The five McCartney sisters walked into the American Ireland Fund dinner looking nothing like avenging angels. Dressed in cocktail dresses, they stopped and posed calmly for the horde of photographers jostling for a picture. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern stood at their side, wordlessly linking his passion to their cause. In the seven weeks since their brother was murdered outside a Belfast pub, they have become international celebrities for their battle with the Irish Republican Army and its political arm, Sinn Fein.
"I do want to say here to this great audience in Washington: Rarely have I met braver people -- if ever," Ahern said. "I'd particularly like you to welcome these girls because they've campaigned for their brother's killers to be brought to justice. They're courageous. They're determined."
The five McCartneys -- Donna, Paula, Gemma, Claire and Catherine -- with their slain brother's fiancee, Bridgeen Hagans, second from right, at last night's gala dinner.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
These unlikely heroines dominated the fund's 13th annual dinner at the National Building Museum last night. The guest list included Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, honoree Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and 800 political and business leaders -- all overshadowed by the presence of the five sisters.
Any question of which side the crowd was on was answered by McCain.
"No one can honestly claim the IRA is anything better than an organized crime syndicate that steals and murders to serve its members' personal interests," he said. "There's nothing republican about the Irish Republican Army."
On the night of Jan. 30, the women's brother Robert McCartney -- a 33-year-old Catholic who voted for Sinn Fein -- stopped with a friend for a quick drink on the way to a birthday party. About 70 people were in the pub, including about 20 IRA members. McCartney's friend exchanged words with one of them, a fight began, and the friend's throat was cut. McCartney dragged his friend outside and was stabbed and beaten to death. The friend survived. According to news reports, the IRA members allegedly cleaned up the mess, took the security tape and told everyone inside to stay quiet about what had happened.
McCartney's grieving sisters and girlfriend broke the traditional code of silence and publicly blamed the IRA. The IRA, already accused of a multi-million bank robbery in Belfast, found itself on the defensive and privately offered to shoot the men responsible for the murder. The sisters declined, insisting that true justice could only come in an open courtroom. Suspects and witnesses have been questioned, but no arrests have been made.
"I believe that Robert would want justice," said Paula McCartney last night. "Had this happened to any one of us, Robert would be doing exactly the same as we're doing."
Political leaders in Dublin, London and Washington condemned McCartney's murder and called for the IRA to disband. Earlier this week, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator told the BBC that the sisters were becoming puppets of political opponents. The women responded by calling the IRA thugs and murderers: "Any romantic vision of the struggle should now be dispelled," they told reporters Tuesday. "We are now dealing with criminal gangs who are still using the cloak of romanticism to murder people in the street and walk away."
The McCartney sisters -- Paula, Catherine, Donna, Claire and Gemma -- and Robert's girlfriend, Bridgeen Hagans, arrived in the United States Tuesday night, and met with Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) yesterday. Today, they will be received by President Bush, who called them "very brave souls" at his news conference yesterday.
"They've committed themselves to a peaceful solution, and hopefully their loved one will not have died in vain," Bush said. ". . . Hopefully some good will come out of the evil perpetuated on this family."
After the White House reception, the family will attend a luncheon at the Capitol hosted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and a reception at the Irish Embassy.
Adams, who had enjoyed increasingly cordial relations with U.S. leaders over the past decade, is pointedly excluded from the Saint Patrick's Day celebration at the White House.
"We wanted to make sure that we honored those in civil society in Ireland who are contributing positively to the peace process," Bush said. ". . . It's very important that people understand that the parties must renounce violence."