'People power' forces IRA to expel three after bar killing

The murder of Robert McCartney has shocked Belfast's republican community and put Sinn Fein on the defensive. The victim's sisters say up to 20 people were involved. So far, one man has been arrested. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

An awesome display of "people power" in Belfast has led to one arrest and pressured the IRA into expelling three of its members following the killing of a forklift truck driver in a Belfast bar brawl.

An awesome display of "people power" in Belfast has led to one arrest and pressured the IRA into expelling three of its members following the killing of a forklift truck driver in a Belfast bar brawl.

The death of Robert McCartney, 33, who has two children, has horrified many republicans and has thrown the IRA into crisis ­ amid allegations that high-ranking members of the organisation were responsible for his killing.

But a determined public campaign by the five sisters of the victim has mobilised opinion and forced the IRA to throw out the three in an extraordinary damage-limitation exercise.

In a related move, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, made the unprecedented statement yesterday that if he had witnessed the McCartney killing he would go to court to give evidence. Both developments are viewed as remarkable and signal that the IRA and Sinn Fein are under immense pressure. This is the closest republicans have come to acknowledging the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland justice system.

The McCartney family said they were encouraged by the IRA statement, but did not accept its version of events. The family said all those involved, including IRA members and non-members, should hand themselves in so that they could bring closure to "this horrific ordeal".

Detectives investigating the murder of Mr McCartney said that they had arrested a man after he and his solicitor went to a police station in Belfast. The man was later released "unconditionally". The impact made by the McCartney campaign is largely due to the fact that many members of the family ­ including Robert himself ­ are republican sympathisers who regularly voted for Sinn Fein.

The family was brought up in the Short Strand, a tiny Catholic enclave in predominantly Protestant east Belfast. The feeling of being surrounded has produced a tight-knit community where the habit of not publicly criticising the republican movement is even more ingrained than in most areas of Belfast.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Gemma McCartney said: "We're praying to God that this isn't a long haul because we're exhausted. We're hoping there will be developments soon. We're all exhausted, more mentally than physically, because we've been sitting around talking and answering the phones and giving interviews."

Several of the sisters visited Dublin this week, where they met senior politicians and took part in radio and television broadcasts.

"They are very hostile towards Sinn Fein down there," said Ms McCartney. "In Belfast, there has been no negative feedback. Even a taxi-driver who brought me home refused to take the fare. He said he was in full support of what we were doing and that we were an inspiration to society." She said that tremendous damage had been done to the republican cause.

The sisters said that up to 20 people ­ not all of them IRA members ­ had been involved in the killing. "We want all those people to be encouraged and persuaded to hand themselves in," said Paula McCartney.

Mr Adams admitted in a radio interview that any "self-respecting republican" had a responsibility to come forward. "Had I found myself in the bar and was caught up in these dreadful events, I would now be making myself available to the court as the McCartney family have asked," he said.

The killing of Mr McCartney, in combination with December's bank robbery in Belfast and the recovery of millions of pounds in County Cork, has tainted both the IRA and Sinn Fein with criminality and damaged their reputations. An opinion poll in the Irish Republic this week revealed a sharp drop in the personal popularity of Mr Adams.

But the McCartney killing has had an even deeper impact in Belfast. Although unplanned, the attack resulted in two men being viciously and repeatedly stabbed, one of them fatally. The IRA said two of those expelled were "high-ranking volunteers".

The IRA initially closed ranks after the killing, warning eyewitnesses not to go to the police. The bar was thoroughly cleaned and potential forensic evidence disappeared.

In the Republic, meanwhile, police and finance experts are still digging into the issue of IRA money-laundering. The authorities in Bulgaria are cooperating with the Irish government after about ¤50,000 (£34,000) was traced to several accounts there.

Police and the Criminal Assets Bureau, which has successfully recovered large sums of money from non-paramilitary criminal gangs and drugs barons, are now trawling through written and computer material seized during searches in many parts of the Irish Republic.

More arrests and possible criminal charges are expected to follow. Police are examining the activities of a several solicitors, accountants and financial experts.

Informed sources in the Republic say the IRA had an effective money-laundering scheme operating in the south of the country. But they believe this may have been overwhelmed when some of the £26m arrived from the pre-Christmas Northern Bank robbery in Belfast.

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, told the Irish parliament in Dublin last week: "In effect, large amounts of money are being hauled around the Republic of Ireland by various people. It is being laundered for the Provisional IRA."

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, scrambled to distance itself from criminality, one member of the Irish parliament declared that "no republican worthy of the name can be involved in criminality".

The Deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, responded drily: "They have got away with it for too long. Patience is running out."