I visited the Short Strand home of one of the sisters
of the late Robert McCartney, it was the third time
in a week that I had been drawn to the area. The
previous evening, while travelling through Belfast
city centre in a friend's car, a call came through
from a member of the McCartney family circle. I
was asked would I be able to call over and see Robert's
sisters. They had buried their brother two days
earlier and were concerned that the sound of the
earth that had thudded onto his coffin was uncannily
like the sound of Provisional movement attempts
to cover up for the crime of murder carried out
by an element of its membership. With each crack
of its intimidatory rod a further piece of the evidence
was pushed under the surface never to see the light
of day again.
the courageous intervention of Gerard Quinn, a cousin
of the murdered man, who had asked in the letters
page of the Irish News, "How does murdering
the innocent 'protector' of a 'respected family'
in the local community build an Ireland of equals?"
defied the rod. Two journalists in major newspapers
picked up on the story and the lucid reporting that
appeared in their subsequent coverage thrust the
issue centre stage. Throughout the following week
the name Robert McCartney blazed like a flaming
torch, as his sisters and partner, with incredible
dignity and composure, held it aloft, bringing light
to areas and matters that have been concealed for
decades ago, as a young IRA volunteer I had stayed
in the Short Strand area while 'on the run'. The
community was tough, resilient and generous. There
was never any difficulty in finding a bed, a meal
or a bath. The owner of one of the homes I stayed
in was later murdered by loyalists as he went about
providing for his young family. The son of another
couple met a similar fate. These people were outstanding;
their hospitality always something to be remembered.
They were a people worthy of nothing less than the
tiny enclave's IRA membership was a determined lot.
Their ranks, much depleted by the constant attrition
of the British state forces, always managed to be
replenished by teenagers willing to defend, but
never to torment their own community. Some of the
area's volunteers never experienced life beyond
their teens. Their lives were wrenched violently
away from them; 'killed in action' in the ranks
of an army for which active service meant service
to the community and not service to one's own sense
of power over that community.
a sign of the rapid arrest rate, many of those I
met in the Strand would later end up in prison by
my side. They had a tendency to clannishness but
this had its roots in the sense of siege an isolated
community experiences when cut of from its wider
hinterland. Their collective stand, many of them
mere teenagers, in the face of terrible deprivation
and prison management brutality, was driven by a
raw courage and a total anathema to any attempt
to portray as criminal either they or the community
they hailed from. Kicked, beaten, tortured, hosed,
starved, they were always first to the door to shout
'up the Ra' after every wing shift.
I sojourned in the Strand it was part of the Belfast
Brigade's Third Battalion which covered virtually
all areas outside of West Belfast. The latter had
two Battalions all to itself. Later, during the
1975 ceasefire the Third Battalion would be split
up. The Strand, Markets and Lower Ormeau Road became
the spine of the new Fourth Battalion. Within it,
the Strand assumed the greatest importance. Battalion
or battalion council meetings were invariably held
in the Strand. Most operational matters had to go
through it. In 1976, it was two of the areas volunteers
who lost their lives along with a brigade staff
volunteer in leading a major attack on a British
Army installation in the Gasworks.
in the Short Strand was robust and always had a
good relationship with its support base. As elsewhere
much of this was borne out of necessity. During
the armed conflict with the British state, IRA volunteers
could never have endured were it not for access
to myriad resources provided by the local population.
The community had to be treated with respect otherwise
it would never have taken the risks that it did
to help sustain the armed struggle. The IRA was
home to a large body of people willing to use force.
It was never populated by shrinking violets and
pacifists. But the aggression that its volunteers
were all too able and willing to display was never
directed against its own community. People can debate
the rights and wrongs of punishment attacks, but
these actions were never viewed by IRA volunteers
as attacks on the community. Nor were they the work
of sadists only too eager to give vent to their
urges by thrashing wayward kids.
many in the IRA have lost their way. The need for
immediate community support is not pressing. There
is no quid pro quo between IRA volunteers and the
community dictated by necessity. Certainly, Sinn
Fein need votes and cannot afford to have republicans
standing on the toes of the electoral base. But
a vote in a year or two's time does not have the
same disciplinary or constraining effect on an IRA
volunteer as would the need to have access to someone's
kitchen or wall cavity within which a weapon can
members of the IRA and Sinn Fein election workers
thrashed Robert McCartney with sewer rods and stabbed
him, they plunged their knives not only into his
body but also into the hard earned legitimacy and
rich history of republicanism within the Strand.
Their vicious criminality has placed clear blue
water between them and the Short Strand volunteers
of the Blanket protest. There would be no need to
nail a prison uniform to their backs. It should
fit them like a glove.
the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership has given the public
appearance of distancing itself from such thugs,
many are coming to view this as a cynical ploy.
Robert McCartney's killers walk the streets of the
Short Strand without a word of protest from the
Provisional movement - a potent reminder to any
who might think of testifying. RTE's Tommie Gorman,
reporting on a Sinn Fein rally held at the Hilton
Hotel in the shadow of the Short Strand, tonight
informed viewers that neither Sinn Fein nor the
IRA showed any sign of expelling the killers from
their ranks. When independent republican councillor
Martin Cunningham turned up for this evening's district
development committee meeting of Newry and Mourne
District Council, Sinn Fein councillors, led by
Pat McGinn, called him a 'tout' and 'informer'.
What earned him such abuse was newspaper coverage
of his support for the family of Robert McCartney.
Copies of the newspaper were strewn throughout the
council premises by McGinn in an attempt to demonise
Martin Cunningham for his firm stand with the bereaved
family of Robert McCartney have displayed courage
and commitment in trying to bring his killers to
justice. Many others have a vested interest in seeing
the entire matter fade into the background. Neither
Sinn Fein nor the IRA should be allowed to feign
a humane concerned approach to the family in public
while simultaneously on the streets undermining
its search for justice.
cover up, intimidation - it's time to go.