BELFAST -- The drinks were flowing and tempers were high one Sunday night in late January at Magennis's pub when things got out of hand. One man accused another of insulting his girlfriend, witnesses said. Someone grabbed a knife and slit the alleged offender's throat. A friend of the victim intervened and was stabbed and savagely beaten. When it was over, he lay dying outside on the sidewalk, the other man unconscious and bleeding beside him.
But this was more than just a fatal bar fight. The dead man was Robert McCartney, 33, who was well-respected among people in his small Catholic neighborhood known as the Short Strand, a flash point for sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in this divided city. And what was most extraordinary was the allegation, made by his five sisters, that McCartney was killed by fellow Catholics from the neighborhood who are leading members of the Irish Republican Army, the outlawed paramilitary organization.
From left, Catherine, Claire and Paula McCartney speak with reporters Feb. 16 after visiting the U.S. consul in Belfast. The sisters want the IRA to help bring to justice the members they say killed their brother Jan. 30 at a pub.
(Paul Mcerlane -- Reuters)
The IRA is a secret organization and the usual punishment for breaking its code of silence is death. But the sisters defiantly named names and directly challenged the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, to help bring the alleged killers to justice. The family's campaign has shamed and embarrassed the movement to the point that on Friday, the IRA broke years of tradition by announcing it had court-martialed and expelled three members. In an unprecedented statement, the organization ordered the men "in the strongest terms possible to come forward and to take responsibility for their actions."
Hundreds of people gathered in Belfast on Sunday to protest the killing, the Associated Press reported.
The McCartney sisters said Saturday that they were encouraged by the IRA's action but stuck to their demand that those involved turn themselves in to the police. "The only way our family will know the truth is when we hear witness statements in a court," Catherine McCartney told reporters.
For generations the IRA's role was to defend and protect Catholics in beleaguered enclaves such as the Short Strand from attacks by Protestants. But the McCartney sisters have accused IRA leaders in their neighborhood of turning into a thuggish mob that terrorizes the area.
"What's unusual and incredibly powerful here is that you have a family of that community, in that community and who know the history of that community, who have come forward," said Denis Bradley, a Catholic civil rights activist and member of the citizens board that oversees policing here.
In recent weeks Sinn Fein and the IRA -- known collectively as the republican movement -- have faced a political crisis following allegations that the IRA was responsible for a $50 million bank robbery in Belfast in December and that it was carried out with the knowledge of Sinn Fein's political leaders.
But local observers say the McCartney killing has done far more harm to the movement with its core constituency in Northern Ireland -- the thousands of working-class Catholics in urban areas who supported and identified with the IRA during the three decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, during which more than 3,000 people were killed.
About 3,000 Catholics live in the Short Strand, a collection of modest two-story rowhouses wedged into the western flank of predominately Protestant East Belfast. For decades it has been the scene of periodic clashes. In the early 1980s, the authorities constructed a 30-foot-high "peace wall" of bricks and metal bars topped by steel-webbed fencing along Bryson Street to seal off the two communities. A mural painted at the far end of the wall reads "Love Thy Neighbor."
The predominately Protestant police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was seen as part of the machinery of oppression, and the gothic red brick police station on Mountpottinger Road still lurks behind a 40-foot-high barrier designed to protect the police from the neighborhood.
In the law-and-order vacuum, the men of the IRA not only protected Catholics from Protestant incursions but also enforced social order among residents. Those caught dealing drugs or assaulting women were subjected to beatings, "punishment shootings" or enforced exile from the area.
Ever since the IRA first declared a cease-fire in 1994, life and politics here have slowly changed. The police have a new name -- the Police Service of Northern Ireland -- and a new motto: "Making Northern Ireland safer through professional, progressive policing." At the same time, residents said, the IRA has begun to lose its grip on the area. One member was accused of rape, another of throwing his girlfriend from a balcony.
"Some of these guys are psychopaths, but no one does anything to stop them," Paula McCartney, one of Robert's sisters, said in an interview last week at her home in the Short Strand. "They're likened to the Mafia -- but frankly that's an insult to the Mafia."