McCartney killing: Sinn Fein and the need of a ‘virtuous act’…

All three of those accused of the Robert McCartney murder have been acquitted. The dead man’s sister Catherine noted that “we hadn’t got very high expectations. As a lay person sitting in that court listening to the evidence we have heard, would I have put someone away on that evidence? No. I wouldn’t have so I can’t expect the judge to do so.”The job of a criminal court is simple: to decide whether the accused is guilty, or not guilty. Given the history of miscarriages of justice in the context of Northern Ireland it is preferable that there should be no danger of an unsafe conviction. Resistance to strong public opinion, one way or the other, is another commendable trait from a judge, who under the Diplock system does not have the restraining power of a jury to contend with.

But it leaves the relatives as far from justice as they were the night Mr McCartney was killed in a side street beside McGennis’ pub in late January 2005.

What we know for sure is that a man was killed after a ruck inside the pub. That the bar was packed with people from Sinn Fein and the IRA (some of whom lied about their presence there, but later had to retract). That the IRA conducted an ‘inquiry’ that found three unnamed volunteers guilty and later made the sisters an offer to shot them. It may also have expelled a unquantified number of others. But nothing about the process except its final judgement has been subject to external scrutiny.

Sinn Fein invited all the sisters and McCartney’s girlfriend to its annual conference that year. Gerry Adams, party President addressed the knotty problem of the IRA and it’s position viz a viz the legal system: “I do not believe that the IRA can be wished away, or ridiculed or embarrassed or demonised or repressed out of existence.” Catherine McCartney records more of the same speech in her eloquent retelling of her sister’s story Walls of Silence:

His murder was dreadful, not only because of the way he died and not only because it robbed his family of a father, a parter, a brother, a son. His murder was dreadful because it is alleged that republicans were involved in it. That makes this a huge issue for us.

Even at the time, the sisters were not so sure. Not least since Adams went on to qualify these remarks a few moments later by underwriting the extra legal political purposes of the IRA:

“We know what a crime is both in the moral and legal sense, and our view is the same as the majority of people. We know that breaking the law is a crime. But we refuse to criminalise those who break the law in pursuit of legitimate political objectives.”

Indeed most of the complications around this case were political. From the start Sinn Fein was desperate to remove the police from the equation. It’s first official statement came in the form of an attack on the follow up operation by the police from former Lord Mayor of Belfast Alex Maskey. The following day he attacked rival politicians for suggesting that:

…republicans are in some way covering up the events of Sunday night and orchestrating the recent trouble on the streets of the Markets. These allegations are clearly untrue and without foundation. There is no cover up and no orchestration of street violence. That is why none of these individuals have been able to produce one scrap of evidence to back up their claims.

It was the first of a series of attempts to draw a line in the sand which failed as more evidence came to light. Politically the timing of the killing was bad. The IRA’s denials over the Northern Bank gone largely unbelieved. And McCartney’s murder had come not long after the breakdown of a comprehensive agreement that might have enabled the party to recognise of the police.

So on the night of the 31st January 2005 the whole Republican movement, Sinn Fein as well as the IRA were still (politically) on the wrong side of the rule of law.

In the end, despite a huge number of pious messages from both the IRA and Sinn Fein, the only witnesses to take the stand were two survivors of the attack, and a woman driver (Witness ‘C’) who was simply passing by. Witnesses A and B refused to take the stand, because even the anonymity being offered by the court was not enough to make them feel safe enough to testify.

No one – neither current or former members – from the Republican movement (including the defendants) took the witness stand.

Martin McGuinness yesterday told the Politics Show that there would likely be more developments in this case. The sisters are convinced there won’t be. Witnesses have been scared off, evidence disposed of. Short of a fulsome confession by the killer himself (highly unlikely), the sisters are much closer to the truth than the Deputy First Minister.

Robert McCartney’s murder was short, brutal and entirely without any political cause. It may not have been politicially inspired, but it caused Sinn Fein huge political embarrassment. It also pointed to a wider problem within so-called republican communities. At the time, Brendan O’Neill writing in Spiked Online observed:

In an attempt to rein the crisis in, Adams seems willing even to upset his colleagues in the IRA by taking a hard line over criminality and the McCartney murder. But where he and the IRA might succeed in resolving the McCartney affair and appeasing the grieving McCartney family, they can do little to stem the wider moral disintegration of republican communities in Northern Ireland. The McCartney murder acted as a catalyst for a deeper malaise within post-republican republican communities.

That moral disintegration has continued since. Now even people firmly lodged within the ‘green zone’ of Mr McGuinness’s own movement are becoming the victims. Three men in the last few months have been killed in Belfast and Derry, the latest being 23 year old Emmet Sheils. The grief of his father and mother is as palpable as that of the sisters.

Martin McGuinness has told the killers that they don’t have a mandate for what they are doing. That they have come to a fork in the road, and it is now time to decide whether they are for a peaceful future, or not. But there is no reference to McGuinness’s own journey from gunman to junior statesman.

From the beginning, the peace process was a behaviorist project. It was never as interested in genuine changes of hearts and minds, as it was in outward behaviours. Moral conciousness and other forms introspection were of little interest – and possibly of little practical use – to a society conditioned to profoundly self harming behaviour.

The murder of Robert McCartney, along with Sinn Fein’s and the IRA’s subsequent attempts to cover up the truth of what went on that night (although there are still some who believe there was no such ‘cover up’), marked an end to the convenience of that conceit. But it hasn’t brought an end to the suffering of families in Sinn Fein’s own political heartland.

The peace process ultimately took away the IRA’s weapon of choice. Now it is the victim of a feral society its own unchecked and brutalist approach to ‘policing’ helped create. The wider movement, now led by a party determined on peace needs to find a way of acquiring new habits of mind to go with its new political status.

But as Aristotle has noted, it is often difficult for an individual to become virtuous if he or she has not acquired the habit of acting virtuously. The same may be said for political parties. Sinn Fein, reconciled at long last to a peaceful pursuit of its long term goal of a United Ireland, has, it seems, still to learn the power of the virtuous act.

And that may yet prove the movement’s long term undoing.

  • Peat Blog

    “From the beginning, the peace process was a behaviorist project. It was never as interested in genuine changes of hearts and minds, as it was in outward behaviours. Moral conciousness and other forms introspection were of little interest – and possibly of little practical use – to a society conditioned to profoundly self harming behaviour”.

    Absolutely right Mick, and the executive at Stormont has continued on a similar vein with the First and Deputy First Ministers performing regular shows of unity whilst those below, both in their rhetoric and policy positions, pull further apart; leaving many bewildered as to how long it can all survive. The political war continues by proxy, devoid of contrition or consensus.

  • Nice essay but the reality is that Sinn Fein are allowed to murder at will in all of Ireland and in Colombia. Verdicts like this and the colpase of the case against Psycho McFarlane play into the hands of UFF style killers, who believe the only good (ethnic) Catholic is a dead one.

    We would need more than an esssay to cite even the smallest percentage of Sinn Fein atrocities. Leaving these parastite run Ireland for Britain and to sneer at the justice system continues the 800 years of misrule and injustices.

  • I’m no fan of Sinn Féin but I think Dave O’Connell is going over the top in his posting. SF aren’t murdering ‘at will’ in Ireland – or in Colombia(?). Sure members of SF were involved in a conflict in whch they took lives – it was a bloody and very messy conflict with loss on all sides.

    The activities of the IRA or SF notwithstanding, those that were involved in the UFF et al would probably have been murdering ethnic Catholics. The Unionist paramilitaries, after all, started the blood letting in 1966 with the killing of Peter Ward. So let’s not get holier than thou about it – the murder of Robert McCartney was a heinous crime. But to argue that it was a SF murder is using too broad a brush. If that were the case, it would be equally valid to argue that if a member of a British Army unit killed a civilian and his colleagues covered up for him then that the entire Army was guilty of the killing…. [as it happens I’m not talking about hypothetical situations here].

    I often wonder, however, how long this entire edifice can remain erect given the pulling and dragging that goes on at ground level over issues like this highly politicised killing, the transfer of policing and justice, the Irish language etc.

    I marvel at how it stays erect day after day, given its precarious foundations.

  • Dewi

    “From the beginning, the peace process was a behaviorist project. It was never as interested in genuine changes of hearts and minds, as it was in outward behaviours.”

    That’s profound and true – however the process was right to be a behaviourist project. It’s the detail of actions and events that create violence. When violence is managed away then philosophy can play its part.

    Excellent essay btw Mick and the quality over the last weeks has been splendid.

  • Comrade Stalin

    But to argue that it was a SF murder is using too broad a brush.

    SF members witnessed the events immediately prior to the murder; SF members know the identity of the murderer; and SF members have been among those working to cast aspersions over the reputation of the victim and, most likely as a result, the people of the Short Strand voted against SF in the subsequent council elections. Other than that, you’re right, SF had nothing to do with it.

    If that were the case, it would be equally valid to argue that if a member of a British Army unit killed a civilian and his colleagues covered up for him then that the entire Army was guilty of the killing…. [as it happens I’m not talking about hypothetical situations here].

    This is another version of the “bad apples” argument with respect to the police, an argument republicans have hitherto refused to accept.

  • Peat Blog

    “I marvel at how it stays erect day after day, given its precarious foundations.”

    Concubhar,

    I also wonder what this wonderful Viagra-esque elixia might be; money, power, sex (for procreation purposes only of course), or because they were backed into a corner?

  • Nic

    A well put together essay, Mick, but forgive me for pointing out that it’s “stating the bleeding obvious” on the one hand, and missing the real issue on the other.

    From the start of the “peace process” it was clear that we were rewarding the IRAs methods and embedding their ethics in the mainstream of New Northern Ireland. That was a conscious decision by the “useful idiots” in the UK and Irish governments piously abetted by weighty journals such as the Irish Times, who’s editor “made the decision to support the process” instead of performing due diligence journalism on what was and is a morally and ethically dodgy exercise, to say the least.
    And so, to quote from your conclusion: “The wider movement, now led by a party determined on peace needs to find a way of acquiring new habits of mind to go with its new political status.”

    This is a fine sentiment, Mick, but it’s yours, not theirs, and IMO about ten years late.
    As things stand and based on the record of the governments over the last fourteen years or so, there is no incentive or imperative for Adams and Co. to change their ways. Their power base is untouched and untouchable, they continue to extract proportionately more coverage and attention than their numbers should warrant, and lots of key figures in “the movement” are doing very well financially in the status quo.

    The more relevant analysis is that those outside the cosa nostra (the rest of us, that is) must see it as imperative that they change and be prepared to do the Right Thing to ensure that they do.
    Put another way, where is MOTR NornIrons roadmap to encourage and force the republicans into the fold in spirit, and not just in token word and deed?

    cheers,
    Nic.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    If Robert McCartney was a Protestant would there have been so much fuss about it? His killers would probably be in government by now. Ulster’s Protestants are the real second class citizens, they deaths of their loved ones never get the headlines that a dead Catholic gets.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nic,

    Your last is a big question. There is no sign of any competition big enough, or serious enough about the business of politics to make that happen.

    Until they find themselves ‘twixt stirrup and ground’, there is little chance that as a political movement they will come to understand the political necessity of simply and without artifice ‘doing the right thing’.

  • josephine

    1) to comrade stalin – the provos have no problem accusing the british government of being guilty of crimes committed by the british army and police, so why can’t people accuse sinn fein (many of whose members, e.g. g.adams wear an ira hat as well) of sharing in responsibility for ira crimes, especially since sinn fein figures also helped to cover up the mccartney murder!
    2) to mick fealty – what is truly astonishing about your indictment of the provos over the mccartney murder is that you fail to come to the logical conclusion suggested by your own words, which is that sinn fein is not fit to have control of any part of the policing or justice system; indeed i shall not be surprised to read you in the future lamenting over failures to devolve policing etc and worrying about the implications for your precious peace process!

  • Mick Fealty

    Josephine,

    It’s not for me to pontificate on what should or should not happen. Just to try to lay matters out as clearly and logically as I can. I’m not a political actor in this drama, and it is they who have to make determination on their own future actions.

    For that reason, concerning the devolution of policing, for the purposes of the blog, I really don’t care one way or the other.

    PS, I suspect you reading CS’s sarcasm as straight opinion.

  • josephine

    to mick fealty: “i really don’t care one way or the other”! really? you don’t mind that policing could, probably will, be the hands soon of two parties, one of which continues to pervert the course of justice despite its alleged conversion to peaceful, constitutional methods and another party with deep roots in blind bigotry and ignorance. i’m sorry i don’t believe you. you’ve been a shill for the provos and this peace process from the day and hour you began this site and you are as much “a political actor in this drama” as anyone up at stormont. to hear journalists claim neutrality is difficult enough to stomach but when a blogger does it, it is truly time to reach for the zinc bucket!

  • Mick Fealty

    Josephine,

    I’m not claiming neutrality exactly. That would be absurd. Just that I care more about documenting as accurately as I can what the actual story is, without anticipating its ultimate outcome.

    For the record, if Northern Irish journalism has had a problem it is that it has cared too much about the final outcome, and in the Process™ allowed political parties off the hook.

    When I write longer pieces like the one above, my primary aim is to produce analysis, rather than to editorialise. That I leave to people like yourself, who are more than capable of drawing their own conclusions.

    Much of the first half is, as Nic says, ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ for anyone who has followed this story from the start. But my purpose in re-telling it is that currently many of the facts around the case are being contracted to convenient ciphers to suit individual political agendas.

    For instance, the claim that there was no cover up, that such was a media invention is unsustainable given the context of the detail above. Blogger or not, my purpose to make an argument by exposition of the verifiable facts rather than loud assertion.

    I hope you still have that zinc bucket handy!

  • josephine

    my point remains and is unanswered by you: the mccartney killing and cover-up followed by the much more recent quinn murder and cover up in south armagh should lead most intelligent observers to seriously question the rightness of those orchestrating the cover ups, not to mention the killings, being given charge of the policing and criminal justice system! that is the 600 pound gorilla in the room and my other point is that you, rather like the mainstream media in NI, perform gyrations to avoid admitting it is there! ok?

  • Mick Fealty

    Call it sitting on the fence, but I take the view that if I have the first word on this or any other subject on Slugger, I am happy that the readers have the last…

    Which I happily leave to you!!