’t help that your leader keeps being accused of links to blacked-out vans, “disciplining” murderers, and allegedly suppressing information.
Over the coming days Gerry Adams and his advisers will be focussed on protecting the party’s new external image as the Brian Stack controversy rumbles on.
They should also be worried about the health of his internal support.
As any doctor will tell you, bronchial infections have an awful habit of spreading if left unattended.
This can still happen regardless of how many people you wrap up in the peace process safety blanket in a bid to keep them warm. And close.