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For 6 Belfast women, IRA battle isn't over

Victim's sisters, fiancee say threats continue

BELFAST -- Last month, when the Irish Republican Army announced it was ending its 35-year armed campaign, many people said the sisters and fiancee of Robert McCartney had won.

After all, by standing up to the IRA after McCartney was killed by IRA members in a barroom brawl and insisting that the IRA was no longer the self-appointed protector of vulnerable Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland, the five McCartney sisters and Bridgeen Hagans had effectively said what the IRA had refused to say for more than a decade since it stopped targeting British forces: Its war was over.

Sitting in her house in the Short Strand, about a half-mile from Magennis's pub, where her brother was stabbed to death Jan. 30, Paula McCartney laughs ruefully when it is suggested they won.

''If we won, why am I moving house?" she asked. ''Why is Bridgeen moving house?"

It's a good question, one that hangs in the air like the chill that has put an end to a brief Belfast summer.

While the IRA's announcement was greeted internationally as a historic development, the McCartney sisters and Hagans are more skeptical. They believe the IRA will continue to discreetly rule the streets of the Short Strand, a nationalist enclave in East Belfast, and places like it, intimidating people into silence, and inspiring those who have hurled obscenities and missiles at the house where Hagans lives with Robert's two young sons.

For Paula McCartney and Bridgeen Hagans, living in the neighborhood that produced not only the killers of Robert McCartney but also the protectors and apologists for those killers has proved too much a burden.

''I can't live in a place where people involved in a murder think they are untouchable," Paula said.

For Hagans, it's more than just about her. She has to consider what's best for her two sons. When her house, just a few streets away from Paula's, was pelted with stones and bottles last month, as she and the boys were sleeping, she knew it was time to go. The abusive, anonymous letter containing excrement didn't help.

Aside from the overt intimidation, Hagans stared incredulously one day last month as a well-known IRA figure marched up to her front door and pushed a brochure about the local community center through her mail slot. Although two reputed IRA members, Terence Davison and James McCormick, have been charged in connection with McCartney's murder, his family insists there are at least three other IRA members involved in the killing, and up to 10 others in the coverup -- including the man who pushed the brochure through Hagans's mail slot -- who have not been charged.

''If the war is over, why protect them?" Paula McCartney asks. ''The IRA's words say one thing. Their actions say another. Their actions keep people silent."

The family is also furious that Davison and McCormick have been welcomed onto the IRA wing at Maghaberry prison, where they are awaiting trial. So much, say the McCartneys, for the IRA's earlier claims that it had expelled members involved in the killing.

After McCartney, a 33-year-old fork lift operator, was stabbed to death by IRA men following a barroom row, his five sisters and fiancee voiced outrage, not only over his murder but the IRA's elaborate effort to destroy evidence and intimidate witnesses. The women's insistent demand for justice gained international attention, and an invitation to join President Bush at the White House St. Patrick's Day party, from which the IRA's political allies in Sinn Fein were pointedly excluded.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who had welcomed Sinn Fein into the mainstream, snubbed Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and met with the McCartney sisters and Hagans instead. With their earnestness and Belfast charm, the women won a legion of admirers in Washington, and some analysts believe the embrace they received, combined with the cold shoulder Sinn Fein got, forced the IRA to make its historic statement last month.

The peace process in Northern Ireland had started and stalled for more than a decade, in large part because IRA leaders had refused to explicitly say their war was over. The McCartney sisters and Hagans said it for them, insisting that the use of summary violence and intimidation was no longer acceptable. By saying they wanted their brother's killers to be investigated by police and prosecuted in the courts, institutions that IRA supporters have long rejected as illegitimate, the McCartneys challenged the very premise for the IRA's continued existence.

It is still too early to measure the impact the women have had on ending the bitter civil war known as the Troubles.

Already, some contemporary histories are suggesting that after battling the British Army to a draw over three decades, the IRA was brought to its knees by six women from one of its traditional strongholds.

But it has come at a high price for those women. Paula used to walk everywhere in the Short Strand. Now she drives, terrified at the prospect of bumping into her brother's killers on the footpaths. She dropped out of a women's studies class at Queen's University, but hopes to resume it later this year.

Gemma McCartney, a nurse, hasn't been able to return to her job. Claire McCartney, the youngest, and perhaps the most sensitive, went back to work as a teacher's assistant last month, but struggled. At the sandwich shop Donna McCartney runs, customers notice she's not her same self. Catherine McCartney, who runs a feminist newspaper, seems the least daunted.

But the McCartney women and Hagans are soldiering on, preparing a civil legal case to get the justice they believe they will be denied in the criminal case against Robert's killers. In November, they plan to return to Washington, as guests of Kennedy. They are organizing fund-raisers to pay for the civil action.

Paula and her husband, Jim, are looking for a house in the Four Winds area of South Belfast.

Hagans is eyeing a house in Glengormley, in North Belfast.

Unlike the cohesive Catholic neighborhood where they grew up, both women are moving to integrated neighborhoods, where there is a mix of Catholics, Protestants, and the fastest-growing category in the Northern Ireland census, ''neither."

Paula McCartney is selling the family's last tie to the Short Strand, where the McCartneys have lived for generations. She doesn't want to run away, but she doesn't want to stay.

Recently, at the Short Strand festival, a small community affair, Paula realized it was time to go. ''It was always great fun. But I looked out there and I saw all these people in fancy dress, and some of the people involved in Robert's murder were dressed as clowns. Murderers dressed as clowns. It's gut-wrenching."

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