‘There is still fear’ — for the five McCartney sisters of Belfast, the Troubles never ended

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Boston Globe on April 7, 2023

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — On the night of Jan. 30, 2005, Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two, headed out into the Short Strand, a working-class enclave where he and his five sisters had come of age amid the brick rowhouses and the towering walls of steel mesh and razor wire that even today separate their Catholic neighborhood from the adjacent Protestant neighborhood of East Belfast. McCartney walked past the graffiti murals celebrating the republican martyrs of 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, and he crossed the bridge over the Lagan River to the nearby Markets district, to Magennis’s Bar.

At some point, Brendan Devine, a childhood friend McCartney hadn’t seen in a while, called him, and McCartney invited Devine to join him at the bar.

What happened next still haunts McCartney’s family — and illustrates how slowly some things have changed in Northern Ireland, even as this region of the United Kingdom marks the 25th anniversary of the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of open conflict known as the Troubles.

For 30 years, beginning in 1968, the republican side, which is predominantly Catholic, fought for Ireland to be unified and British rule to end; the unionist or loyalist side, which is historically Protestant, wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. Fighting between opposing paramilitary groups unfolded amid an often brutal British military occupation. Through it all, the Troubles claimed the lives of 3,720 people. Fifty thousand were seriously injured in terror campaigns.

The fighting quieted after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the paramilitaries on both sides agreed to decommission their weapons and end their military operations. But the bad blood and the threats of violence by the paramilitaries lingered, and, as in every corner of Belfast, the patrons of Magennis’s that Sunday night in 2005 remained immersed in the history of the struggle they shared.

Some of the patrons were civic leaders connected with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and some were members of a local crew of the IRA. Many of them had just returned from Derry, Northern Ireland, where they commemorated the fallen of the Bloody Sunday massacre, perpetrated by the British in 1972.

A mural on the peace gates at Lanark Way celebrates the Good Friday Agreement, in west Belfast, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. (Photo by Peter Morrison/Associated Press)

According to what McCartney’s five sisters have pieced together, some of the IRA men in Magennis’s had a longstanding animosity with Devine, and when he made an offensive gesture to a woman, a brawl broke out. McCartney, who by all accounts was a big and gentle man and from a family in solidarity with the republican cause, defended his friend and succeeded in breaking up the fight. But it quickly erupted again and spilled onto the street.

Devine was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle. McCartney had a knife plunged straight into his heart and was left in the street, bleeding. He later died from his wounds. Devine lived. No one in the bar called an ambulance, and no one called the police. The local IRA crew did what they called “cleaning” the crime scene, wiping up the blood and fingerprints and disposing of the murder weapon. They told everyone in the bar that what had happened was “IRA business.”

McCartney’s sisters then did something that few before them had dared: They ignored the IRA threat and its code of silence. Tired of living in fear of the paramilitary group, they spoke out. They pleaded with witnesses in the bar to defy the IRA and to come forward to provide information to the Police Services of Northern Ireland, a new law enforcement agency that was forged out of the Good Friday Agreement. But the McCartney sisters’ pleas went unanswered. Of the more than 70 patrons known to be in the cramped bar that night, not one of them offered to testify. More than half of those patrons told police they were in the pub’s lone bathroom at the time.

Secretly and out of compassion, some patrons told the sisters the outlines of what happened. But they would not stand up and testify in court. Though he survived, Devine was ravaged psychologically, the sisters say, and he has not been able to provide a coherent account to police. They also believe he obeyed the orders of the IRA not to offer any names.

The McCartneys felt betrayed by the people in the bar, many of whom were lifelong friends and neighbors.They still feel the whole of Northern Ireland lost an opportunity to live up to the true spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the paramilitary violence by creating equity and rule of law.

As President Biden, former president Bill Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahearn, and other dignitaries prepared to visit Belfast to commemorate the anniversary of the agreement, I went back to revisit the McCartney sisters, whose story I told for the Globe back in 2005. We gathered on a recent afternoon in Catherine McCartney’s home in a quiet suburban neighborhood along a hillside in South Belfast, where several of the sisters have retreated to avoid the intimidation they suffered in the Short Strand after daring to speak out. Robert’s widow, Bridgeen, and his sister Paula received bomb threats and menacing letters warning of retribution for them and their families.

I asked Paula what the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement meant to her. “It means nothing to me, to be honest,” she replied. “It is an anniversary of an agreement that has not been honored. I have grown cynical of the politics and the failure of our leaders on all sides.”

“Robert’s murder exposed the reality that the peace agreement was hollow, that the paramilitary groups were still active, and the reality is the power these paramilitary groups have over their communities is real and it is dark. And it is still going on.”

“There’s not the bombs and the shootings and soldiers in the streets, but I would not call what we have peace. There is still fear. And all of us need to do a lot more within our communities if we are going to have peace,” added Paula, who is a nurse’s aide in an assisted living facility and a mother of six children, the youngest of whom is named after her brother.

The McCartney sisters, who have a total of 21 children between them, were thrust into becoming the face of a movement, largely led by women, that has demanded leadership on all sides of this conflict to do more to live up to the peace agreement they signed. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, news of their courage reached Washington, and they were invited to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day and met with President George W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. They were promised justice, and a resolution was adopted in the US Senate condemning the IRA for the murder of Robert McCartney and for its public threats of intimidation. The resolution drafted by Senator Kennedy offered the McCartney family the full support and weight of the US government in their quest.

“I have seen women as the ones who do not flinch from confronting the paramilitary groups, and the McCartney sisters called the IRA out,” said Monica McWilliams, co-founder of the cross-community Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. McWilliams is a political leader who was at the table during the peace negotiations. “It is real leadership when you take on your own community. It is quite easy to point a finger at the other community, the other side of the conflict, and there has been plenty of that. But when you stand on your own street and challenge your own side to do what is right, that is much harder.”

The paramilitary groups on both sides still impose a culture of fear, McWilliams said. Although they may have veered away from violent struggle, they have leaned into organized crime and drug dealing. There is a long way to go for the government to establish law and order.

Other challenges include navigating Brexit, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, which calls into question the Good Friday Agreement’s provisions on trade and the removal of the militarized borders that once separated the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. The British parliament is also considering a “Legacy and Reconciliation Bill,” which critics on both sides say threatens some of the core commitments of the Good Friday Agreement by proposing to end new inquests into past crimes, to end civil claims, and, in some cases, to offer amnesty in unsolved murder cases.

Catherine McCartney, who is now a social worker, told me that she is disillusioned. “I just don’t think the politicians, including women who represent us, are clean players in this,” she said. “They are managing the situation for their own ends, and I don’t think justice has been their end. You need people to really want justice for there to be peace.”

On the Protestant side is a case with some haunting similarities to the murder of Robert McCartney. Lisa Dorrian, a 25-year-old shop assistant from Forest Hills, an affluent community 15 miles outside of Belfast, disappeared after a night of partying on Feb. 28, 2005, just a few weeks after the McCartney murder. The police have been following leads that implicate some new friends Dorrian had made — who were selling and using illicit drugs, including ecstasy and amphetamines. Detectives with the Police Services of Northern Ireland have reportedly been pursuing a theory that a Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF, was behind her disappearance and covered it up by intimidating witnesses, including women who were with Dorrian the night she vanished.

A local IRA leader who was questioned by police in connection with McCartney’s murder, but not formally charged, Gerard “Jock” Davison, was killed in 2015 in the Markets, not far from Magennis’s bar. Davison was fatally shot four times, police investigators believe, in retribution for an aggressive IRA crackdown on drug dealers. McCartney’s sisters believe Davison was responsible for Robert’s killing, but all say they do not take solace from his death. Nor do they see it as justice. Said Paula: ”That is just more violence, more of the same: men killing men.”