they arrive in Washington for a special audience
with the most powerful man on Earth, receiving what
one commentator called a 'heroines' welcome', the
McCartney sisters have been hailed as a paragon
of people power. Six weeks ago, their brother Robert
was murdered outside a bar in the republican Short
Strand in east Belfast, allegedly by members of
the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Since then the
five McCartney sisters and Robert's partner Bridgeen
Hagans have kicked up a stink, calling on Sinn Fein
and the IRA to help bring to justice those involved
in the attack.
women have appeared on the front pages of the papers
in Britain and Ireland, described as leading a 'people's
revolt against the IRA'. They are said to have made
an 'historic impact' on Irish politics (1).
Now, as if to confirm their historic role, President
George W Bush has invited them to the White House
for St Patrick's Day, while Sinn Fein and the other
parties from Northern Ireland have been told to
McCartneys have certainly shown grit and determination
in trying to get to the truth of who killed Robert.
But the transformation of their campaign, from local
protests to an international media and political
story, is less the result of their own people power,
than of politicians and commentators cynically latching
on to the campaign for their own ends. The elevation
of the McCartneys shows that what is seen to matter
most in politics today is not politics, but personal
emotion; not having a mandate, but having strong
the McCartney campaign has its origins in the Short
Strand, and in an increasing sense of frustration
in republican communities with the IRA and Sinn
Fein. Catherine McCartney made a strong point when
she said she would tell Americans to 'dispel' any
romantic notions of what the IRA is today. 'The
struggle in terms of what it was 10 years ago is
now over and we are dealing with criminal gangs
that are still using the cloak of romanticism around
the IRA to murder people on the streets and walk
away from it', she said (2).
suggests that the McCartneys are not 'anti-IRA'
in the way that some commentators have claimed,
but rather express a concern with what the IRA has
become. Where in the past the IRA was involved in
a struggle against British rule in Ireland - a struggle
widely supported by residents of the Short Strand
- today it suffers from something of an identity
crisis. Without the wider sense of purpose or legitimacy
that went with fighting a war, the IRA's actions
appear increasingly arbitrary, even criminal. And
there is little to prevent its former supporters
from asking awkward questions about what the organisation
is up to.
the angry reaction to the violent behaviour of alleged
IRA members has been transformed into something
else by media and political interest. A spontaneous
response to a horrible attack has been made into
a morality tale about 'ordinary people' standing
up to 'gangsters'; it has been used by some to put
pressure on Sinn Fein to 'change its ways', and
on the IRA to disband (something that the McCartneys
have not called for) (3).
US officials, meanwhile, are queuing up to be photographed
with the McCartneys in Washington, in a desperate
bid to demonstrate their own caring and sharing
credentials (4). What was
talked up as the power of 'ordinary people' to set
the agenda in fact highlights the power of the media
and politicians (especially American ones) to manipulate
such events to say what they want them to say.
is not difficult to see the attraction of the McCartneys
to the media. At a time when expressions of emotion,
anger and outrage trump political debate - when
a mother or wife shouting at Tony Blair for failing
her son/husband with his rubbish NHS is celebrated
for spicing up Britain's bland political landscape
- the McCartneys look like a godsend. Photos of
these five strong-willed, working-class women have
appeared everywhere. As Kevin Toolis, a commentator
on Irish affairs, says: 'They're very photogenic,
very media-friendly, and they clearly have been
wronged.' (5) The media have
turned the McCartneys into symbols of emotional
defiance, into their favourite victims of the moment,
and transformed a largely local spat into a 'revolt'
of historic proportions (6).
leaders, meanwhile, have attached themselves to
the McCartneys' campaign for the benefit of making
their own demands. A spokesperson for the Democratic
Unionist Party said the McCartneys' grief showed
that there is no place for the IRA. British and
Irish ministers have discussed punishing Sinn Fein,
and used the McCartney murder to demand further
IRA decommissioning (7).
report in the Guardian describes how US officials
are falling over themselves to meet and greet the
McCartneys in Washington: 'The Senate's biggest
celebrities, including Hillary Clinton and Edward
Kennedy, will take turns to be seen with them, while
other members of Congress are scrambling to set
up a meeting.' (8). The McCartneys'
starring role at the St Patrick's proceedings in
Washington does not demonstrate people power, so
much as American power to dictate the terms of the
peace process in Ireland. The McCartneys will be
granted an audience with Bush and Sinn Fein will
not, because, according to one White House aide,
'the president wants to register his displeasure
[with republican leaders]' (9).
Behind the warm welcome for the McCartneys there
lurks power politics, with Bush chastising the political
parties of Northern Ireland as if they were naughty
schoolkids who must buck up their ideas.
of this takes place at the expense of democracy.
So when Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness
said that the allegations against the IRA would
unlikely impact on Sinn Fein's standing, because
thousands would still vote for Sinn Fein on the
strength of 'our policies', he was roundly denounced
for being insensitive and for playing politics (10).
(And when, on 13 March, Sinn Fein's vote increased
by three per cent in a by-election in County Meath
in the Irish Republic, it was simply ignored by
those who predicted that, post-McCartney, their
support in the Republic would decline.)
an elected mandate, it seems, counts for little
in the face of five grieving women and their supporters
in the media and the White House. The McCartney
campaign has become a way of bashing elected officials
in Northern Ireland, especially republicans, and
calling for them to correct the error of their ways
if they want to remain part of the peace process.
This is the politics of emotion turned into the
politics of emotional blackmail. And it shows that
it is not Short Strand republicans who are influencing
events in Northern Ireland, but political fixers
and chancers in London, Dublin and Washington. It
is a strange 'people power' campaign that further
removes power from the people.
irony of the McCartneys' campaign for local justice
is that they are now removed from their local community,
and their campaign transformed from holding individuals
to account to something beyond their control. There
are reports that some residents in the Short Strand
are becoming disgruntled by the changing nature
of the campaign. Might the politicisation of the
McCartneys' grievance end up exacerbating the unravelling
of old bonds in east Belfast?