26 March 2005


The women who pick up the pieces after IRA 'justice' has been done

March 26, 2005
By Giles Whittell

The McCartney sisters' fight is helping other families to speak out after years of heartbreak

A MUCH-LOVED brother is murdered in cold blood. A defiant campaign for justice is waged by his family. The thugs responsible equivocate, then stonewall, as the media and public move on to stories new.

There is something cruelly familiar about Alicia Kearney’s story, precisely because so many like it have scarred the past 30 years of Northern Ireland’s history.

Her brother was not Robert McCartney, who was murdered in the Short Strand last December and whose sisters hope that massive international pressure will force the IRA to surrender his killers to the courts. He was Andrew Kearney, shot in 1998 in both legs as he cradled his two week-old daughter on a sofa in his flat in West Belfast, and left to bleed to death.

The IRA apologised and called it a punishment shooting gone wrong. Kearney — never in trouble, from a staunchly Republican family — had dared to challenge an IRA commander in a pub a week earlier for intimidating a 17 year-old potential recruit. But No-one has ever been charged with his murder, much less convicted.

This week, in an interview with The Times, Alicia Kearney seized the opportunity presented by the McCartney sisters’ campaign to re-open one started by her mother seven years ago to bring Andrew’s killer’s to justice. That campaign lasted 13 months, after which Maureen Kearney died, as her family puts it, of a broken heart.

“I’m starting it again by talking to you,” Alicia said. “I am looking for justice through the courts.”

Her decision to capitalise on the surge of support for the McCartney sisters reflects both families’ dependence on publicity rather than the police, living as they do in neighbourhoods still effectively ruled by paramilitaries five years after the Good Friday agreement.

But it is also a powerful reminder that the McCartneys themselves are the latest in a long generation of women from both sides of the sectarian divide driven by bereavement to do the heavy lifting of reconciliation and community development on which the success of any peace initiative, and the continuation of the current ceasefire, ultimately depends.

“Some of the most progressive people I’ve ever met have been men,” said May Blood of the Greater Shankill Partnership, who has worked for years to bridge the chasm of mistrust between the two communities. “But in Northern Ireland the men go out and fight the war. That’s simply what they do. And the women pick up the pieces.”

Maureen Kearney began picking up the pieces in July, 1998. Her son, then 33, had been worried since his confrontation with the IRA commander in the Manchester United pub on Falls Road the previous week, but ordinarily he need not have feared for his life.

“Normally, for punishment shootings, they call an ambulance or even have one on standby,” Alicia said.

Andrew was well-liked, a talented footballer with the Donegal Celtics and in regular work as a builder. In the end what cost Andrew his life may have been the location of his flat, eight floors up in a high-rise. “We think they panicked that if they called an ambulance they wouldn’t escape because of the 16 flights of stairs. Instead they ripped the phone line out of the wall and left him to die, holding his wee baby.”

Alicia, 34, is the youngest of five surviving siblings. She believes she knows who ordered Andrew’s murder.

“This particular one likes to think he’s a hard man,” she said. She shrugs off questions about intimidation, either of her or her mother, but there is no doubt that most families of men killed by their own communities have been forced to live with the double anguish of bereavement and a taboo against speaking out.

Sandra Peak, who runs the Wave Trauma Centre for relatives of victims of violence related to The Troubles, calls this cocoon of fear a “multi-layered silence”. The McCartney sisters have broken out of it to spectacular effect, and no-one questions their bravery in doing so.

But it took even more courage for Margaret McKinney. Now 73, she lives a short drive from the Kearneys in Andersonstown. In May, 1978, her son Brian took part in the robbery of an IRA-run bar. He returned home badly beaten two days later, and told his parents everything.

They marched him to an IRA clubhouse on nearby Glen Road, repaid his £50 share of the takings, and hoped the matter would rest there. It did not.

The following week Brian, then 22, was picked up on his way home from work by two men in a car.

Frantic enquiries by his parents produced reassurances from the IRA that he and a friend had been exiled to mainland Britain. Margaret packed a suitcase, waiting for a call. It never came. Soon, she and those she approached for help were told simply “to stop asking questions”.

For 17 years, Margaret did just that, taking heavy medication to dull the pain of her loss.

“There was so much hatred and bitterness in my heart that I couldn’t cope at all. I had one heart attack after another. God, they were cruel years,” she said.

Mrs McKinney’s abiding wish was to find Brian’s body. Her first chance to say so publicly came with the 1994 ceasefire brokered by John Major. She told her story first to reporters, then to the Prime Minister at Hillsborough Castle and, in 1998, to President Clinton in the Oval Office. “He took my hand and said, ‘I promise you I’ll help you find your son’,” she said. “Ten months later Gerry Adams comes in here and says you’re going to get Brian back. Oh God, the joy. I cried, but it was with relief.”

Mrs McKinney has become a guiding light to others who decided to break the IRA’s code of silence and demand action to find the bodies of their loved ones. But in 1999 she was still relentlessly focused on Brian.

On June 29 that year he was dug out of a bog south of the border after a six-week search. She recognised him from his blue and white trainers.

He had been buried with a friend who had also been involved in the robbery. At the inquest the coroner said he had been walked to his grave with his hands tied behind his back, then shot in the head. “I never got justice for Brian,” she said. “I still cry for him, but I’m just so happy to have a grave to go to.”

In 1994 the Wave Trauma Centre recorded an 80 per cent increase in referrals of relatives of victims of sectarian violence seeking counselling and other support. It attributes most of the rise to the stand taken by Mrs McKinney. Founded in 1991 by eight women bereaved by the Troubles, the Wave centre, which now has five branches throughout the province, has since helped more than 3700 people cope with loss.

Will they ever do for these families what only the most powerful man in the world was able to do for Margaret McKinney? Despite the phenomenon that is the McCartney campaign and the relative tranquillity of Belfast in 2005, it is hard to find much optimism on such questions.

“For women to make the impact they deserve to make, they have to make it quickly,” said May Blood. “So far the IRA have been able to sit this one out. They hope it’ll just go away, and if no-one comes forward it will. It’ll be put on the long finger.”

That old Ulster phrase for a trail gone cold may be the least of the McCartneys’ worries.

An off-duty police officer in Belfast’s city centre gave this bleak forecast: “The sisters are OK now, but in six months, when everyone’s moved on, we’ll be lucky if one of their wee children doesn’t end up in the bloody River Lagan.”

Should it come to that, it will almost certainly be the work of men. And women will pick up the pieces.

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