Five Irish Sisters Seek Justice for Their Slain Brother
Not long ago on a street in downtown Belfast, Donna McCartney spotted coming out of a store a man who she believes instigated the vicious beating on Jan. 30 that took her brother Robert's life. "He had a newspaper and a sandwich and was strolling as if nothing happened," says Donna, one of five McCartney sisters. Her sister Gemma, meanwhile, also passed one of the alleged killers on the street. "I grew up with this guy, and he couldn't look me in the eye," she says. "You feel angry inside. So angry."
Until now, those men had little to fear. As members of the Irish Republican Army—the outlawed paramilitary group fighting for Northern Ireland's separation from Great Britain—they control Catholic enclaves like the McCartneys' Short Strand neighborhood with guns, intimidation and an ironclad code of silence. But the McCartney sisters are risking their lives to change that. Joined by Robert's fiancée, Bridgeen Hagans, the sisters—Gemma, 41, a nurse; Paula, 40, a student; Donna, 38, a business-woman; Catherine, 36, a teacher; and Claire, 27, a teacher trainee—have taken to Belfast's streets, leafleting their neighborhood and publicly urging 72 alleged witnesses to cooperate with police. "They're giving people courage," says Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards. "They haven't finished the IRA, but they've severely damaged them." On St. Patrick's Day the sisters visited the White House, where President Bush praised them for defending "the cause of peace and rule of law."
Even so, back home the McCartneys have received bomb threats, including one called in to a Belfast newspaper. "We kind of expected that," says Paula with a shrug. But for many Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, the spasm of barroom violence that robbed the McCartneys of their brother—a weight-lifting, quick-witted forklift driver and the father of two little boys—had little to do with politics. According to a witness who described the murder to the sisters, Robert, 33, and a friend, Brendan Devine, 31, were drinking at Magennis's Whiskey Cafe when a senior IRA man accused Robert of making a rude gesture at his wife. Robert denied it, and mayhem erupted: Devine was slashed across the throat with a broken bottle, and both he and Robert were beaten, their chests cut open and left for dead outside the pub. A man then marched back inside and announced to the horrified patrons, " 'Nobody saw anything. This is IRA business,' " says Paula.
Robert died at a hospital the next morning, by which time tapes from the pub's surveillance cameras had gone missing and all traces of blood were scrubbed away. The sister's secret source of information soon stopped talking—"We're trying to get this person to come forward," says Paula—and even Brendan Devine, who survived the attack, hasn't yet agreed to testify. "I can't shed any light on that now," says his lawyer Fergal Macelhatton.
After 12 suspects were arrested and then released for lack of evidence, the sisters summoned the courage to challenge the IRA. "Alarm bells just started ringing when these people were released," says Paula. "No one said, 'Let's do this,' " says Claire. "It was a silent understanding." Family history made the loss even harder to bear: The McCartneys' other brother, Gerard, 28, took his own life four years ago. Their mother, Cathleen, 61, was too distraught to attend Robert's funeral, and as for their father, Robert, 63, "he's totally lost," says Paula.
The women have stepped back from jobs to focus full-time on persuading witnesses to talk. Hagans, 27, Robert's fiancée, who had been planning a July wedding, devotes her time to their sons Conlaed, 4, who falls asleep each night clutching photos of Robert, and Brandon, 2, who keeps asking for his daddy. On March 8 IRA reps offered to shoot four men involved in the attack. Outraged, the sisters declined. "Two wrongs don't make aright," says Paula The Bush Administration also reacted. "It's time for the IRA to go out of business," said U.S. Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss. Facing its darkest crisis in years, the IRA has reportedly expelled three members, and a spokesman for Sinn Fein, the group's political wing, now concedes McCartney didn't deserve his fate. "He was a tragic victim," says Dominic Doherty.
Back in Belfast, the sisters say they will continue to fight. "The people who did this are getting on with their lives," says Paula, "while ours have been blown to bits." Adds Gemma: "We'll keep at it until these people are brought to justice."
Jill Smolowe. Courtney Rubin in Belfast and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.
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