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5 IRA critics get a White House nod

Sisters decry intimidation

BELFAST -- Five sisters who have waged a rare public campaign against intimidation by the Irish Republican Army following the killing of their brother have been invited to the White House on St. Patrick's Day, the US envoy to Northern Ireland said yesterday.

''I don't know how anybody can help but be impressed by them," said the envoy, Mitchell Reiss.

Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two, was stabbed and beaten to death Jan. 30 following a dispute in a Belfast pub. His sisters and his partner say that members of the IRA were responsible for the murder and that they then destroyed evidence and intimidated witnesses. The killing has plunged the guerrilla group and its political ally, Sinn Fein, into crisis.

One of the slain man's sisters, Catherine McCartney, said she hoped President Bush could help bring his killers to justice.

''The case we'll put to Bush will be the same as it has been to everybody here in Ireland: that these men must be brought to justice, and he should use whatever influence he has to make that happen," she said.

For the first time for many years, no political leaders from Northern Ireland have been invited to the White House.

''There should be a separate ceremony for the sisters along with some of the other members of the community that are doing really good work trying to build bridges between the two communities," Reiss told RTE state radio.

The visit was announced as the IRA said that it had offered to shoot those involved in McCartney's slaying. The IRA, which has expelled three members over the killing, said in a statement that it had met the sisters and McCartney's fiancée and offered its own form of justice, but that the family wanted the killers dealt with by the courts.

''The IRA representatives detailed the outcome of the internal disciplinary proceedings thus far and stated in clear terms that the IRA was prepared to shoot the people directly involved in the killing of Robert McCartney," it said.

''The family made it clear that they did not want physical action against those involved."

The statement, signed ''P O'Neill," the name traditionally used in IRA communiques, did not spell out whether it had intended to kill those responsible or carry out a nonlethal punishment shooting known in Northern Ireland as ''knee-capping."

In another development yesterday, Northern Ireland's police chief and Britain announced that a special police detective unit will reopen investigations into 1,800 killings from Northern Ireland's bloody past. The decision followed years of complaints from victims' relatives that British authorities had given up on solving many killings.

Murphy said the government had committed the equivalent of $57 million to form a special team of detectives led by officers from outside Northern Ireland. He estimated the effort to identify those responsible for about 1,800 killings from 1969 to 1998 -- accounting for more than half of the death toll from Northern Ireland's conflict -- would take six years.

Under the 1998 peace accord for Northern Ireland, anybody linked to a truce-observing group who is convicted of a politically motivated killing is eligible for speedy parole.

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