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'We can't let it go – not what happened to Robert'

(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

The McCartney sisters, and their brother Robert's bereaved fiancee Bridgeen, have become familiar faces. Bimpe Fatogun reports on how a story of personal loss came to international attention.

Paula Arnold was driving to the Connswater shopping centre in east Belfast on a cold Saturday in January when she spotted her brother Robert standing outside his house.

"I beeped the horn at him and he turned round and waved and I waved back," she recalled. "That was the last time I saw him."

Just over 24 hours later he was dead. Stabbed to death after what initial press reports described as "an altercation in a city centre bar".

However, far from being forgotten as just one of a long list of alcohol-fuelled tragedies resulting from a burgeoning knife-culture, unbeknown to his family, Robert McCartney's death was to take on a worldwide significance.

The 33-year-old was found unconscious with stab wounds to his stomach outside Magennis's bar in Cromac Street close to the city centre in the early hours of Monday January 31 of last year.

He had been there with three friends, stopping for a drink on his way to a friend's birthday party.

The bar was not his local and none of his family was even aware that he had been going to call in that evening.

When news reached them that Robert had been taken to hospital with stab wounds they had no idea what had taken place.

Paula Arnold's 18-year-old son Stephen, who was babysitting Robert's two children that night, was the first to be informed of what had happened.

"Robert didn't go out that much. With having two children he wouldn't have been going out regularly. Bridgeen (Robert's fiancee) and him went out a couple of times over Christmas together, but he hadn't been out since Christmas, this was a month later," Paula said.

The couple were to go out together that evening and had asked their nephew to babysit.

"The police called to the door to tell him that Robert had been stabbed. He rang over to me," Paula said.

At that stage Stephen didn't know anything other than he had been stabbed and was in hospital."

"I jumped into the car not knowing where he had been or who he had been with."

As she passed Magennis's bar on the way to the Royal Victoria hospital and saw the police lights and tape she realised that must have been where her brother was injured.

The rest of the night was spent frantically ringing around family and receiving updates from doctors as they worked for several hours to save Robert's life.

He died at 8.10am on Monday.

His friend Brendan Devine, who was also stabbed in the incident and left lying in the street with his throat cut, remained in a critical condition in hospital.

And even before the grief could set in for the McCartney family, disturbing details of the 'altercation' began to emerge.

Friends of Robert, also in the bar that evening, told them that Brendan Devine had been accused by members of the IRA, who were also drinking there, of making an insulting gesture or comment to a woman in their company.

They said that when Brendan Devine refused to accept this or apologise he was beaten and stabbed before being dragged outside into Verner Street where the attack continued.

Robert was reportedly seen trying to stop the attack and protect his friend just moments before the group turned on him.

No ambulance was called to the scene and the bar was quickly cleaned up in what the McCartney family have described as a "forensic" operation typical of IRA procedure.

Film from security cameras was removed and destroyed.

Police investigating the incident have described being met with a "wall of silence" – with none of the estimated 72 witnesses coming forward.

There were and remain allegations that the killers warned all those present not to come forward.

Many of those questioned claimed to have been in the bar's toilets at the time of the attacks.

Within days the McCartney family said they were in possession of all the names of people they believe were responsible for killing Robert.

"We knew who they were. You would have known them in the area as scumbags," Paula said.

The family say they were all – and many remain – members of the IRA who regularly meted out punishment beatings in the area.

The leader, a senior republican who is alleged to have given the order for Robert's murder, was "a man you wouldn't raise your eyes to".

"This wasn't like a sporadic row and somebody got carried away and pulled a knife and the knife went in," Paula said.

"The whole thing lasted 40 minutes. They were like a pack of dogs. Even if there had been one person to say stop. To try and do something."

Seven people were arrested in the days following the murder but all were released without charge.

Robert's five sisters organised a vigil for Robert which was attended by more than 1,000 people.

A similar number turned out for his funeral.

Paula walked the streets of Short Strand putting up police posters appealing for information.

The sisters made impassioned appeals in the media. Their insistence that the IRA was involved and members were being protected by a cover-up soon attracted attention from across the world.

Chief Constable Sir hugh Orde stated that he did not believe the IRA had sanctioned the killing.

Police later said they believed it was carried out by IRA members independently of the organisation's leadership with the involvement of "a very senior IRA man".

Following increasing media and public pressure the paramilitary organisation expelled three members some weeks later.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams urged witnesses to come forward to "the family, a solicitor, or any other authoritative or reputable person or body".

"I want to make it absolutely clear that no one involved acted as a republican or on behalf of republicans," he said as the party suspended 12 members said to have been in the bar on the night of the killing.

To date four of those members have since resigned from the party and a further two were expelled for failing to give an account of what they witnessed to the Police Ombudsman – five have had their suspension lifted after making such statements.

In March the IRA sparked further controversy by issuing an unprecedented statement saying it had offered to shoot the members involved in the murder.

This was rejected by the family who insisted they wanted "justice not revenge".

"I really thought, when P O'Neill's statement came out and the Sinn Féin leadership started speaking, I believed – naively – that it would have been a turning point," Paula said.

"Everybody knew who had done it. We expected them to be locked up. These people are psychopaths.

"If they were anywhere else in the world they would be called serial killers."

By this stage, Paula, like her other sisters was once again using her McCartney surname, in a show of solidarity and tribute to their slain brother.

They travelled to the US for St Patrick's Day celebrations where they met President George W Bush and a number of senators.

The women have also visited the European Parliament and received a number of peace prizes for their campaigning.

Sinn Féin continues to say that the McCartney family has its full support.

The party's justice spokesman Gerry Kelly yesterday (Thursday) said it was doing everything in its power to help the McCartney sisters.

"We have done all that we can and continue to help as best we can and if there are other things that Sinn Féin can do as a political party then we will do it," he said.

"Sinn Féin were not involved in anything around (the murder) and have tried to create an atmosphere, both publicly and privately, to aid the search for justice for the McCartney family."

He said the fact that police have received 151 witness statements proved there was no "wall of silence" around the murder.

Mr Kelly also rejected the family's claims that a gang of "power-crazed scum" were exercising a reign of terror within the community.

"I think people have gone through 30 years of struggle and not usually intimidated by anybody within the area," he said.

"People in the area are unhappy that they have been tarred with the same brush as the murderers. What happened to Robert could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in Ballymurphy. It is not about the Short Strand.

"The Short Strand is a strong community and Robert was a son of that community. The community has stood by his family in their fight for justice."

However, for the family it remains the case that their quest for justice continues.

Paula, Gemma and Catherine were all older than Robert and were used to protecting him in the playground.

"You never really grow out of that 'Don't you touch my wee brother'," Paula said.

"Even though he got so big. He would have done the same for any of us – although maybe he would have gone about it in a different way.

"We can't let it go, not what happened to him. You always have to have hope that those responsible will be brought to justice – otherwise what's the point."

In May two people, Terence Davison of Stansfield Place, Belfast and James McCormick of Stechford, Birmingham were charged with murdering Robert McCartney and attempting to murder Brendan Devine.

However, the McCartney family remain convinced that there are more people who should face the courts.

In October Paula and her family left the Short Strand and moved to south Belfast.

Bridgeen is currently living at her parents' house in west Belfast and plans to move out of the area permanently in coming weeks.

"I lived in the Short Strand for 40 years but I just couldn't stomach it anymore, seeing them walking around like nothing happened," Paula said.

"I wasn't frightened of them. I just couldn't stand seeing them there walking around while Robert can't. I still can't quite believe he's gone. I don't know when it'll sink in, or if it ever will."

January 29, 2006

This article appeared first in the January 27, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News