29 May 2006

The cost of being Robert McCartney's friend

Sunday Tribune

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Sinead Commander looks out at the streets where she was born and reared, and will soon be leaving. All around her in the Short Strand are memories. "When I was 12, I was out there banging my saucepan lid on the pavement every time a hunger-striker died.

"My mother and the other women had bin lids but they were too heavy for us kids so they gave us saucepan lids instead. When this area was under attack, I always helped. I'd bring tea and sandwiches to the men who were preventing a loyalist incursion. I never, ever thought the day would come when I'd be driven out of here by the republican movement."

Sinead, 37, a mother of five, comes from a republican family. Her sister Denise was named after Denis Donaldson who lived around the corner. Sinead voted Sinn Féin all her life. Then, IRA members murdered her husband's best friend, Robert McCartney. Eight months later, Jeff Commander was himself severely beaten by "current and former PIRA members" as the IMC described them.

Jeff made a statement to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). A week later, he received a police warning that his life was in danger from the IRA. Since then, the family has faced jeers, intimidatory behaviour and social ostracisation by local Provisionals and their supporters.

The Commanders' children have been told their family isn't wanted in the Short Strand. So this week they're leaving, moving to the Four Winds, a religiously mixed area of south Belfast.

They're the third family forced out since Robert McCartney's murder. Robert's sister Paula and her family moved last October. Bridgeen Hagans, Robert's fiancée, left after stones and bottles were thrown at her house as she lay asleep with her two sons. Four other families have not been intimidated but have chosen to go because of the hostile atmosphere.

"I'm only in this house two years," says Sinead, "I love it. I thought I'd be here for the rest of my life." She takes you on a tour of the house, proudly showing all the improvements she's made. "There's my new kitchen.

"I've just got everything the way I wanted it. I've spent a fortune here. There are new wooden floors in every room, I put in a new kitchen. The whole place has been decorated from top to bottom. Now we have to start again from scratch somewhere else.

"The new house is far smaller but at least I'll know when the kids go out to play they'll be safe and I won't be worrying about Jeff every time he goes out the door."

The Commanders have paid a heavy price for their friendship with Robert McCartney. "But we don't regret a thing," says Sinead. "Robert was as loyal as they come. He'd have done the same had it been Jeff."

They were inseparable from boyhood. Later, they worked together for a while in the Golden Bloom bakery. "There were times, just after we were married, when Jeff was out of work. Robert was very generous. He'd give Jeff a few quid and take him out for a pint.

"He was godfather to our wee girl Caitie. He never missed a birthday. I always had to buy a big turkey at Christmas because Robert would come round to our house on Christmas Eve, and him and Jeff would sit and eat half the turkey and stuffing. They did everything together. I remember they went bungee jumping and Robert was terrified, but he didn't chicken out."

Jeff was in Magenniss's bar with Robert and two other friends that night last January. "It was getting late and I was raging," says Sinead. "I'd looked after the kids all week and I thought Jeff should be at home, not in the pub. I texted him and told him to get back. I called him a selfish pig."

Jeff Commander came home. At 10.18 pm, Robert McCartney phoned to make sure he'd arrived safely. "I took the phone and told Robert to get home to Bridgeen. He said he was on his way. He'd a taxi ordered," says Sinead. "I rang him back at 10.55 pm, to see he'd got home alright himself. His mobile was off. I didn't think anything of it."

The next day, they learned what had happened in Magenniss's. "Jeff was in a terrible state," says Sinead. "He felt Robert wouldn't be dead had he stayed on. Jeff's very fit, he's always in the gym. He still thinks he could have saved Robert."

Jeff Commander was now determined to do everything he could to secure justice for his best friend. He visited some of the bar staff and quizzed them as to what had happened but met with a wall of silence.

Then, he started hearing names of IRA men mentioned in connection with the murder. Jeff was working in a local taxi depot. "He walked out," his wife says. "He couldn't stomach driving around Robert's killers and their supporters." Sinead told anyone who would listen that Robert's attackers were "scum".

Last September, Jeff intervened in a row between other friends of Robert McCartney and relatives of his alleged killers. It's accepted by eyewitnesses that he defused the situation. About 15 minutes later, as the Commanders walked along Clandeboye Drive, Jeff was set upon.

Hearing the commotion, neighbours came out. Eventually, the assailants ran off. Jeff needed staples for a serious head wound. His back, arms and neck were pummelled.

He made a statement to detectives. A week later, police delivered a warning to him: "The Provisional IRA continue to be unhappy that you have given evidence against PIRA members to the PSNI. Should this remain the case it's their intention to carry out some form of attack on your person."

Jeff has refused to withdraw his statement to police. Three local men – Patrick Magee, Sean Clinton, and Sam Caskey – have been charged with causing him grievous bodily harm. They're pleading not guilty.

It was a condition of their bail they stay out of the Short Strand. Caskey was returned to jail in February for entering the area. "He swung his car in front of my car as though he was going to crash into me," says Sinead. "Then, he just started laughing. It was very intimidating." Caskey has since been re-released on bail.

Sinead says a prominent member of the controversial Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) scheme, ex-IRA prisoner, Harry Maguire, witnessed the assault on her husband but hasn't made a statement to police.

"Even without the physical violence, the atmosphere in the Short Strand is terrible," Sinead says. "Some lifelong friends won't talk to me. Some people glare at me when I go to the shops. Others just drop their eyes.

"Of course I'm scared. The ceasefire doesn't mean anything, the Provos are still capable of murder. But I'm determined to see this through. It's the principle of it."

She wears a miraculous medal around her neck and says she gets "a lot of strength from my religion". In the living-room, she's built a small May altar to the Virgin Mary – "this is her month" – with flowers and a candle.

In the kitchen, Sinead's three sons eat apple and cherry pie. "I'll miss my friends, Criostoir and Richard and Ciaran and Dan," says Tiernan, 11. "I want to be able to come back sometimes to play football with my mates," says Sean, 12. "I hope my friends can stay overnight in our new house," says Pearse, 9.

Sinead's mother, Kate Meighan, says: "I raised 11 children in the Short Strand. We came through very tough times. Loyalists bombed our home in 1972 but people were united back then. There's a very low element associated with the Provisional IRA in this area nowadays. I don't think it's republicanism. It's all about money and thuggery and power."

May 29, 2006
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This article appeared in the May 28, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.

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