Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two young boys, was stabbed to death after a barroom brawl in Belfast city center on Jan. 30. A friend, Brendan Devine, was seriously injured, his stomach and throat slashed.
What pushed the tragedy to the top of the political agenda, however, was a widespread belief that the IRA was protecting his killers.
The McCartney family certainly believed so and began a campaign to lift the threat from the 70 or so people who were eyewitnesses to how the brawl began in the bar before it spilled onto the streets outside.
The dead man’s sisters, heartened by the huge turnout at a community vigil and the large numbers at their brother’s funeral, met the U.S. consul general in Belfast, Dean Pitman, and spoke out against the campaign of fear being waged against witnesses.
When the IRA did finally issue a statement, they welcomed it — but still fear it came too late to persuade those with vital information to come forward.
“You can’t possibly understand how important justice is until something like this happens to you,” said the dead man’s sister Catherine. “You have no idea what it feels like when the world believes one story and you know it’s untrue.
“It’s like the feeling we all had in the Short Strand two years ago when the loyalists were attacking us. The press and politicians said it was ‘tit-for-tat.’ We knew it wasn’t.
“It’s like that with Robert’s death. All we want is for people to tell the truth and hear the truth. This has absolutely nothing to do with politics. This has everything to do with our family demanding justice for Robert.”
McCartney’s face is pale and tense. There are dark rings around the eyes of the 36-year-old mother of four. She’s finding dealing with the press and politicians quite overwhelming, but realizes that “if that’s what it takes, we have to do it.”
Born, like her eight brothers and sisters, in the close-knit Short Strand, she said it was pressure from within her own community that forced the IRA to make its statement.
At least it meant that anyone coming forward is free from the stigma of “informing.” This was no republican operation, so there’s no pressure from the IRA against anyone cooperating with the police.
“Our Robert was a big, strong, lovely man,” Mc
Cartney said. “I think the turnout at the vigil and the funeral shows what a wide circle of friends he had.”
McCartney said the area was full of talk about who was responsible for the brutal murder. Their names were being spoken openly.
Family members assumed it would not be long before charges were announced. Then they began hearing from the police and others that people were too frightened to come forward and give evidence.
They were horrified and outraged — so angry that they decided to speak out. One name on everyone’s lips was a republican whom McCartney knows herself. “He’s the kind of guy who expects deference,” she said. “The kind who throws his weight around.”
They had heard various conflicting versions of events from people in the bar on the fateful night. One account was that that same republican, even before the murder took place outside the bar, had shouted to the 70 customers inside that this was “IRA business.”
They heard that Brendan Devine was assaulted, his throat cut, inside the bar in full view of at least 70 people. But no one came forward. They heard that a film might have been taken from the security cameras outside. They heard that attempts had been made to “clean” the bar forensically.
They were infuriated by Sinn Fein statements talking about a “knife culture.” They also cited another Sinn Fein statement that criticized the police for raiding houses in the Markets.
“What do they expect the police to do, announce in advance that they are looking for the washing machines that may have been used to clean my brother’s blood off the killers’ clothing?” McCartney said.
The McCartney family has been told Robert’s final words, after the row developed outside the bar and he was surrounded by 15 attackers, were: “No one deserves this.”