The sisters who took on the IRA and won

The sisters who took on the IRA and won

Gethin Chamberlain in Belfast for The Scotsman, 12 March 2005

THE men’s toilet in Magennis’s bar in central Belfast is not a large room. There is a small sink to the right of the door on the way in, a single stall to the rear of the room containing a WC, and a stainless steel trough on the same wall as the sink, with room for two people. There are a couple of adverts on the wall above the trough; below it is the obligatory puddle of urine on the floor. In the chipped brown varnish on the back of the door, the initials PIRA – standing for Provisional Irish Republican Army – have been scratched.

It is an unexceptional room accessed through a door at the rear of an unexceptional pub, a neat establishment based around a horseshoe bar. The people who drink here sit on tall chairs by the bar, or in the five booths that line the wall on the left-hand wall. If it is busy, as it must have been on the night of 30 January, when Robert McCartney was stabbed to death outside and his friend Brendan Devine had his throat slashed, the rest must stand.

What makes the toilet at Magennis’s exceptional is that, if the 70 or so people drinking in Magennis’s on that night are to be believed, it was the most crowded room in the entire building. While McCartney was dying and Devine was bleeding all over the floor, anyone who was known to have been in the bar claims to have been in the toilet. No-one, it seems, saw a thing. And the reason no-one saw anything is that Robert McCartney died at the hands of the IRA. Not a sanctioned killing, but an off-the-cuff act of savagery carried out by its members.

McCartney and Devine had gone in for a quick drink before going on to a birthday party. In the pub were a group of up to 20 IRA men, just back from a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry. Devine knew some of those IRA men; they did not get along. Words were exchanged.

“Do you know who I am?”, the most senior IRA man is said to have asked. Some of his cohorts went into the pub kitchen and returned with knives. According to one version of events, the commander drew his finger across his throat and Devine’s throat was cut. McCartney managed to get him outside, but the attack continued, and McCartney was stabbed in the heart. Afterwards, the IRA men went back into the pub and cleaned up. They made sure to take away the CCTV footage. Nobody saw anything, one told the people in the bar. This is IRA business. And, under normal circumstances, that would have been the end of it. But, unlike those in the bar, McCartney’s family were not prepared to keep quiet.

His sisters – Paula, Catherine, Donna, Claire and Gemma – and his partner, Bridgeen Hagans, the mother of their children, Conlead, four, and Brandon, two, began to speak out, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice. They blamed IRA members for the killings. What they said touched a nerve in their community. Suddenly, the IRA, already reeling from accusations over its role in the GBP 26 million Northern Bank robbery, found itself on the back foot. The McCartneys were, after all, staunch republicans. Robert McCartney voted for Sinn Fein. People began to ask whether, in a group of strong, angry, articulate women, the IRA had met its match and some commentators suggested that the movement was losing grass-roots support.

Paula stands in the kitchen of her house in the Short Strand area of Belfast. A television crew is waiting for her in the lounge, another setting up, another outside. Everyone wants a little bit of the McCartneys’ David and Goliath struggle. She draws on a cigarette and hesitates when asked if what has happened marks some sort of turning point in the relationship between the wider nationalist community and the IRA.

“We can’t see the storm because we are at the centre of it,” she says. “What drives us is justice for Robert.” Is she surprised by the furore they have created? “Robert was murdered,” she says. After that, nothing surprises her. Anything is possible.

She is not scared of the people she is accusing. “We are talking and we have our conviction and we are not going to go away,” she says. “We feel no fear at all. Our love for Robert outweighs any fear.”

It is not for her to say whether what they are doing marks an end for the IRA, she says. The people will decide if it is the end. She is getting the impression that both sides of the conflict have had enough of the paramilitaries.

“Robert has been murdered and there are people here who can murder other people and they must be accountable. We want them in a court of law,” she says. So, why are people still afraid to come forward to give evidence? “Other people are afraid to come forward because they don’t know what is going to happen six months down the line.”

She was the same way, she says, until what happened to Robert. “I was walking round with my eyes and ears shut,” she says. But now she’s listening to horror stories about how some people have been behaving. And this is not what republicanism is about. “This is why republicans are repulsed,” she says. “Republicans know what it is to have injustice done against them. What has happened to my family is against everything that republicans stand for.

“All they want”, she says, “is for the people who murdered Robert to be brought to justice. Everything else that goes with it just happened.” They did not set out to devise a plan to undermine the IRA and Sinn Fein. But the death of their brother was unprecedented, she says.

But does the anger and frustration directed at the IRA mark a turning point? Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner who has been advising the McCartneys, is not so sure. “What people are speaking out against is not an IRA murder – it is a criminal murder carried out by IRA members,” he says. “They are speaking out against criminality. And the family’s demands are not seen as unreasonable.”

McIntyre served 18 years in jail – the first year and a bit for IRA membership, the rest for killing a loyalist paramilitary. He left the IRA in 1998, disillusioned, and says he no longer sees any justification in taking a life.

He sits in the bar of a Belfast hotel sipping a coffee, his grey corduroy cap on the seat next to him, his jumper stretched over a generous stomach. “Someone told me that they love the IRA,” he explains. “They just hate the bastards in their own area.

“The IRA has its problems, but it is not easy to predict the popular mood. Why did people react the way they did to this killing? Because it was not an authorised operation.”

In previous cases, he says, people have spoken against authorised IRA operations and nothing happened, because there is a degree of tolerance within the community for those. “There is also the bad reputation of the people involved to consider”, he says. “The reputation of those involved in the killing has bothered the local community for a while. People see them as a rogue element.

“And it helps that the McCartney sisters are intelligent and photogenic. Sometimes people get a bit of confidence and they rush the breach. When you’ve lost your brother and got a bit of courage, you don’t keep quiet.

“This killing was carried out by psychopathic thugs. The family said it and took the chance and they came through. Others have spoken out over the years and had no effect.”

But the same people who are speaking out now, he says, will probably vote Sinn Fein in the future. Things could all go back to normal. What is happening now is a threat to some individuals but not to the hegemony of Sinn Fein in the nationalist community.

The IRA and Sinn Fein were caught out by the anger the killing provoked. More than 1,000 people turned out for the funeral, but a natural reluctance among the republican hierarchy to give ground proved their undoing. Their response was too slow and clumsy, blaming a growing knife culture and accusing the police of mishandling the investigation.

The family demanded more. Driven into a corner, the IRA put out an extraordinary statement. It had spoken to those who had witnessed the killing, it said, and told them they had nothing to fear by giving evidence against those IRA men involved. And, more than that, it had told the family it would gladly shoot the men involved if that was what they wanted. The family declined the offer.

In an office up two flights of stairs in Sinn Fein headquarters on the Falls Road, its mural of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands dominating one wall on the side of the modern building, Gerry Kelly is a frustrated man.

Our whole struggle is being held up to the world, he says, because the few people involved in the killing are not living up to their responsibilities. It is as frustrating for republicans as for anyone else. But, he asks, what should those involved do? What would you do? You have committed a terrible crime, broken all society’s rules … do you simply surrender? What do you do?

Kelly was an IRA man. He shot a prison guard in the head during the Maze prison breakout in 1983 and went on the run for a while, though he was later caught and sent back to Britain. Now he is Sinn Fein’s spokesman on police and justice. The past few weeks have not been easy. Yes it was a horrendous killing, he says, and it is accepted that there were republicans involved, but this was not a sanctioned IRA operation.

The IRA has spoken publicly to say that its members were involved and have been ordered to come forward, and he doesn’t remember that happening before. And it has called for witnesses to come forward. As for the wording of its statement, it is an army: sometimes it speaks like an army.

The republican struggle has been brought into disrepute, he concedes. But there have been an avalanche of attacks on republicans and it is unfounded and it is unfair, he says. There has been an attempt to criminalise republicans.

There is a danger in any society that there are people who will act criminally and that has to be dealt with. The only way forward, he says, is to put so much cumulative pressure on the people involved that eventually they give in.

There are children running through the kitchen of the McCartney house back in the Short Strand. Two play outside with plastic Batman figures. Paula comes outside to have her picture taken, standing shivering in the middle of the street as the light fades.

Behind her is the dark outline of the local police station. Get that in the picture, she says, but she won’t stand too close: one of the men implicated in the killing lives along the road, and she does not want him to think she is being provocative. The houses on this road back on to the close where she lives.

The TV crews have gone, fresh appeals have been made. The campaign is still gathering pace; next, the sisters are off to the White House. But still there is no breakthrough with the witnesses in the bar. Paula does not seem so surprised.

Can you imagine, she says, one moment you are sitting there having a pint, and the next there is a man having his throat cut. And the people who did it are telling you not to say anything. Well, what would you do? she asks. It is the people who went back into the bar and cleaned up the blood and covered it up who need to come forward, she says. Only if they come forward will those who watched them feel safe to talk.

In Magennis’s bar, the manager is taking down posters in the empty room on the other side of the bar, washing the plastic sheeting that covered them in the sink behind the beer taps. So, what happened?

He looks up. Please don’t ask me that again, he says, I don’t want to be rude. Yes, but what happened? How could everyone have been in that toilet? I’m trying to be polite, he says, and he is. Please don’t ask me that question again. But the people in this bar, they did nothing, they have said nothing. They must have been afraid of something. What happened?

There’s nothing to say, he says. Please go.

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