McCartney Murder: 'They're not republicans. They are just a gang of scumbags'

Donna McCartney saw the man who ordered the killing of her brother in the shops the other day. Once she and the people of the Short Strand looked up to men like him. Not any more. Cole Moreton reports from Belfast
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The big man is still going about his business. "I saw him coming out of a shop the other day, with his paper and his bap," says Donna McCartney of the man she thinks ordered her brother's killing. "He was strolling about as if nothing had happened. It was disgusting. He must have no conscience at all, no sense of reality."

The big man is still going about his business. "I saw him coming out of a shop the other day, with his paper and his bap," says Donna McCartney of the man she thinks ordered her brother's killing. "He was strolling about as if nothing had happened. It was disgusting. He must have no conscience at all, no sense of reality."

Some people call that man their commander. They remember that the IRA defended their streets when loyalists were marching with petrol bombs trying to burn them out. Others whisper that he is a gangster who has turned a local IRA unit that used to enforce rough justice into a Mafia-style criminal gang that menaces and kills the people it once swore to protect.

The sisters do not care what people call the big man as long as they tell the police that he ordered their brother's death seven weeks ago. To do so means breaking the code of silence that has long surrounded the IRA in her community. It would have been unthinkable in the past, but so would the "IRA Scum Out" graffiti that went up in the Short Strand after Robert's death.

"We don't need these people to protect us any more," says Gemma McCartney, 41, the oldest of the five sisters whose campaign for justice has drawn worldwide admiration. "The UDR is gone, loyalist attacks are rare, you never see a British soldier on the street, the police are changing. The killers of my brother are walking about without a care, and my brother six feet under."

No more than 3,000 people live in the Short Strand. The houses have got triple-glazed, fire-retardant security windows and steel tiles on the roofs to protect them from the missiles - kitchen knives, tins of beans - that used to fall like rusty rain over the high peace wall separating the Roman Catholic residents from their loyalist neighbours.

The houses on the same side have the same protection, but it is the Short Strand that feels surrounded and has done for a century - "almost barricaded in", as one local politician puts it, "against the 30,000 loyalists who surround them and who would like to ethnically cleanse them from the place".

Those who live in the Short Strand are prepared to talk, and they have got plenty to say. They just don't want their names or their faces to be made public. "Traditionally, people would have gone to the republican movement for help because we didn't trust the police," says one man, who insists on meeting away from the area so that we are not seen together. The McCartneys may be applauded for their public stand, but others are afraid of what might happen to them.

"When these people took over they started to pick and choose. If your boy steals a car radio, say, they get a message to you: 'We're going to break his leg as a punishment. Tell him to meet us outside such-and-such a shop, at this time. If he's not there on time we'll find him and shoot him.' We're used to that, it's been that way around here a long time. But see what happens when the big man's own son steals a car radio? Nothing. If you're a friend of theirs or a relative it doesn't matter what you do - joyriding, house breaking, whatever - you get a free hand.

"One of them had an uncle who molested young children. He wasn't punished. He was given protection when he left the area."

A woman who lives in the Short Strand and has grow up with members of the gang says: "They have been conditioned, schooled all their lives, in fear and how to intimidate. Violence and physical abuse and murder are what they know. The leader does surround himself with lapdogs and sidekicks, people who have been involved in attempted rape, paedophilia, wife battering. Racketeering. They don't work, these people. They get up to all sorts of Mafia-type activity."

There are many stories about the gang of a dozen or so men believed to have been involved in the McCartney killing. One burned his own wife with the steam from a wallpaper stripper. Another broke into a neighbour's house and attempted to rape her. She screamed, he ran and was found hiding in some bushes.

"The Provos had to do something. They gave him a flesh wound - nothing much - told him to stay out of the place for a while. When he came back they let it be known he was their boy - anyone attacking him would get shot."

There is also strong nostalgia in the Short Strand for the old-style IRA, the enforcers who may or may not have had a free hand but who certainly had a cause.

"The IRA fought and kept loyalists from invading the Short Strand. The people who did that were genuinely republican," says one man. They are just a gang of scumbags. If the men of 30 years ago were here they would not have them in the ranks."

To an outsider this sounds like nostalgia for the old-fashioned beat bobby. To someone who grew up in the East End of London it sounds like the rose- or blood-tinted view of the Kray brothers, who "never harmed their own and only punished those who deserved it". But as the notion of good old-fashioned working-class criminal solidarity faded in East London, the gang leaders were exposed as cruel, self-obsessed psychopaths. Something similar is happening in Belfast.

"In the old days IRA men didn't go about drinking; they didn't get involved in silly public fights that left somebody dying in an alleyway," says a frustrated republican. "People are getting sick of it. Ordinary people living here are saying that this gang is now more menacing, more oppressive to the community, than the Brits ever were."

The Short Strand became central to IRA mythology in June 1970 when a gun battle there between a small group of provisionals and a loyalist mob earned the organisation credibility. It was not respected at the time - there was a joke that its initials stood for I Ran Away - and the battle helped establish the idea of the IRA as protector of its people.

That powerful notion began to crumble after the Good Friday agreement, says Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP representative for South Belfast. "The old-style IRA men retired when the peace process began to evolve, or they moved away to seek better lives elsewhere.

"This new crowd got rid of anybody in the Short Strand who had integrity or morals. They acted as enforcers for the IRA but also ran criminal enterprises - a few rackets to generate a bit of income.

"Some people suggest half their income was going to Sinn Fein. Robberies were allowed by the IRA leadership on the understanding that if you were caught you would be disowned, although that would be quietly reversed later."

The gang has smuggled cigarettes and pirate DVDs, says one man formerly close to them. They also offer security to bars and builders. "They said: 'You hire our boys and your site will be safe.' If the constructor paid the money that was fine. If not, there would be fires and damage until he reconsidered."

Was it never challenged? "Now who'd do that? The police have enough to do; why would they bother? It's a way of life that has been going on here for 30 years, it's just that lately the rules have changed and people are sick of it."

The gang is defiant. "They have let people know that regardless of what the Provo command says they will settle their own accounts.

"When the Sinn Fein leadership agreed to hand over a little information they organised for slogans to be written on the wall saying Gerry Adams is a tout."

There is nothing ostentatious about the gang or its leader. He does not wear heavy gold chains like a London gangsta or his opposite number on the loyalist side. His house is ordinary, although more expensively furnished and equipped than usual.

Neighbours struggle to raise the money for a week in a caravan in Coney Island; he has a holiday home worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. A neighbour says: "If you didn't know, you wouldn't notice him in the street."

Unless you got in his way, like Robert McCartney. He was drinking in Magennis's bar, 10 minutes away from his home towards the city centre, a favoured pub for the men of the Short Strand since they have no local. Some say the gang leader tried to stop a fight and got cut on the wrist. Others say he broke a glass after a dispute and went for Robert McCartney's drinking companionthat night.

Either way, he was on his own way to hospital when McCartney's head was stamped on. McCartney died in hospital that night. His friend was seriously wounded but still alive.

For all the television interviews and political glad-handing, and for all that an invitation to the White House on St Patrick's Day is worth, the McCartney sisters are still waiting for their neighbours to conquer their fear and give evidence.

Gemma is exhausted but hopeful. "We have seen some movement in the past couple of days. There are signs that a crucial witness is possibly going to come forward. I can't say any more than that, in case it doesn't happen. We just need people to talk."