Sister act

The five siblings of Robert McCartney vow to keep fighting for justice in Belfast, and force the IRA to change its ways, so that their brother will not have died in vain.

Angelique Chrisafis
March 11, 2005 8:40PM (UTC)

In Quality Sandwiches, the gourmet Belfast lunch stop she owns, Donna McCartney is setting out the brown rolls and the German salami. Every morning, as she lays out the newspapers on her shelves, the face of her dead brother stares back at her. Usually, he is holding his son, imprisoned in a joyful holiday snap on Newcastle beach in County Down.

In the past week or so, Donna has caught sight of her own face amid the newsprint as well, as the five McCartney sisters take their campaign for justice over their brother's death to anyone who will listen. Raised in the Short Strand, a tiny Catholic enclave in east Belfast -- a republican heartland where tribal loyalty and the old rubric of "whatever you say, say nothing" holds -- they are finally squaring up to their one-time "protectors," demanding answers. Killing Catholics is not what the Irish Republican Army is supposed to do; killing a totally innocent one and then covering up the murder is beyond the pale.


All day in this sandwich shop on a central Belfast street that has seen its own potted history of bombs and death, Northern Ireland's ubiquitous radio phone-ins debate whether, why and how IRA men killed Robert McCartney. "Sometimes it does get too much," says Donna. Strangers come in to give their support. Thursday it was clear that the suited and booted of the office world were going out of their way to buy a coffee here. There is a vulnerability to the McCartneys, despite their sudden status as an international cause célèbre. "I've been waiting on people saying nasty things, but everyone has been supportive."

The past few days have been typical of the frenzied pace of their campaign. There were more pictures of the McCartneys meeting politicians, more headlines about a crossroads in the peace process, saying the McCartney case must surely force Sinn Fein to divorce the IRA. Then came another IRA "official" version of McCartney's brutal death: an offer to shoot the killers as punishment. Finally, an invitation to the White House from George W. Bush arrived on the doormat. The Kennedy family, the closest thing the Irish have to a royal family, are also lining up to meet the McCartneys on their St Patrick's Day trip to Washington next week, as is Sen. Hillary Clinton. The next person on the sisters' wish list is Nelson Mandela.

But for Donna, 31, the middle of the five sisters, none of this has changed the reality on the ground in Short Strand. She still saw the man she is convinced ordered her brother's murder sauntering out of a shop within spitting distance of their homes this week. Others involved in the brutal stabbing, beating and coverup still wander along the street past one sister's house, to get takeout, pop in and out of bookies, chat with witnesses. Paula McCartney says nausea comes on. It is clear intimidation.


And she knows, they all know, as does Sinn Fein and the IRA, that eventually the international media will tire of the story and move on from the labyrinth of bricked streets of Short Strand, where Robert McCartney's eldest son, Conlaed, 4, hangs over a garden fence squealing at the TV cameras that temporarily distract him from his own confusion. In their "subconscious," says one sister, they wonder if one day they will made to pay for this. Donna insists: "We are not afraid. We know who they are."

This bravery is what has turned the five McCartneys and Robert's fiancée, Bridgeen Hagans, into sudden folk heroes. Despite all the insidious pressures applied, the whispering campaign by the IRA to stir doubts in people's minds, these six women with 19 children between them could force the IRA to do what the British have failed to do for decades: put away their guns and disband. All underground groups rely on tacit community support for their survival. When that support is withdrawn, they cannot survive long.

Robert McCartney, 33, was known as Bert. He was a bodybuilder, a quiet "big fella," with a tendency for ferocious blushing, or "hitting a redener," as his sisters said. He was also a soft touch. Even his older sisters hit him for cash. The last time Donna spoke to him was to pay back some money he lent her in the hungry weeks after Christmas. She wrote a check, then decided to give him cash. The check is still sitting in her checkbook; she now can't tear it out. Gemma McCartney, 41, his oldest sister and a district nurse, last spoke to him two weeks before he died, when he was worried about finding a new home for a dog.


Bert was a natural diplomat, a diffuser of rows and a good man in a tight spot. He was a forklift truck driver in the docks and worked as a doorman at night to save for his planned July wedding to Hagans, a former shop assistant from the Falls Road. They had two sons of 2 and 4. But Bert's role as the placid male in a gathering of women magnified four years ago when his younger brother, Gerard, 28, killed himself after a bout of depression. The only son, Bert now took on two roles, playing both brothers at once.

Everybody knew Bert. Of course, everybody knows everybody in the Short Strand. But even by the standards of a besieged community forced to stick together to defend itself, Bert was popular.


With its back to the River Lagan, and surrounded on three sides by 12-meter-high walls to protect it from 60,000 often hostile Protestants, the Short Strand is the most embattled Catholic enclave in Northern Ireland.

The McCartneys' mother, a dressmaker, and father, a carpet fitter and upholsterer, would take the children away from the tightly packed red-brick terraced streets, bulletproof windows, murals and heavily fortified police barracks at the height of the Protestant marching season every year. At the beginning of July, they would leave for the south Down coast and not come back until the end of August. The sisters remember their first recognition that they were on one of sectarian hatred's front lines. They would hear that the "Orangies" were coming down the street. "I thought giant fruit were coming to get us," one of them told a radio program. It didn't take long in the 1970s to realize the "fruits'" intent was burning them out. Only 10 years ago, their mother had to get stitches in her head after a loyalist bandsman hit her with a drumstick during a parade.

"We were socially conditioned. It was the norm," says Gemma McCartney. "I was only 5 when the Troubles started. I thought all societies were the same as this, being searched, and riots and the IRA." She says they weren't a political family; Robert and Gerard were more into sports and stunts and never showed an interest in the IRA.


Even when Northern Ireland was supposedly at peace in 2001 and 2002, the Short Strand spent both summers under a virtual state of siege, as up to 1,000 republicans and loyalists fought hand-to-hand battles in the streets and shots were exchanged across what is euphemistically called the "interface."

It had always been that way. Even before the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Short Strand's uniquely vulnerable position as an island of fewer than 3,000 nationalists marooned in loyalist east Belfast had made it the target of anti-Catholic pogroms throughout the 19th century, and again during the fighting of 1920 when its men were driven from their jobs in the shipyards. It even owed its very existence on one of the most foul-smelling and polluted stretches of the Lagan to sectarianism.

Republicanism runs as deep as the river here. The first northern rebel to die in the 1916 Easter Rising was a Short Strand man, killed in faraway County Kerry. But it was to be the events of June 27, 1970, that gave Short Strand a unique place in republican mythology and gave the fledgling Provisional IRA its first claim to be the protector of the minority Catholic community.


With the streets around the area thronged with a huge Protestant mob intent on burning the Catholics out, and the British Army and the old RUC apparently content to stand by, a handful of IRA men led by Billy McKee made a stand in the grounds of St. Matthew's Church, which has gone down in republican history as the Provo Alamo.

McKee was badly wounded and another IRA volunteer killed in the gun battle, in which three loyalists also died. The battle finally put an end to the bitter Catholic taunt that IRA stood for "I Ran Away."

That fight for its very survival welded the Short Strand and its people to the republican movement. Former IRA man Anthony McIntyre, who hid out there while he was on the run in the 1970s, remembers a community that "was tough, resilient and generous ... The owner of one of the homes I stayed in was later murdered by loyalists as he went about providing for his young family. The son of another couple met a similar fate. These people were outstanding, their hospitality always something to be remembered. They were a people worthy of nothing less than the highest regard."

Eight republicans, all from the area, were killed in the course of the Troubles, but civilians suffered an even greater toll, 11 dying in mostly random sectarian attacks.


But by the time Robert McCartney's coffin was carried from St. Matthew's Church six weeks ago, that seemingly unbreakable bond with the IRA was beginning to shatter. Hundreds of people joined a street vigil in protest at his murder by the IRA, and many talked of its volunteers as thugs, sadists and pedophiles who they now needed protection from. Even the hero McKee has long since left Sinn Fein and the IRA in disgust.

On Jan. 30, McCartney went to the gym to do some weightlifting and then for a drink with an old friend. They chose Magennis' bar, a new-wave Irish gastro-pub. There were IRA men drinking in the bar, some of whom had returned from the Bloody Sunday commemorations in Derry that day. According to the McCartney family, a republican accused their brother of making a rude gesture to a woman in their group. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. McCartney knew who he was but would not apologize, saying he had done nothing wrong. A row ensued. McCartney's friend Brendan Devine's throat was slit and the two friends stumbled outside. A knife was taken from the kitchen and, outside the bar, McCartney was stabbed and beaten so badly he lost an eye. The IRA's latest statement refers only to him being beaten. Others in the Short Strand say he was battered with sewer rods before his head was stamped on. His family say the men went back into the pub, locked the doors, cleaned up, removed CCTV footage and did not call an ambulance. Picked up by a police patrol, McCartney died in the hospital that night. His friend, whose throat was slit from ear to ear and stomach from navel to chest, survived.

The sisters have become another example of working-class Catholic women who are not prepared to accept the old rubric "Croppie lie down." Like the women who were the backbone of the civil rights and peace movements, and those who rose to prominence during the hunger strikes, they will not be easily silenced by any oppressor, either foreign or homegrown.

They sit on the red sofa in the front room of Paula McCartney's terraced red-brick house, which functions as the campaign's headquarters. Family photos of Robert crowd the surfaces. Paula, 40, who is considering running as an independent councilor over the issue of IRA involvement in her brother's murder, is a mature women's studies student at Queens University. With five children aged between 19 and 3, she hasn't turned up at a lecture for six weeks. What began as just the sisters, and varying numbers of their 56 cousins, chatting over cups of tea in the kitchen has become a sea of journalists passing through an open house, each courteously given an interview.


Paula is calm and thoughtful, the poised leader of the five. But she still cannot bear to relate the details of McCartney's brutal beating and reaches for a cigarette, hands shaking.

Two weeks ago, she had not yet cried over her brother's death. "If we start grieving, we wouldn't have the strength to do this, because we probably wouldn't get up out of bed in the morning."

"I don't know how long they can keep this up before they collapse," says an aunt, Margaret Quinn, who also fears for her son, Gerard, since he wrote to the Irish News. "It is an increasingly dangerous thing to criticize Sinn Fein and the IRA."

Catherine McCartney, 36, a politics teacher at a continuing-education college and a mother of four, is the sister closest in age to Robert, an intellectual who often summons the memory of the 1978 United Irishmen to labor the point of republicanism gone sour. "Wolf Tone and Henry Joy McCracken must now be turning in their graves." Claire McCartney, 26, a trainee teacher and mother of two, is the youngest sister, short, pretty and defiant, who this week told the TV crews in Paula's backyard that intimidation of witnesses continued.


In the face of all of this, Robert's fiancée Hagans remains almost impossibly glamorous. Her boys Conlaed and Brandon struggle between excitement and fear. "I have told them their daddy has gone to heaven. Conlaed seems to understand," she said. He has appeared angelically grinning at the cameras, but in reality he is troubled at school, becoming hysterical when his mother leaves him, perhaps fearing that she, like his dad, won't come back.

The McCartneys' mother and father are watching the campaign on TV from the anonymity of their north Belfast home. What do they think of it? "They haven't said anything," Gemma said. Mrs. McCartney was on sedatives after the murder and could not attend the funeral.

In the days after the murder, the family was in shock that the IRA could kill one of their own, an innocent Catholic who voted Sinn Fein because he thought they could deliver peace. They did not immediately speak out. On the Short Strand, that was a decision not to be taken lightly. But when they saw that the IRA and Sinn Fein were remaining silent, people began to vent their anger, saying the IRA were out of control, a gang of thugs, pedophiles, rapists and bullies. The once unthinkable graffiti "PIRA scum" appeared on walls. More than 700 came out for a street vigil. Normally when the IRA kill one of their own, few people come to the funeral, but around 1,000 lined the streets as the cortege snaked past. There were 64 death notices in the Irish News.

Magennis' bar displayed a startling contempt toward the all-powerful Irish etiquette of death by opening the day after the murder and not closing for the funeral. Nor did it send a wreath.

"I have lived outside this community for 15 years; I was really naive," says Gemma, the eldest and sternest, perhaps the sister with the quietest anger. "I didn't think it was that bad. I knew there were criminals in society. I didn't realize they were using the label of the IRA." Now she is appalled.

There has now been wall-to-wall media coverage of the McCartney case. The IRA has expelled three men and Sinn Fein has suspended seven. Republicans have urged witnesses to come forward, as there is nothing to fear. Yet this hasn't happened. Eleven people have been questioned and then released, most exercising their right to silence and not answering police questions. The family are still fighting for their day in court.

What drives them? "Love," Gemma says. "Basic love for my brother. Only now I'm in this situation do I realize how essential justice is. You see people on TV saying they're fighting for justice, and you think, Why don't they just accept things and get on with the grieving process? It's only now that I realize how important justice is. Otherwise he would have died in vain."

Gemma said going to the Sinn Fein party conference this weekend was something "we had to do." They had initially thought they would not go, but when they saw a headline in the Belfast Telegraph saying, "McCartneys snub Sinn Fein," they knew they had to. She says their "very clearly neutral" body language spoke volumes.

A short drive away, Magennis' bar has seen a drop in business since McCartney and Devine where dragged out of its doors and beaten and stabbed. There are almost as many TV crews outside these days as there are customers inside. Thursday at lunchtime, Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Fein director of information, was doing the best he could under the circumstances. Inside, staff were doing the same. Magennis' is far from the forbidding drinking hole that reports of the bar brawl suggest. It is very much a part of nouveau Belfast, and aspires to tempt barristers from the courts across the road with pan-fried scallops and "darns of fresh Irish salmon." Its manager, however, was cast in a more traditional mold. He refused to give his name, and like many of those questioned about the murder replied: "I am not saying anything."

Pressed on why the pub had not sent a wreath to the McCartneys and had stayed open while Robert was being buried, he grew agitated and escorted the Guardian to the door, saying: "Get out now or I will put you out."

Back at Quality Sandwiches, Gemma McCartney rushes off to find a dress smart enough for the White House, horrified at herself that she was having to do it. The family are setting up an office from which to run a Truth and Justice for Robert campaign. It seems an almost inhuman burden for one family to take on. But they say they will keep going. Gerry Adams said this week that the IRA will not be "embarrassed, demonized or repressed out of existence." Nor will the McCartneys.

Angelique Chrisafis

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