31 January 2006

The long fight for family justice

Belfast Telegraph

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of Short Strand father of two Robert McCartney. Crime Correspondent Jonathan McCambridge charts the McCartney family's year-long battle for justice and hears that their struggle to bring his killers to court is far from over

By Jonathan McCambridge, Crime Correspondent
31 January 2006 (published the 28th)

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PAULA McCartney sits in the living room of the new home in south Belfast where she has lived for less than three months. She is adamant that she did not leave the Short Strand area where she grew up because of intimidation but rather because she could not bear to see the people who murdered her brother walking the streets.

One year on and the McCartney family are, by their own admission, hoping for a miracle every day. One man has been charged with and denies the murder of Robert McCartney. However, his campaigning sisters - Paula, Donna, Catherine, Claire and Gemma - know the names of 15 men who they believe were directly involved. Their struggle to ensure justice for their brother has brought them from the Short Strand to the White House, European Parliament and Downing Street.

Next week the sisters will return to the bar outside which Robert was stabbed and beaten to death. It will be a painful experience for them, but one they are determined to endure to help police launch a new appeal. Police now believe that a large blue car revved its engine in the area where Robert was being assaulted.

While the exact sequence of events which occurred late on January 30, 2005 in Magennis's Bar in Belfast City Centre may seem unclear, Paula McCartney is able to describe what she is convinced happened in microscopic detail.

Thirty-three-year-old Robert was drinking in a bar with his friend Brendan Devine and they were watching a football match on TV. Paula says Brendan Devine made a gesture at the screen. There were a group of women who thought the gesture was aimed at them. A row started in the bar between Devine and a number of known republicans. During the fight Brendan Devine has his throat cut. Robert McCartney tries to get him out of the bar to phone a taxi. They are followed outside on to Cromac Street. Both Brendan Devine and Robert McCartney are beaten. Robert is stabbed and fatally injured.

Paula recalls: "It was late on Sunday night. I was getting ready for bed, I was already in my pyjamas. My son had been babysitting for Robert and he phoned me up.

"When we arrived at hospital Robert was in theatre so we could not see him. Later the doctors told us that he would not make it. They told me I could go in but I did not want to see him like that. Robert was a decent and loyal man. His loyalty cost him his life because he would not leave his friend."

Within hours of Robert's death his family had been told the full version of what happened and who was involved. The following day police arrested six men, including a senior republican. They were later released without charge.

Paula said: "When we were told about what happened to Robert we did not think there would be any problem with the police. There was no mystery, everyone knew the names so we just waited for the police to charge them.

"Then the police told us that there had been a forensic clean-up of the crime scene before they had arrived. This set alarm bells ringing but we were still hopeful. Then we were told that people in the bar on the night had been told not to say anything because this was an IRA operation; that was when we realised there was something more sinister going on.

"Even now the police have been told very little. They have 159 statements but most of them are very weak. There are 15 people who were directly involved in Robert's death. We maintain that a senior IRA man gave the order that Robert should be stabbed.

"His killing was not sanctioned by the IRA but it was one of their men who gave the order and they closed ranks around him. He used and abused his position."

Frustrated by the early lack of progress in the police investigation, the McCartney sisters and Bridgeen Hagans, the mother of Robert's two sons Conlaed and Brandon, decided that they would go public as they battled for justice. It was a decision which was to open them up to global attention but also expose them to a sustained period of intimidation.

Paula said: "At this point the family felt that something just had to be done, we did not think about the consequences or about what might happen to us. We had all this information, what were we supposed to do - say nothing?"

The McCartney family quickly found themselves the centre of media attention, in demand for interviews across the world. Their campaign for justice seriously embarrassed and undermined the republican movement. Sinn Fein, which suspended a number of party members who were in Magennis's bar, was caught in the position of demanding that members disclose what they knew but refusing to support the PSNI investigation. As the McCartney campaign grew, an embarrassed provisional movement offered to shoot the men who had killed Robert, a gesture which was met with ridicule. The ultimate blow for republicans occurred on St Patrick's Day when the McCartney sisters met George Bush in the White House but the Sinn Fein leadership was snubbed by the US administration. The McCartneys also began raising money for a possible civil court action.

Paula said: "It is all a bit of a blur now. We made contact with the American Consulate and it was suggested we should go to the White House.

"We were just trying to get justice for Robert but it was like everyone else went mad and started shooting off in different directions."

The cost of the high profile obtained by the sisters and Bridgeen was a series of threats and attacks. Bridgeen had the house where she lived with Robert's two sons pelted with missiles. Paula was sent threatening letters and newspaper clippings about Robert smeared with excrement. Police told her of three separate death threats. Eventually the whole family decided to leave the Short Strand area. Paula was the last McCartney to leave, moving to a new home in south Belfast in October.

She said: "We were too angry to be afraid. They had already done the worst thing possible by taking Robert away from us. I just kept thinking what is wrong with these people?

"I had already decided to leave the Short Strand. It was not because of intimidation because I would not be intimidated. It was because I saw these people on a daily basis, they were people you had known all your life. Leaving was not as hard as I thought because I was already beyond disgust at the betrayal."

The first anniversary of Robert's death brings back painful memories for the McCartneys, particularly Bridgeen and her sons Conlaed and Brandon.

Paula said: "Christmas was horrific for Conlaed and Brandon. Bridgeen was also very down and just could not pick herself up. We all just wanted to get it over with. But we have to look forward now, we are sitting every day waiting for a miracle. We have to keep hoping and stay positive that the breakthrough will come. We have gone too far down this road to turn back now. The people who did this to Robert are still walking the streets bragging about it.

"As well as the new police appeal on Tuesday we will be going back to Robert and Bridgeen's home in the Short Strand. We want to make it a day for them and will be inviting all the people who knew him to call round.

"We will also be launching a new website in the next few weeks so people can pass on information.

"There is also the civil action to consider, the planning goes on for that. It would be nice to think we would not need to go down that road but I think inevitably we will."

The impact of the McCartney's public campaign has been felt by victims from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It has encouraged other grieving families of paramilitary murders, like Lisa Dorrian and Craig McCausland, to refuse to be silent victims. The fear and deference towards paramilitary control has been challenged and diminished.

Paula said: "That is something which has surprised me. A lot of people have come forward and told us that what we did inspired them to speak up. I am glad that if we never achieved anything else then at least we have given some people the strength to demand justice for their loved ones.

"The police have done all they can. They gathered the evidence that was available to them but people will not come forward. I think the police are just as frustrated as we are. I am just hoping that someone who has not slept for a year because of what they know will decide to speak up.

"I don't believe people are as afraid today as they were a year ago. I do not understand their fear anyway because the information can be passed on anonymously. I do not believe it is all about fear, I believe it is about loyalty too.

"After all this time and all we have done, I still can't believe or accept Robert is dead.

"I do not know what it will take to make it register with me."

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