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.