Rupert Cornwell: Bush greets McCartneys on day that may spell IRA's end

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The Independent Online

The five sisters and fiancée of the murder victim Robert McCartney completed their astonishing journey from Belfast to the Oval Office yesterday, as they brought their campaign for justice to the most powerful man in the world.

"We're very happy with what he said, he had a very good understanding of our case and I believe he will help us," Catherine McCartney, the poised and eloquent spokeswoman for the group, said afterwards. "He seemed confident that things will change."

The meeting was short, just a few minutes in the Oval Office, and in the end the women did not hand over the promised dossier on Robert's murder. But the symbolism was overpowering, the formal enlistment of President Bush, alongside the governments in London and Dublin, to the cause of putting the IRA out of the criminal business - indeed out of any violent business - once and for all.

This week has belonged to the McCartney family - protagonists at what some believe may be a turning point in modern Irish history, the beginning of the end for an armed group entwined with the 20th century republican struggle for a united independent Ireland.

In the persons of Gemma, Catherine, Paula, Claire and Donna McCartney, joined by Bridgeen Hagans, Robert's partner and mother of his two children, the IRA and its political alter ego, Sinn Fein, may have met their match.

To everyone they have encountered over these three hectic days in the American capital - powerful senators and congressmen, the diplomats and Irish-American business leaders who help to shape Irish policy here - they have driven home the same point: that the IRA is no longer heroic resister of British oppression, but a gang of criminals and killers in effect above the law.

In his public remarks, as he accepted the traditional St Patrick's Day crystal bowl of shamrock from the visiting Bertie Ahern, Mr Bush made no mention of the IRA and the death of Robert McCartney. Gestures, however, spoke louder than words, with the pointed exclusion of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, from the ceremony in the Roosevelt Room.

And the Irish Prime Minister did not mince his words. The people of both Ireland and Ulster had overwhelmingly backed the 1998 Good Friday agreement, setting out a permanent Irish peace. "They did not vote for an armed peace, or for a criminal peace. They voted for a democratic peace." The need now was for an end to paramilitary activities, Mr Ahern declared, "including all forms of criminality."

Even Mr Adams, in town this week trying to make his own voice heard as the sisters do the rounds, has half conceded the issue. He too wanted the IRA to leave the stage, but "with dignity".

As for the suspected IRA killers of Robert McCartney, make no mistake, he told a crowded meeting of the "Friends of Sinn Fein" at the Hilton hotel here, "deal with them we will".

In other circumstances, Gemma, Paula, Catherine, Donna and Claire McCartney might be real-life Cinderellas, living out a week as far removed from their daily existence as could be imagined. A teacher, an assistant teacher, a nurse, a mature student, the manager of a Belfast sandwich bar - ordinary people swept off to meet the American President at the great Irish ball in Washington. But the circumstances are not normal, and these six Northern Irish women have been impervious to the pomp and ceremony that has surrounded them. They have had a single, all-consuming mission - and not for one instant have they lost sight of it. That mission is to have Robert McCartney's killers brought to justice - not to an IRA kangaroo court, but the standard criminal courts of the land.

They are staying at a middling Irish-owned establishment about a mile from the White House. Deliberately, the British and Irish embassies have been kept at arm's length. Neither London nor Dublin, nor the State Department here, have picked up the bills. The trip has been paid for by the women themselves, with the help of like-minded friends in Belfast. Beware of being political puppets, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, darkly warned as they left. "The only person who's pulling our strings is Robert," Paula retorted. Sinn Fein, in short, is being outflanked, not by outsiders, but from within, by its own natural supporters.

"I know that Robert would want justice," said Paula, who along with Catherine does the talking for the sisters. "The ironic thing is that we have to come all the way to Washington to get it," added Catherine on Wednesday evening.

She was tired but still totally focused at the end of an exhausting day that had seen the women whisked from a meeting with Mr Bush's envoy for Ireland to a public appearance with four powerful senators - two of whom at least, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, are mulling presidential runs in 2008.

Next came a Northern Ireland Bureau lunch, more meetings, before the annual gala dinner of America Ireland fund, in the cavernous interior of Washington's National Building Museum. The mighty of Irish-America were there, but this group of unassuming ladies, in unassuming cocktail dresses, were the main attraction.

"I want to say here, rarely have I met braver people - if ever," Bertie Ahern enthused.