From pub brawl to national crisis

Supporters turn against the Irish Republican Army, saying it has intimidated witnesses to a murder during the commemoration of Bloody Sunday.

Published February 28, 2005 3:24PM (EST)

Who will be next? said the placard carried by the McCartney family Sunday as they were clapped and cheered to a makeshift platform outside the Short Strand shops in east Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army was once the respected protector of this small nationalist enclave in the city, where 3,000 Catholics are still protected by "peace" walls from the 60,000 Protestants surrounding them. But Sunday afternoon, as 1,000 people gathered in protest at the murder of Robert McCartney at a bar last month, apparently by members of the IRA, trust in the organization had run out.

A movement once known as the Ra was being called the "Rafia" -- the lies it has told about the killing compared with those the British army "continue to tell about Bloody Sunday," said some locals, and the local IRA commander was angrily confronted to give his men up.

For republicans to kill an innocent man and one of their own community was shock enough. But the coverup, intimidation and lies that residents said continued this past weekend, despite an IRA statement expelling three of those involved, had badly damaged their standing.

People once proud of republicans for fighting for justice for all were uniting against what they said was the reality of "peacetime" paramilitarism: a local "'Goodfellas' gang," which residents said has been out of control for years, involved in pedophilia, attempted rape and domestic violence -- in one case branding a woman on her breast with a steam iron.

The murder of McCartney was the last straw. Yet despite Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' calls for republicans to go to court to testify and the three expulsions, the guilty men were still being sheltered.

In the front room of a terrace house, McCartney's five sisters and fiancée sat trying to keep his two confused sons, ages 2 and 4, from overhearing the grim details of what happened a month ago in Magennis' bar. They are unlikely folk heroes. The family have always voted Sinn Fein, and Sunday again paid tribute to the sacrifices IRA members and "true republicans" had made to protect their community from loyalists, the old Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army. Yet they vowed they would not give up until the IRA "came clean" and made sure the dozen of its members they believe to be involved in the killing are tried.

The sisters have not slept for several nights. Paula McCartney, 40, a women's studies student, who is considering standing as an independent councilor in Short Strand, said she has not yet cried. "We can't afford sentiment at the minute," she said. If grief were allowed to take its natural course, the whole campaign would collapse.

The sisters have a clear view of the sequence of events told to them by witnesses while their brother lay in hospital -- a version that they say the IRA has tried to muddy with a whispering campaign and its own highly selective version of events released on Feb. 25.

It was a Sunday night. Robert McCartney, 33, a forklift driver, was having a drink with an old friend. A number of IRA men who had come from the Bloody Sunday commemorations in Derry were drinking at the bar. According to the McCartney family, a senior IRA man accused McCartney of making a rude gesture to his wife. He denied this, but his friend, Brendan Devine, offered to buy the women and her friends a drink to apologize. This wasn't enough for the senior republican, who asked McCartney: "Do you know who I am?"

McCartney, who also worked part time as a bouncer to save for his wedding, was described locally as a diplomat, a diffuser of rows. He knew exactly who the man was, but did not apologize, saying he hadn't done anything wrong. A row ensued. A bottle was smashed, and used to slash Devine's throat.

McCartney and Devine stumbled out of the pub. Devine told his friend to run, but he wouldn't leave him. At this point, a friend of McCartney's called his mobile. He heard smashing glass, Devine shouting "I never touched anyone" and a woman begging the attackers to stop.

The family believe around 15 people followed the two men out of the pub. McCartney and Devine were beaten with plastic and iron sewer rods and slashed from their neck to their navel with knives, said to have been taken from the pub kitchen. McCartney was kicked and his head stamped on. Some witnesses have said a gun was produced. McCartney lost an eye in the beating.

The family said the perpetrators left the men for dead, went back to the pub, locked the door, conducted a forensic clean-up operation in which evidence and CCTV footage were removed. "They closed the doors and said: 'Nobody saw anything; this is IRA business,'" says Paula McCartney.

No ambulance was called. The men were picked up by a police patrol. Devine survived. McCartney died in hospital.

One month on, of 70 witnesses in the pub, none has come forward with a full account of what they saw. Most tell the family they were in the toilet at the crucial moment. So many people have said they were in the small toilet at the time, the cubicle is now known as "the Tardis."

The family and other Short Strand residents blame the continuing IRA intimidation of witnesses. The sisters said the men they believe were responsible were walking around the area "as normal, going in and out of shops, getting themselves a carryout, going into the bookies, saying hello to people and saying hello to the family."

Catherine McCartney, a teacher, said last week that one of the alleged killers, a senior republican, stood openly in the street in long conversation with a key witness. "Their presence is intimidation enough," she said.

The family disagree with the version of events presented in an IRA statement released on Feb. 25 and described as "pure damage limitation." Even after the IRA expelled three members that night, many in the Short Strand feel the men are still under protection from the organization and it is not safe to speak out.

When Sinn Fein's Adams last week carefully referred to the McCartney killing as "murder or manslaughter," the family said the insertion of the "wee word manslaughter" was part of a quest to "dilute the severity" of the murder, which has caused far more grass-roots damage to Sinn Fein than allegations over the 26.5 million-pound Northern Bank raid.

The family said suggestions that they were setting out to damage Sinn Fein politically were laughable. "What have we got to gain from damaging Sinn Fein, especially when we voted for them?" asked Paula McCartney. "Robert's murderers were the ones who damaged Sinn Fein, so let's keep the blame where the blame belongs."

By Angelique Chrisafis

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