07 April 2005


EU opens its heart but not its coffers to the McCartneys
Sisters win standing ovation at Brussels meeting

Angelique Chrisafis in Brussels
Thursday April 7, 2005
The Guardian

In a plush amphitheatre in Brussels's warren of parliament rooms, hundreds of Europe's socialists gathered yesterday to hear what they called an "honourable" case for basic human rights.

The sisters of Robert McCartney, who was murdered outside a Belfast bar after a row with members of the IRA, stepped on to the platform and said they now had no choice but to sue his killers in the civil courts.

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The sisters' vow to break what they deemed a "political cover-up" over the murder was greeted with a standing ovation from MEPs. Later the heads of the European parliament and commission promised to support the campaign.

It is almost 10 weeks since the murder and the start of a campaign that took the McCartneys from a working-class Catholic enclave in east Belfast to the White House, but no witnesses have come forward with evidence to convict the killers. A 31-year-old man arrested and released this week remained silent during questioning, as others did before him.

"I admire you," said a Belfast woman as Gemma, Catherine and Paula McCartney boarded their flight to Brussels. "It's only the women round here that get things done."

But the sisters are tired and frustrated that despite the international outrage they are no nearer justice.

Gemma McCartney, a district nurse, had a gash on her hand after flinging a candlestick at her living room wall in silent rage. She had seen someone involved in the killing staring at her from his window as she walked down the street.

International film-makers are still sending show reels to Paula McCartney's terraced house; writers want to collaborate on books. The sisters have turned them down. "How can you make a film of our story if we don't have an ending yet?" Gemma said.

The sisters said they would launch a civil action as soon as they had raised £300,000. They had consulted the solicitor Jason McCue, who is working on the Omagh families' civil case against those suspected of the 1998 Real IRA bomb. It is doubtful whether the European parliament or commission could donate funds, but one MEP suggested members might give from their own pockets.

Catherine McCartney said: "It won't bring justice in the sense of convictions. But at least in court the people of Ireland will know what happened that night. The whole cover-up will be exposed.

"The wall of silence created by both Sinn Féin and the IRA is as strong today as it was on the first day ... For some, intimidation is a key factor. For others, I believe now there is a political cover-up."

She said Sinn Féin was not helping. A private meeting with senior figures in the party last weekend had been "non-productive".

The sisters complained of a whispering campaign against them in recent weeks, followed by a smear campaign saying political string-pullers were behind them. They said Sinn Féin could have "discouraged" those slurs.

The republican movement is clearly uncomfortable that the McCartneys are still there, and there is distrust on both sides, but the family is not going away. "One particular person [involved in the killing] is being protected. Why? Maybe he knows things that would embarrass other people. That is the only conclusion we can draw," Catherine McCartney said.

Bairbre de Brun, a Sinn Féin MEP, met the sisters yesterday. She denied that their meetings with politicians were an embarrassment to the party, which returned its first two MEPs last year. Sinn Féin was doing everything in its power to help and it was "imperative" to see witnesses come forward to give a full account.

Martin Schulz, leader of the socialist group in the European parliament, said the sisters had been "put under pressure to pretend [the killing] didn't happen, to suppress all human feeling, to sacrifice it to a political strategy".

In the coming weeks the sisters are to hold a vigil outside Magennis's bar, where their brother was killed. They will meet the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and plan another rally.

"We haven't had a family life or eaten or slept properly for nine weeks," they said. Their husbands were still off work looking after their children. They have not had time to sit down with their grieving mother.

Funds were tight, Gemma said. Two others sisters, Claire and Donna, and Mr McCartney's fiancee, Bridgeen Hagans, could not afford to come on the Brussels trip. Family and friends had chipped in to pay for flights and a shared hotel room. A group of Japanese factory workers had sent some cash after a whip-round on their shop floor.

A coach load of Swiss tourists recently stopped at Donna's sandwich shop in central Belfast to deliver a good luck card.

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