15 January 2006

Another year without Robert


**Missed this one

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

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A Christmas star lights up the window of Paula McCartney's Belfast home as the women, who have taken on the Provisional IRA for almost a year, gather to bring in 2006.

The McCartney sisters and Bridgeen Hagans have 19 children between them, and most are in Paula's house, running riot around the Christmas tree with the toys Santa brought.

"If our Robert was here, he'd be on the floor with them," says Paula. "He was just a big kid himself. He couldn't wait to see what the children got every year. He'd more fun playing with their toys than they had."

In the kitchen, Paula's husband Jim is working wonders with left-over turkey. The house is ablaze with twinkling decorations. "I can't wait to get all this stuff down," Paula says. "It's so false. Christmas has been endured, not enjoyed, in this house.

"We made an effort for the kids but Robert's murder hangs over everything. Last Christmas I went into an awful mood when Jim dropped the trifle leaving the supermarket. I can't believe I got so upset over a trifle. I wish to God that was all there was to worry about now."

The McCartneys' other brother, Gerard, committed suicide five years ago. "Yesterday was his anniversary but it's easier to deal with than Robert's will be. Gerard chose to end his own life. Robert was robbed of his."

Aretha Franklin and Meatloaf cds – presents from her children – lie unplayed in the corner. Apart from buying for their kids, none of the McCartneys had the heart for gifts this Christmas.

Robert's first anniversary is at the end of the month. So far, there are no plans for any public service or vigil. To the outside world, his sisters' apparently successful, high-profile campaign means they've every reason to embrace 2006.

"We're not looking forward to the New Year at all," says Claire. "We're frightened in case justice isn't done. Two men have been charged in connection with the stabbings outside Magennis's bar, but 15 were involved in the murder and clean-up operation. We're scared they've got away with it."

Claire's outlook on life has changed: "I used to be an optimistic person. Now, I'm always waiting for something bad to happen." Catherine is disappointed by the lack of witnesses coming forward. "The wall of silence is still standing. As a family, we continue our daily routines, but we've no zest for life anymore."

The sisters find it too traumatic to visit Robert's grave but Bridgeen goes: "I went at Christmas with red roses and lilies. The two boys climbed over their daddy's headstone. Brandon took a wee angel from another grave and put it on Robert's. 'My daddy would like that,' he said. I'd to get him to put it back."

With big brown eyes and broad, open faces, Conlaed (5) and Brandon (3) are the image of their father. "They ask about him all the time, especially when they see his picture on TV. They want to know how many times he was stabbed," says Bridgeen.

"I tell them he's in heaven but they cry and say they want him at home, not in heaven. Paula and Catherine were on TV in Downing Street last month. Conlaed said, 'My aunties are on TV. Are they dead too?'"

Bridgeen's boys run happily about the house with their cousins. But, unlike the other children, they return to the front room every few minutes to make sure their mother is still there. "They're very clingy," says Bridgeen. "Conlaed is introverted at school. He sits on his own, crying. He won't talk to the other boys."

Following a picket and attacks on her home, Bridgeen left the Short Strand to live with her mother. "I still wake in the middle of night and get up and check all the windows and doors."

With long hair and a good figure, she's the "glamorous, blonde fiancée" to the media. "They should see the reality. I'm just muddling through. Sometimes, I cry non-stop for hours. Robert is in my head all the time. My friends say I talk about him like he's still alive.

"I even miss rowing with him. Just before he died, we argued over a Valentine's Ball. He was refusing to wear a tuxedo, and I said he'd look daft going in ordinary clothes. After he died, I found out he'd already hired a tux. He'd only been winding me up."

Bridgeen Hagans and Robert McCartney knew each other four years before they got together. Both had been too shy to make the first move. Bridgeen says she fell in love with Robert because he was "kind and gentle and he looked after me". "Oh come on Bridgeen, he also had a great body!" quips Paula.

Bridgeen relied heavily on Robert. She couldn't drive. He took her everywhere. Coping on her own with two kids and no car is difficult. "So I'm taking driving lessons. I'm doing my test in February. It'll give me more independence."

She'll need to start cookery classes too, she jokes. "Robert did all that. I can hardly peel a potato!" Bridgeen has struggled financially since he died. She hopes to train as a beautician after Brandon begins nursery school in March.

Paula is angry at rumours, spread by the Provos, that the family are hooked on celebrity status and are making money from Robert's murder. "If we'd been bereaved by the Brits or loyalists, we wouldn't be smeared like that," she says.

According to the Provo rumour mill, there are splits in the family with Paula and Catherine leading the campaign in a political direction which Bridgeen and the three other sisters oppose.

"We're not clones but we're a united family," says Catherine, "unless, of course, we've been infiltrated!" "There are no spies in our ranks!" declares Paula. Their only argument is over whether Robert could dance. "He was a wonderful dancer," says Bridgeen. "No, he wasn't. No man can dance!" Catherine insists.

The women are grateful for the public support they've received, yet miss their privacy: "You can't go to the shops without being recognised but it's a price worth paying," says Paula.

Catherine's world has been turned upside-down politically. "I'd such faith in Sinn Féin. Now, I see it's only a big PR machine without any principles. It doesn't give a damn about working-class nationalists. It cares only about their votes."

Paula still hopes witnesses will come forward: "Human nature isn't clear-cut. Maybe there's somebody, inside or outside the republican movement, who did or knows something, and hasn't had a good night's sleep all year because their conscience is troubling them.

"I'd appeal to them to act now. Even a year after Robert's murder, it's not too late to do the right thing."

January 6, 2006

This article appeared in the January 1, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.

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