Turning Point

6 minute read
Andrea Gerlin | Belfast

Eileen McGinley always voted Sinn Fein. She also told her five children to vote for the republican political party because “we thought they were fighting for justice” in divided Northern Ireland. That belief died along with her 23-year-old son James, who was stabbed through the heart 17 months ago in Londonderry by a member of the Irish Republican Army.

In the past few weeks, McGinley has watched other republican communities experience the same disillusionment. The catalyst: the murder of Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two, again by members of the I.R.A. He was killed with a broken bottle, iron rods and kitchen knives outside a packed bar. Afterwards, the attackers meticulously cleaned up. Now McGinley and her sister Kathleen Coyle have joined the McCartney family in campaigning against the organization that for the past 35 years has claimed to be defending Catholic areas from loyalist gunmen. Now, many people believe the I.R.A. has become sidetracked by crime and more interested in protecting its own members than ordinary Catholics. “We want to tell the world and the I.R.A. that we are not going to take any more of this intimidation and bullying,” Coyle said last week at a candlelit vigil for James McGinley. The McGinleys want the I.R.A. to apologize and expel James’ killer from its ranks, and the McCartneys want the group to throw out any remaining members involved in Robert’s murder and to encourage witnesses to come forward. Sinn Fein, which is supposed to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, instead finds itself under attack. For the first time, the party’s supporters are challenging its relationship with the i.r.a. and calling for the group to stop bullying ordinary people. “It’s definitely a turning point,” says John Kelly, a former i.r.a. member who represented Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly. “If [Sinn Fein] is on the path of politics, there’s not room on that path to be riding two horses.”

The unprecedented protests from the McGinleys and McCartneys have tipped Sinn Fein into what Irish historian Eamon Phoenix calls its “greatest crisis since the Irish Civil War in 1922.” Party leaders were already under pressure to distance themselves from the I.R.A. after a $50 million robbery at a Belfast bank in December, which the British and Irish governments blamed on the terrorist organization. Dublin, which usually plays “good cop” to London’s “bad cop” in negotiations with Sinn Fein, reacted with fury. The bank raid also raised questions about republican intentions toward the peace process, which, though stalled, is still supported by Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. “People don’t understand why they did it,” says one Belfast republican of the bank raid. “They’re asking, ‘What do they need $50 million for if there’s no war on?'”

A real test for Sinn Fein comes at this week’s by-election in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland in early May, when local council elections — and possibly the U.K. general election — will be held. Paula McCartney, 40, one of Robert’s five sisters, is considering running for Belfast City Council. She says she favors the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fein’s rival for Northern Ireland’s Catholic vote. Her appearance on the ballot could upset Sinn Fein’s shaky hold on a seat it won in her neighborhood, Short Strand, in the last election.

Under assault from its traditional base as never before, Sinn Fein is struggling to prevent a further slide. Party leader Gerry Adams’ approval rating has plummeted in the Irish Republic by 21 points since October, from 51% to 30%; Sinn Fein’s figures have dipped, too, from 12% to 9%. At Sinn Fein’s annual conference on Saturday, Adams said the McCartney murder is “a huge issue for us,” adding that “as president of Sinn Fein or as an individual, I could not campaign for the victims of British or unionist paramilitary thuggery if I was not as clear and as committed to justice for the McCartney family.” McCartney’s sisters made a surprise appearance, but didn’t speak.

Seven Sinn Fein members accused by the victim’s family of involvement in the killing have been suspended. Adams also said he would instruct his solicitor to hand over the names of people the McCartneys have implicated in the case to Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman. This represents a huge concession for Northern Ireland’s leading republican. The taboo on helping the police — blamed for collusion with loyalist paramilitaries — is still strong. Former I.R.A. member Anthony McIntyre says the McCartney murder shows they’ve forgotten that their objections were always supposed to be against “political policing, not policing itself.”

The contrast to Sinn Fein’s reaction to James McGinley’s murder back in 2003 shows how radically party attitudes have changed. When, a day after her son’s death, Eileen McGinley asked for help at Sinn Fein’s local office, “They wouldn’t speak to me,” she says. “I got the cold shoulder.” She had heard whispers identifying the killer as an I.R.A. man, Bart Fisher. A month later people describing themselves as Fisher’s supporters and members of the “republican movement” came to her home to warn the McGinley family off attending court or drawing attention to the case. The warning went unheeded. At one court proceeding in 2003, so many of the McGinley clan charged the dock that police called for reinforcements, grabbed riot shields and used batons to restrain them. Fisher was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison last month. He denies being an I.R.A. man.

The McCartneys have shown similar courage, organizing a rally attended by 1,000 people and lobbying politicians from Belfast to Washington. Sean Brady, the Catholic primate of Ireland, said their bravery “rendered transparent and weak the efforts of others to bully, frighten and control whole communities for their own selfish or political ends.” Now the McCartneys hope others will speak out, too. Some witnesses have come forward, Paula McCartney says, but they have denied seeing the actual attack. “Seventy-two people could not have all been in the toilets,” she says.

But, increasingly, people in Northern Ireland are no longer willing to turn a blind eye. “The people are trying to tell the I.R.A. they want them to go away,” says Michael McConville, whose mother was killed by the group in 1972. “They’re starting to stand up to them. Years ago, they would never have stood up to them.” Let down by the movement they once expected to protect their rights, republican communities are beginning to rediscover their own power to protect themselves.

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