In Catholic Belfast, IRA Becomes Public Enemy

Times Staff Writer

Along the mean streets of this city soaked in blood and memory, something strange is happening. On a wall in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood of Short Strand, two words of graffiti have appeared: “Disband Now.”

The Irish Republican Army, long the law in Short Strand, is finding itself under attack not only by its longtime nemeses, the Protestant Ulster unionists and the British government, but by working-class Catholic families. They say the organization has become a criminal gang, killing and robbing without regard to common decency.

In this tightknit community where a code of silence normally prevails, the catalyst for the growing outrage was the killing of a popular 33-year-old Catholic working father after a fight that by most accounts began with nothing more than a perceived insult to an IRA man’s female companion.


A six-week campaign by Robert McCartney’s sisters to bring the killers to justice and their public denunciations of alleged IRA intimidation of witnesses have sparked parades and candlelight vigils -- and emboldened others to speak of their anger and resentment. To many, Ra, as the IRA is called here, has become the Rafia.

The McCartney killing added to a mood of disgust with the IRA that had been building since police blamed the group for Britain’s largest bank robbery, as well as other crimes, even as the IRA and other armed groups have adhered to a 1997 cease-fire in this British province long ravaged by sectarian violence.

As a result, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which has been considered the IRA’s political wing, has seen his reputation questioned and his popularity plummet. Responding to public pressure, Adams suspended “without prejudice” seven Sinn Fein members who were at the scene of the attack, and he called on witnesses to get any useful information to the police.

The IRA responded too. It announced an investigation and said it was expelling three members it believed had taken part in the attack. Then the group delivered its coup de grace: It revealed it had met with the victim’s sisters and offered to shoot the perpetrators.

The statement only provoked further revulsion. The family insisted it wanted the attackers tried in court and reiterated that witnesses felt threatened.

A tussle of loyalties grips Short Strand, a community of 3,000 Catholics set off by high fences from the militantly unionist Protestant area of 60,000 next door. McCartney and the men accused of attacking him lived here, on streets where the IRA had always been seen as a bulwark against the community’s enemies.


“In certain circumstances, you need them,” a burly resident with a shaved head said of the IRA’s soldiers. Unionist politician “Ian Paisley couldn’t give a damn about this place; now he’s all concerned,” scoffed the man, who would not give his name.

“I wouldn’t want to be in their position,” Kate Gorman, a postal worker walking her young child, said of the people being asked to come forward. “But if you were, you’d have to do the right thing.”

Her friend Bernadette Ronay agreed. “Any true republican is disgusted by the killing, and so are the real IRA,” she said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, expressing shock at the IRA pronouncement that it was willing to kill the perpetrators, said republicans faced a stark choice.

“They can either embrace the democratic and peaceful route or be excluded,” Blair said.

The U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell B. Reiss, last week added the Bush administration’s view. “It’s in Sinn Fein’s interest to make a clear break,” he said.

Little wonder that Sinn Fein leaders were not asked to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday, as they have been in the past. Instead, invitations went to McCartney’s sisters and his girlfriend.

Irish political historian Paul Bew thinks the snub could be a harbinger. “I am starting to hear the A-word, for Arafat, applied to Sinn Fein,” said the Queen’s University professor, who added that Sinn Fein was far from being out of the political game.

Still, it has been an enormous fall for Sinn Fein, which in December seemed on the verge of a historic power-sharing deal with Paisley’s Protestant-based Democratic Unionist Party -- until Paisley insisted on public photos of the IRA destroying its weapons beforehand. Paisley said the IRA deserved to be seen in “sackcloth and ashes.” The IRA did not agree.

Days after the negotiations broke down, about $50 million was stolen from Northern Bank’s downtown Belfast cash center in a well-planned heist that included hostage-taking. The head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said almost immediately that it looked like an IRA job.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern went further, accusing Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, of being on the IRA’s army council. He insisted that they must have known about the heist plan even while negotiating with the British and Irish governments.

Damaging as the bank robbery was to Sinn Fein’s image, worse was yet to come.

Magennis’s Bar is a dark-paneled, old-fashioned pub next to the Victorian-era St. George’s Market in central Belfast. A few streets from City Hall, it sits on the edge of the Markets, a part of town known for Catholic nationalism. According to one resident who requested anonymity, the bar had become a hangout for IRA toughs, who were said to provide its security.

On the night of Jan. 30, after a commemoration in Derry for the victims of 1972’s Bloody Sunday, some IRA men were drinking in the bar. So was McCartney, with his friend Brendan Devine.

According to family members, McCartney and Devine got into an argument with a leading IRA member, reportedly about a remark made to a woman in the bar. Despite offering an apology, McCartney and Devine were hauled out to the street. There, on the dark pavement, someone produced a knife from the bar’s kitchen, sliced McCartney open, gouged his eyes and left him for dead. Devine, beaten with an iron bar and stabbed, survived.

Associates of the killer went back in the bar, cleaned up physical evidence, took the tape from the bar’s security camera and instructed the patrons to keep silent because it was “IRA business,” McCartney’s family said.

That might have been the end of it. Like so many acts of violence in Belfast, where armed paramilitaries on both sides carry out “punishment” attacks in their own communities, police would normally add the killing to their files of unsolved cases.

In McCartney’s case, his sisters were having none of it. Paula, Gemma, Donna, Catherine and Claire say 70 people were in the bar that night, and threats by the IRA are preventing witnesses from telling what they saw.

The accusations have roiled Short Strand, on the other side of the Lagan River from Magennis’s.

Alex Maskey, the Sinn Fein city councilor for the area that includes the pub, is defiant. A scrappy former amateur boxer wounded by a unionist bullet in 1987, he said the accusations were unproved and exploitive, and that the IRA and Sinn Fein had been working hard to cope with a situation “not of their making.”

As to broader charges of criminality, he said much of what was bandied about the IRA was “so much nonsense.”

“They say they are responsible for all the cigarettes stolen in Northern Ireland, all the fuel smuggling, even for driving up property prices. To me, the IRA is not responsible for a lot of the things,” he said. The real issue, he said, is the lack of a political accord, which makes proper policing impossible.

Long a political factor in the six counties of British-ruled Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein had been on the rise in the Irish Republic to the south. A 2002 election lifted the party from one seat in the Irish parliament to five, with 6% of the vote, and it nearly doubled that in European parliamentary elections last year. Some think it could win a share of a coalition government some day.

Bew, the historian, who equates Sinn Fein with the IRA, believes the IRA’s illegal activities have given Sinn Fein an overwhelming financial advantage over other parties.

“It really is Tony Soprano stuff -- if Tony had political ambitions,” Bew said, referring to the television mobster.

Beyond politics, there is another kind of judgment the republican movement faces. Partly inspired by the example of the McCartney sisters, other families are stepping forward with their tales of IRA wrongdoing.

Among them is Eileen McGinley, 42, who said her family was warned not to make a scene at the trial of the man who was convicted of stabbing her son Jimmy to death in 2003.

Speaking in the living room of her row house in Derry, its window sills lined with statues of baby angels, she recounted how the family was ordered not to harm the defendant, convicted of manslaughter, when he got out of prison because he was an IRA member. Her son was a loyal Sinn Fein voter and the father of a 2-year-old. She fears the child will be scarred for life.

“He’ll always know what happened to Jimmy, that a member of the IRA killed his father,” she said. “He’ll always have the hatred inside him, and it will never go away, no matter what we do.”

Times special correspondent Ron DePasquale in Derry and Navan, Ireland, contributed to this report.