Violence and silence
March 17, 2005 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
By the rules of the game a murder in a pub in Belfast should not have created problems. This was IRA territory. In its territory violence was followed by silence.
And so a man died. He was Robert McCartney and his "crime" was to have said something that a senior IRA man sitting nearby in the pub took to be an insult. He demanded an apology. McCartney refused; he insisted he had said nothing insulting. He was a loyal supporter of and voter for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. His refusal to grovel cost him his life.
Several men in the pub attacked him and his drinking companion, Brendan Devine. One of the attackers slit Devine's throat with a knife. He and McCartney managed to get out of the pub. The attackers pursued them. Another knife was produced.
McCartney was stabbed so badly he lost an eye. He was hit with iron bars. Men stamped on his head. Then the attackers walked back to the pub, locked the door and began to clean away all traces of the fight. No one phoned the emergency services.
A passing police car found the wounded men on the street. It was too late to save McCartney. Amazingly, despite the cut to his throat and a second slash, which had opened his abdomen, Devine was saved.
At that point silence descended. Seventy people had been in the pub, including at least two Sinn Fein candidates in upcoming elections. No one said a word to police.
And there it might have ended another case of tribal injustice but for Robert McCartney's sisters. There are five of them. They and the dead man's fiancée refused the pact of silence.
McCartney's funeral became a political statement. Hundreds lined the streets in a vigil to protest against his murder. Days later the sisters organized a march and a demonstration. They demanded an end to the coverup.
Within six weeks they were at the White House in Washington, meeting George Bush. Meanwhile Sinn Fein and the IRA were stumbling from one public relations mess to another.
Sinn Fein first tried to ignore the women. The demands for justice became louder, magnified by articles and TV and radio stories across Europe. Then, sharply reversing field, the party invited the women to its annual convention in Dublin.
This was supposed to have been a celebration. The party was created 100 years ago. Instead it turned into a public attempt to rebuild bridges to a family and a community seeking justice.
"Those responsible for the brutal killing of Robert McCartney should admit what they did in a court of law. That is the only decent thing for them to do," proclaimed Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams from the podium. The hall applauded but not the women.
"Our bottom line is that nobody has been brought to justice. We are not going to be satisfied until we see people in court," Catherine McCartney said.
No witnesses came forward. And so the IRA proposed its own solution to the women. It would shoot the culprits itself.
For several days Sinn Fein found itself having to apologize for that.
Then it had to scramble to explain itself when its chief negotiator and number 2 in Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, warned the women not to get involved in politics. This was just advice, not a threat, he said the next day.
The answer from the sisters was calm but crushing. "We have to be very careful that we're not being used by anybody, and that includes Sinn Fein and all political parties. We're not stupid women," Catherine McCartney said as she and the other women prepared to leave for Washington. They were going to see the president; Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was not.
It was the first time in eight years that Adams had been rebuffed in this way.
The women's message was simple: "We are now dealing with criminal gangs that are still using the cloak of romanticism around the IRA to murder people in the street and walk away from it," Catherine McCartney said.
Even longtime Sinn Fein allies, like Senator Edward Kennedy, were speaking differently: "There's no question Sinn Fein and the IRA are involved in a coverup. Gerry Adams has to free himself." Kennedy called the IRA "an albatross" dragging at Sinn Fein.
What this clash underlines is that a peace process is not peace.
In the wake of Europe's "family wars" in Northern Ireland and in the Balkans, peace is still the goal. In both territories the "peace process" has been a licence for militias that led the fighting to recycle themselves into criminal mafias.
Police and government sources in Britain suggest the IRA has become very rich selling contraband cigarettes and alcohol. It has large property holdings and investments. Just to keep its hand in, it robs banks.
In December the Northern Bank in Belfast was cleaned out. The haul was $60 million, the biggest robbery in Europe. Police on both sides of the Irish border said the IRA did it. Several weeks later IRA and Sinn Fein men were caught in the Irish Republic trying to dispose of banknotes from the robbery.
The IRA enforces its rule with violence. And thanks to an ongoing campaign against the Northern Ireland Police Force led by Sinn Fein, almost no one wants to report their doings to the police.
In Bosnia and Kosovo the story has been the same. The nationalist militias transformed themselves into underworld entrepreneurs while NATO force commanders, in military control, looked on but did nothing.
In both Northern Ireland and the Balkans the political calculation was that it was better to talk to these people and bring them into the political process rather than punish them.
In Bosnia, the Canadian civil administrator of the Bosnian Serb province admitted last year that that policy had failed. "When you have the rule of law, then you can start rebuilding the economy," Graham Day said. "You can't start rebuilding the economy prior to rebuilding the rule of law. That's exactly what has happened here. You build a nice sandbox for the mafia to play in."
The same words could apply in Belfast. The Northern Ireland peace process is at a standstill. But the British prime minister, Tony Blair, refuses to attack Sinn Fein directly.
That has been left to six women from the Short Strand in Belfast.