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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Ten years after the IRA murdered Robert McCartney, his sisters voice their frustration that his killers have walked free

(Suzanne Breen, Daily Mail)

They were five ordinary women, born and bred in a republican heartland, who stepped forward to challenge the IRA and the code of omerta which rules in working-class nationalist areas of the North.

It's 10 years next week since the IRA murdered Robert McCartney outside a Belfast bar and his sisters began a campaign which turned their lives upside down.

Their quest for truth and justice took them all over the world. They were feted in Washington, Strasbourg, Brussels and Berlin. But it was at home, on the streets of Belfast, where the results mattered.

A decade later as the sisters prepare to mark Robert's anniversary, they know all too well that justice hasn't been done. Although the police say 15 people were involved in the killing, not one has been convicted.

"The IRA member who stabbed my brother, the Provo who supplied and later destroyed the knife, the men who beat and kicked Robert as he lay defenceless, the ones who cleaned the bar to destroy forensic evidence – they all got away with murder," says Paula McCartney.

"I'd like to think that there is a chance somebody may one day be brought to justice but, in my heart, I know it won't happen. The best we can hope for now is that the woeful inadequacies in the policing and legal system, that lets murderers walk the streets, will be highlighted."

The family paid a high personal price for their crusade. Paula and Bridgeen Hagans, Robert's partner and the mother of his two young sons, were forced to leave their Short Strand homes. Another sister was intimidated at work.

They all lost friendships as they took on the IRA. And the campaign brought huge practical pressures on their family lives too. The five sisters had 19 children between them.

The events of 30 January 2005 outside Magennis's bar in Belfast city centre are as "raw and painful" as ever for the McCartneys, says Paula: "We don't even visit Robert's grave. I went a few times but found no comfort there – it was too traumatic."

The insincerity of politicians, who once hailed them as heroines, is obvious to the sisters. "Robert's death was used to exert political pressure on Sinn Féin to sign up to policing," says Catherine McCartney.

"Once Sinn Féin did that and went into government with the DUP at Stormont, the murder disappeared from the political agenda. It didn't suit anybody any more, it had become an embarrassment.

"Neither London nor Dublin delivered anything concrete in our search for justice. The British government was useless, the Irish government was polite and useless."

The SDLP offered to put a motion before the Stormont Assembly next week to mark the 10th anniversary but the McCartneys refused.

Instead, the sisters will remember their brother privately. Paula has just put up photographs of Robert and the sisters' campaign in her home. Our children were too young to remember what happened but are starting to ask questions. So now they can see what it was all about.

"And I want Robert's sons Conlaed and Brandon, who were only four and two when they lost him, to know we fought for justice for their daddy." Seeing Robert's boys can be almost too painful, says Paula: "It's a reminder of what Robert lost, and Brandon is the image of him. Sometimes, it's like looking at a ghost."

Robert and his friend Brendan Devine had gone to Magennis's bar to have a few pints and watch the football. The pub was packed with republicans from the Short Strand and Markets area of Belfast who had just returned from the annual Bloody Sunday march in Derry.

Around 10pm an argument broke out after a woman took offence at a 'w***er' hand gesture Robert made about a soccer team. Jock Davison, a prominent Belfast republican, became involved in the quarrel.

A fight developed between Jock and Brendan Devine who had history with the Provisionals. Others in the bar became involved. A bottle was smashed over Devine's head and his throat was cut three times with another broken bottle.

McCartney helped Devine, who was bleeding heavily, out of the bar. They made their way into Market Street followed by men armed with bottles, sticks, and a knife.

McCartney and Devine were then beaten, kicked, stabbed and left to die. They were found by a passing police patrol. Devine would recover. But nine hours later, after suffering three heart attacks, Robert McCartney, 33, died in hospital.

As well as a fatal stab wound to the stomach, he suffered a broken nose, a black eye, and extensive cuts and bruising. Belfast Crown Court later heard Robert hadn't thrown one punch.

In 2008, three men went on trial in connection with the killing. Terry Davison, Jock Davison's uncle, was charged with murder; Jim McCormick and Joe Fitzpatrick with causing an affray.

The five-week trial was emotionally exhausting for the sisters. Sometimes it was only Catherine who could bear to stay in court as the horrific details of Robert's injuries were aired.

All three defendants were found not guilty. "The prosecution case was so weak the judge had no choice but to acquit," says Catherine. "And as a family we wouldn't want anyone convicted on flimsy evidence anyway. The PPS cobbled together a case that should never have reached a courtroom."

The family want a review of the actions of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in bringing the case. Today, the PNSI is no longer active in the murder inquiry. "They say it's over unless someone comes knocking on the door to confess," says Catherine.

The McCartneys have lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman over the PSNI investigation. "It was half-cocked in terms of evidence-gathering," says Catherine.

The McCartneys came from the Short Strand, an isolated Catholic enclave in east Belfast which saw the IRA as its defenders. Residents experienced state and loyalist brutality.

Never did Robert or his family believe he'd be harmed by "his own". That's what makes the murder most hurtful. "We came through decades of conflict with these people," says Catherine. "The murder felt like a deep betrayal because of who did it."

Although IRA members were responsible, the killing wasn't sanctioned by the Provisional leadership. Nor was it premeditated. "But after it happened, the IRA had a choice. They had to weigh Robert's life against protecting the men who murdered him and they chose the murderers," says Catherine.

"It had nothing to do with republicanism and everything to do with cronyism." The IRA said it expelled three men after the murder but the family dismiss this as "window dressing".

"In public, the Provos said they supported our campaign for justice. In private, they did the opposite," says Gemma McCartney, another of Robert's sisters. "The proof is the lack of witnesses who came forward."

Of 70 people in the bar that night who gave statements to police, none saw anything – all claimed to be in the toilet or on their mobile phones during the fight. "It's left me cynical about human nature," says Gemma. "The desire for an easy life and not upsetting certain people in the community can lead to turning a blind eye to murder."

The killers and their clique continue to live openly in republican areas. They're not socially ostracised. There were no pickets at their door. The McCartneys' experience was very different.

Both Paula and Bridgeen Hagans, were forced to leave their homes in the Short Strand after intimidation. Dozens of protestors gathered outside Bridgeen's door, terrifying her children who thought the whole family were going to be killed.

Paula now lives in the religiously mixed Four Winds area of south Belfast: "I can hardly bear to visit the Short Strand now. It's difficult to be in an area where people involved in murdering an innocent man can walk about proud of themselves, thinking they're untouchable."

She stresses that it's only "a minority in the area but a very vocal minority" who harassed the family. There were many acts of kindness too like the man who gave the sisters and Bridgeen six bracelets – all with crucifixes and miraculous medals attached – to "keep them safe".

But the actions of the "vocal minority" still took their toll. Gemma, a nurse, was spat at and abused by an alleged associate of Robert's killers while she screened women for cervical cancer in the Markets area, yards from the murder scene.

After Robert's death, she faced complaints about her work as a nurse which were politically motivated. "There were certain people who wanted to see me losing my job," Gemma says. She left nursing and is now a teacher.

Paula was doing a degree at Queen's University when Robert was killed. Unable to concentrate, she left the course. Another sister Donna McCartney, ran a bustling sandwich shop in Belfast city centre at the time of the murder. Police warned her of threats by "republican elements" to burn it down. She closed it the following year and now works in a café.

Catherine recalls the abuse the sisters were subjected to: "We had obscene letters and death threats. Newspaper photos of Robert covered in excrement were sent. We were called whores and prostitutes. There were rumours we went to Palace Barracks to have sex with British soldiers."

To outsiders it may have looked like a 'get the Provos' campaign but to the McCartney sisters it was always about human rights, not party politics. And, at its heart, was love and loyalty.

"Robert was our wee brother," says Paula. "From the day he was first allowed out to play on the street, we looked out for him.

"We hadn't a clue that trying to get justice for him would be so long or so hard. But despite it all, we don't regret a thing.

"His attackers left him to die on the street like a dog, like he was worthless. We were never going to let that pass. Robert was somebody and his life was precious."

January 26, 2015

This article appeared in the January 25, 2015 edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday.

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