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In Catholic Belfast, IRA Becomes Public Enemy

March 14, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Along the mean streets of this city soaked in blood and memory, something strange is happening. On a wall in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood of Short Strand, two words of graffiti have appeared: "Disband Now."

The Irish Republican Army, long the law in Short Strand, is finding itself under attack not only by its longtime nemeses, the Protestant Ulster unionists and the British government, but by working-class Catholic families. They say the organization has become a criminal gang, killing and robbing without regard to common decency.

In this tightknit community where a code of silence normally prevails, the catalyst for the growing outrage was the killing of a popular 33-year-old Catholic working father after a fight that by most accounts began with nothing more than a perceived insult to an IRA man's female companion.

A six-week campaign by Robert McCartney's sisters to bring the killers to justice and their public denunciations of alleged IRA intimidation of witnesses have sparked parades and candlelight vigils -- and emboldened others to speak of their anger and resentment. To many, Ra, as the IRA is called here, has become the Rafia.

The McCartney killing added to a mood of disgust with the IRA that had been building since police blamed the group for Britain's largest bank robbery, as well as other crimes, even as the IRA and other armed groups have adhered to a 1997 cease-fire in this British province long ravaged by sectarian violence.

As a result, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which has been considered the IRA's political wing, has seen his reputation questioned and his popularity plummet. Responding to public pressure, Adams suspended "without prejudice" seven Sinn Fein members who were at the scene of the attack, and he called on witnesses to get any useful information to the police.

The IRA responded too. It announced an investigation and said it was expelling three members it believed had taken part in the attack. Then the group delivered its coup de grace: It revealed it had met with the victim's sisters and offered to shoot the perpetrators.

The statement only provoked further revulsion. The family insisted it wanted the attackers tried in court and reiterated that witnesses felt threatened.

A tussle of loyalties grips Short Strand, a community of 3,000 Catholics set off by high fences from the militantly unionist Protestant area of 60,000 next door. McCartney and the men accused of attacking him lived here, on streets where the IRA had always been seen as a bulwark against the community's enemies.

"In certain circumstances, you need them," a burly resident with a shaved head said of the IRA's soldiers. Unionist politician "Ian Paisley couldn't give a damn about this place; now he's all concerned," scoffed the man, who would not give his name.

"I wouldn't want to be in their position," Kate Gorman, a postal worker walking her young child, said of the people being asked to come forward. "But if you were, you'd have to do the right thing."

Her friend Bernadette Ronay agreed. "Any true republican is disgusted by the killing, and so are the real IRA," she said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, expressing shock at the IRA pronouncement that it was willing to kill the perpetrators, said republicans faced a stark choice.

"They can either embrace the democratic and peaceful route or be excluded," Blair said.

The U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell B. Reiss, last week added the Bush administration's view. "It's in Sinn Fein's interest to make a clear break," he said.

Little wonder that Sinn Fein leaders were not asked to the White House for St. Patrick's Day on Thursday, as they have been in the past. Instead, invitations went to McCartney's sisters and his girlfriend.

Irish political historian Paul Bew thinks the snub could be a harbinger. "I am starting to hear the A-word, for Arafat, applied to Sinn Fein," said the Queen's University professor, who added that Sinn Fein was far from being out of the political game.

Still, it has been an enormous fall for Sinn Fein, which in December seemed on the verge of a historic power-sharing deal with Paisley's Protestant-based Democratic Unionist Party -- until Paisley insisted on public photos of the IRA destroying its weapons beforehand. Paisley said the IRA deserved to be seen in "sackcloth and ashes." The IRA did not agree.

Days after the negotiations broke down, about $50 million was stolen from Northern Bank's downtown Belfast cash center in a well-planned heist that included hostage-taking. The head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said almost immediately that it looked like an IRA job.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern went further, accusing Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, of being on the IRA's army council. He insisted that they must have known about the heist plan even while negotiating with the British and Irish governments.

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