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President Bush Meets with the McCartney Sisters, Shuns Sinn Fein

March 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and as usual Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Nationalist Party Sinn Fein, is in Washington. Last night, he hobnobbed with Irish-Americans who for decades have supported Northern Ireland’s nationalist cause. But for the first time in nearly ten years, Adams was not invited to the traditional St. Patrick’s celebration at the White House.

That honor went instead to the five sisters of a 33-year old Belfast man, Robert McCartney, murdered in a bar six weeks ago by men who still haven’t been arrested but are widely believed to be members of Sinn Fein’s military wing, the Irish Republican Army. Paula McCartney says she and her sisters are campaigning for just one thing: To bring the murderers to trial.

PAULA McCARTNEY: If Robert doesn’t get justice, we don’t believe that Ireland will get justice.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the process, they’ve up-ended the longtime political support here in the U.S. for Sinn Fein and its media-savvy leader Adams. President Bush said yesterday that only people making a positive contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process were welcome at the White House.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s part of the statement, a very strong part of the statement. And I’m looking forward to meet meeting these very brave souls.

MARGARET WARNER: Also freezing out Adams on this trip was his long-time champion, Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy met instead with the McCartney sisters, and afterwards suggested that his patience with Sinn Fein and its unwillingness to rein in the IRA was running out.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: The Democratic Party today, that are part of the democratic West, do not and cannot and should not have private armies and cannot be involved in criminality and violence. And this is, I think, as the sisters have pointed out, the golden opportunity for them to indicate once and for all and finally that they are going to separate themselves from that type of support in terms of the IRA and from violence and criminality.

MARGARET WARNER: Adams said last night he wasn’t upset by getting the cold shoulder from the president.

GERRY ADAMS: The peace process is the important process that the White House is engaged in and if I thought there wasn’t that engagement, I would be perturbed, but I am not.

MARGARET WARNER: But Adams’ old congressional friends, like Kennedy, say he’s on the hot seat with them not only for the murder, but for last fall’s $50 million bank robbery in Belfast. It was perpetrated by the IRA, police say, even while Sinn Fein was deep in negotiations to finalize the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Accord. And Adams is on the hot seat with the McCartney sisters not just for the murder, but for the cover-up that followed.

On the night of Jan. 30, McCartney and a friend got into an altercation with some IRA members at the bar. Three men then followed them outside and stabbed McCartney to death. Then, the sisters have been told, the killers went back in the bar to clean up the evidence, confiscate the video from the security camera and warn everyone not to talk.

PAULA McCARTNEY: What happened was there was a forensic clean-up, a military style operation. Witnesses were threatened that they were to see nothing and were to say nothing. And that it was IRA business, which obviously people in Ireland would respond to.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, Catherine McCartney and her sisters thought with so many witnesses in the bar that night, the police would quickly apprehend the killers.

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: There were 70 witnesses in the bar at the time. There were more on the street and we just thought it was a matter of the police going and getting these people; the witness talking to the police to tell them what had happened and the police make an arrest and charges.

MARGARET WARNER: But that didn’t happen. The McCartney sisters say they did meet with top IRA leaders to urge them to end the intimidation and instead heard a shocking offer.

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: So we were putting that to them: Why are you trying to protect these people? And what their response to us was that they were not trying to protect these people; that these people meant nothing to them and they would shoot these people. But we understand, as everyone in Ireland does, that that is a traditional method of how the IRA would usually handle, you know, a situation like this.

MARGARET WARNER: The sisters rejected the proposal and the killers remain at large. The McCartneys blame Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership for that. Late last month, Adams told an interviewer in Ireland:

GERRY ADAMS: If I had been involved in this incident, if I had been in Magennis’s bar or involved in any of the subsequent events leading to the killing of Robert McCartney, I would make myself available to the courts.

MARGARET WARNER: But last weekend, it came out that the 70 bar patrons that night included several Sinn Fein members, including at least one woman who was a Sinn Fein candidate for office.

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: We approached Sinn Fein and asked why did she not come forward? And she gave out a statement, a very vague statement to say that she saw nothing. She was another one of the 70 people in the bar who saw nothing.

PAULA McCARTNEY: We believe that Sinn Fein can help us to get these people to justice. We believe that they have some influence over the IRA and they should use that influence.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you all personally met with Gerry Adams?

PAULA McCARTNEY: Yes, we have met on several occasions.

MARGARET WARNER: And how does it go? What does he say to you?

PAULA McCARTNEY: Well, he says that he’s supporting us and he’s trying to help.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t trust him?

PAULA McCARTNEY: We did very much trust and hope initially at the start, but now I’d say the revelation of members of the party in the bar that night has cast a real doubt.

MARGARET WARNER: What led you to break the code of silence that usually operates in a case like this?

PAULA McCARTNEY: Well, it was just a simple case of the love of our brother far outweighed any fear that we may have felt, or that indeed some people do feel.

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: We just saw it as a case of justice from the start. The police knew who they were, the community knew the next day who these people were, and we just couldn’t believe that they were going to be able to just shrug this off, go about their daily lives without being accountable to anyone.

MARGARET WARNER: Many Northern Ireland Catholics, usually supporters of Sinn Fein and the IRA, have rallied around the McCartney sisters. But Adams’ number two at Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, warned the McCartneys to be “very careful” about crossing the line into politics.

Did you feel threatened by what the Sinn Fein leadership said to you?

PAULA McCARTNEY: Well, I personally didn’t feel threatened, no — just patronized and condescended.

MARGARET WARNER: What is it you want to accomplish here in the states?

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: We know that a lot of people in America, particularly Irish-Americans, have a keen interest in the peace process in Ireland, and they want to see that process work. And we wanted to come to America to let people know that any romantic vision they had of the IRA should be dispelled – the point that there are now elements within the IRA that are terrorizing their own community and that they should really put pressure on whoever they speak to in Ireland to help get us justice.

PAULA McCARTNEY: We’re sending a clear message out that a lot of questions are being raised and a lot of people are demanding answers.

CATHERINE McCARTNEY: And we would like to think that the only positive thing that will come out of this would be, the legacy would be justice; that it’s up now to people to make a decision. Peace and violence can not co-exist and people need to seek peace on the ground, not just behind closed doors.

You don’t sign a piece of paper and deliver peace. You deliver it on the streets. And giving us justice will be saying to the people of Ireland we are prepared to give peace to Ireland.