McCartney family land in US to heroines' welcome

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The Independent US

America often needs a human face to grasp a faraway story. But, this week, it will have no less than five of them - the sisters of Robert McCartney, the Catholic man kicked and stabbed to death in a Belfast pub fight, whose death may fatally tarnish the IRA in the land where its support is strongest.

America often needs a human face to grasp a faraway story. But, this week, it will have no less than five of them - the sisters of Robert McCartney, the Catholic man kicked and stabbed to death in a Belfast pub fight, whose death may fatally tarnish the IRA in the land where its support is strongest.

Gemma, Paula, Donna, Claire and Catherine McCartney arrived last night to begin a four-day trip. Their schedule may have been hastily arranged, but it includes a visit tomorrow to the Oval Office at which the women will present President George Bush with a dossier on the killing.

As they arrived at Baltimore Airport, Catherine McCartney said: "We want the people in America to know that any romantic vision they have of the struggle should now be dispelled. The struggle in terms of what it was 10 years ago is now over, we are now dealing with criminal gangs who use the cloak of romanticism around the IRA to murder people on the streets and walk away from it."

On the eve of St Patrick's Day, a family's straightforward plea for justice has become a turning point for how America views the IRA and its political alter ego, Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's leader, may still be a hero to grass-roots Irish America. But, for official Irish America, weary of the IRA's prevarications and evasions over disarmament and its equivocations over renouncing criminality, the McCartney murder has been the last straw.

First came the £26.5m bank robbery just before Christmas in Belfast, generally assumed to have been the work of the IRA.

Then, last month, Ireland's Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, blew away the fiction that Sinn Fein and the IRA were separate entities, by stating that Mr Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, were members of the IRA's ruling Army Council.

But the greatest damage has been done by the McCartney killing, which has thrown the careful choreography of the St Patrick's Day festivities into chaos. Normally it is an occasion for much bonhomie, where a beaming Mr Adams is pictured alongside the leader of the most powerful country in the world. Tomorrow, however, that privilege will go to the sisters of a man allegedly murdered by thugs in the organisation of which the Sinn Fein leader has been named a military commander.

For the first time since 1995, a year after Mr Adams was first granted a visa to visit the US, the White House will be off-limits. Mr Bush is shunning not only Sinn Fein representatives but all Northern Ireland politicians - but that figleaf does not conceal the administration's dismay at Sinn Fein's behaviour.

Leading Irish-American politicians are bitter, left with the sense that after investing so much energy into bringing Sinn Fein into the legitimate political mainstream, they have been let down. Edward Kennedy has refused to meet Mr Adams, but will spend time with the McCartney sisters. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, herself now a carrier of her husband's political torch for the Irish.

Peter King, the New York Congressman who is arguably Sinn Fein's most outspoken supporter on Capitol Hill, will see Mr Adams, but his message will be uncompromising. Americans, he said last week, "were finding it hard see what the justification is for the continued existence of the IRA". Right now, he added, "they are making Ian Paisley look good, and that takes a lot of work".

Mr King argues that for the peace process to go forward, "and for Sinn Fein to have the input it deserves, it is time for the IRA to stand down. There is no constructive purpose being served at this time by the continued existence of the IRA".

In his convoluted way, Mr Adams concurs, telling the Council of Foreign Relations in New York on Monday that "people want to see the IRA leaving the stage in a dignified way".

In America above all, however, the seeming split within the IRA pitting Mr Adams against the real hardliners - will count for nothing compared with the human drama of the five sisters fighting for simple justice, pictured alongside Mr Bush, and taking to American television screens to tell their tragic story.

In retrospect, the change in the IRA's standing in official Washington dates back to 11 September. A few days after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Richard Haass - Mr Bush's first special representative for Ireland - warned of "a sea change" in America's attitude to terrorism of every hue. That came a few weeks after the arrest of three IRA men in Colombia on charges of helping to train members of the Farc terrorist group.

Now Washington's attitude has hardened. In modern Europe, said Mitchell Reiss, the US Northern Ireland special envoy, "there's no place for a private army associated with a political party"

For Mr Reiss too, the conclusion is inescapable. The IRA must disband. The argument has been heard before. But the spectacle of an ordinary Catholic family from a republican neighbourhood suggesting that it has mutated from principled opponent of what it sees as British colonial rule into a sleazy, vicious Belfast mafia, could make the case irresistible.

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