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The murder of Robert McCartney and the pursuit of Justice

Joe Craig

17 March 2005

Robert McCartney was murdered by republicans on 30th January. The murder was covered up on the night by an IRA ‘clean squad’ who removed all forensic evidence, removed CCTV coverage in Magennis’s bar where the attack commenced, and intimidated the many witnesses who were in the bar at the time.

The PSNI operation to investigate the murder was physically obstructed by the IRA who organised rioting to prevent follow-up searches in the Markets area and by Sinn Fein who provided political cover for the murder. Alex Maskey, formerly Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, reacted ‘furiously’ to the searches and stated that ‘There is a growing violent knife culture in our society, which must be condemned, and this incident is an extension of that.’

Initially the state, much more interested in pursuing the issue of republican responsibility for the Northern Bank robbery, made little of the incident and the Chief Constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, said that the IRA were not involved.

But the issue would not go away.

Two weeks later the IRA issued a statement saying it ‘was not involved in the brutal killing of Robert McCartney’ and Gerry Adams made his first statement on the killing in which he said that no one involved ‘acted as a republican.’

There followed a political fight in which the family of Robert McCartney have demanded justice and republicans have claimed their total support for their demand. The family were invited to Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis and received a standing ovation, although one reporter recorded a more honest display of republican attitudes when one delegate responded with the phrase ‘fuck them.’


So everyone apparently wants justice for the McCartney family – the state, republicans and the parties of Southern Ireland, who have all rushed to support the family. As we write the family will be in the tender embrace of George Bush who will also support their cause.

Yet over six weeks later the family are finding out that justice is a very scarce commodity in the North of Ireland. No one has been charged and many predict no one will ever go to jail.

The killers were in all probability just back from a Bloody Sunday demonstration in Derry commemorating an event in 1972 when mass murder took place in broad daylight in front of thousands of witnesses yet where apparently it has required an inquiry costing over £100m to ‘reveal’ the truth. This event plus hundreds of other state murders, collusion with loyalist killers, and high-profile murders such as Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson show that it is the state that bears primary responsibility for the injustice that exists.

The whole history of the state’s police force and the initial reaction to the murder show that the police are not the vehicle for providing justice. The republican movement holds itself up as the vehicle, but what of a situation in which republicans carry out murder?


After cover up came denial, then came equivocation and after that came a republican embrace of the family’s cause, intended more to suffocate than support. Then came expulsion of three IRA members and suspension of seven Sinn Fein members and the ‘offer’ to shoot the guilty. The honesty of all this can be seen in Gerry Adams’ call for witnesses to come forward to the police ombudsman, and revelation nearly six weeks after the event that Sinn Fein electoral candidates who had been in the bar had only just, or were only about to, come forward. All those who have done so so far have apparently said nothing or denied seeing anything. How would independent witnesses feel when called to come forward by the IRA and Sinn Fein while republicans who have done so have given away nothing? To ask the question is to answer it.

The dishonesty of republicans has been nauseating. They have refused to call on witnesses to go to the police because they say they are opposed to them. Yet their opposition is entirely bogus. During the last political negotiations a photograph stood between them and support for the PSNI. At the recent Ard Fheis, to which the McCartney family was invited, Gerry Kelly made clear that support for the PSNI was going to be accepted and nothing fundamental stood in the way.

Republican leaders have sanctioned talking to the police ombudsman but what is she except the mudguard for the PSNI? In any case what qualms can a movement busting to get into Stormont with Paisley have in supporting the PSNI?

The political capitulation of the republican movement, the end of its struggle against the northern state and its support for a new partitionist settlement means there is no longer any principled reason why it should not support the new RUC. Like support for a final political deal, it is all about the price to be paid, not the principle of the sale. How fitting that in its capitulation to the legitimacy of the northern state its armed body should act just like that state’s own armed force.

This in fact is the more or less direct result of the degeneration of that armed movement. Prohibited from engaging the occupying forces because of its ceasefire, and having less and less reason to claim a defensive role from a state it is more and more integrating itself into, it has maintained a reason for existence by illicit fundraising and unofficial policing roles. Hence the centrality of charges of criminality and the republican defence by appealing to the iconic image of the hunger striker Bobby Sands. Was he too a criminal, they ask?

The difference between an organisation with an armed struggle against imperialism, no matter how misguided and ineffectual, and the same organisation with no such raison d’être is the difference between political offending and pure criminality. With no political role the policing function has come more to the fore and there has been no reason for anyone with any political commitment to join.

The policing role of the IRA in nationalist areas was one that grew up from a period when the IRA was defending itself against informers but the old legalism of being an alternative government and its inability to understand the social and class role of policing has meant it has taken on more and more ‘normal’ and routine policing roles it has no mandate to carry out and no accountable mechanisms to enforce or to be accountable to. Thus it cannot conduct open trials nor put those convicted in jail, and the population has no means of exercising any control over it. Its means of punishing miscreants is therefore brutally physical. When this is combined with a history of extreme use of violence, of political degeneration, of a history in which open and honest political debate has been conspicuously lacking, we have an IRA that in many areas is gaining a reputation for thuggery. Complaints from the area of Robert McCartney demonstrate the local IRA has had precisely this reputation.

McCartney family campaign

In this situation the call by the McCartney family for witnesses to go to the PSNI and for the legal and judicial processes of the state to take over are understandable and it is difficult to see how they could do otherwise. The family are a republican one and no doubt share traditional republican attitudes to the police, but in their particular situation it is not the state which is the cause of their injustice but the movement they have supported. They have been careful not to go further than demand justice for their own case but inevitably they have been moved to wider criticisms of the current republican movement. Their contrast of the current movement to its embodiment ten years ago expresses their awareness of the consequences of the process of capitulation we have described. It does not express understanding or agreement with the reasons for it happening.

In this sense the family are still traditional republicans and are demanding no more than that the movement stand by the programme and policy it has always claimed to defend. The movement however abandoned this programme through the peace process some time ago and what is left is egregious cynicism.

The strategy of the republican movement appears to be to lie its head off until the crisis blows over. The family cannot endorse the new RUC generally without losing sympathy among working class nationalists but its appeal to the PSNI in its own case, however understandable, leaves it open to manipulation by that force. Already republicans have claimed, without much apparent truth so far, that the PSNI is conducting its investigation in a way designed not so much to catch the guilty as to politically damage Sinn Fein. Such a charge is all too believable to most working class republicans.

Yet the family in their own case are seeking allies wherever they can. Unfortunately this means they are embraced by the British and by Bush. Republicans will use this against them even while they have done exactly the same for years. The dilemma of the family, which they have tried to negotiate, expresses the fact that if the family have a political programme it is to reform the current republican movement. The movement is beyond reform.

Its policy of capitulation to the Northern State has already led it to kill republican dissident Joe O’Connor and attempt to kidnap another, Bobby Tohill. It has policed nationalist anger against sectarian orange marches in Ardoyne and sought to channel all anger against the actions of the sectarian state into its own demand for inclusion into that state.

Political Consequences & Alternatives

In a normal state evidence of a criminal conspiracy to murder an innocent man, destroy the evidence and intimidate the witnesses would be the signal for repression of those concerned. As Gerry Adams has said in relation to the Northern Bank job, he should be arrested and put on trial if the accusations against him are serious. The British state is not concerned with any of this and demands that republicans hurry up and finish the job of surrender by finally killing off the IRA. Their support for the McCartney family and their demands is simply a means to get closer to this objective. The political pressure will therefore continue beyond whatever resolution is brought to their campaign.

It is an open question whether the republican leadership are in any position to deliver. They could have saved themselves a lot of political damage had they handed over the killers, if not right away, then at least when they realised they could not get away with simply hoping the issue would disappear. They didn’t, not only because the number of members involved was quite large and involved some in quite senior positions, and because of other similar cases in Derry, but because this type of activity is now what the IRA is largely about. This points against winding up the IRA even while Sinn Fein political leaders, under the intense political pressure of the past few weeks, have strongly hinted they are willing to do so.

Most of the republican base will continue to stay loyal but more and more are growing uneasy and resentful at what is happening even while they fervently support the same peace process that has brought all this about. The family of Robert McCartney turned to establishment forces in Ireland and the US because no popular alternative was available.

They did ask Eamonn McCann to speak at their rally in support of their demands, but he signalled the bankruptcy of his particular political tendency by calling for the end of paramilitaries while ignoring the armed forces of the state, even while the PSNI was parked round the corner.

The socialist alternative does not involve endorsing the PSNI even by default. Nor does it mean an untenable, and therefore dishonest, refusal to acknowledge the existence of the state forces while we are in no position to overthrow them. When it comes to petty crime, or large crimes such as that of Robert McCartney’s murder, we have to acknowledge the forces of the state, even while we campaign to limit their powers over our lives. Where limited opportunities for justice exist we will take them. When we have built a working class movement powerful enough to threaten capitalist rule we will overthrow them.

Our opposition to capitalist police is thus more principled: we are not in favour of an ‘ordinary’ police service that will still defend capitalist rule. We will never give political support to any capitalist police force whether shorn of the sectarianism of the RUC/PSNI or not. We recognise that how this opposition is organised is a tactical question. We are not in favour of taking over the roles of a capitalist police force. We are in favour of people organising themselves in political struggle and these popular mobilisations ‘policing’ themselves. A united and politically radicalised working class will easily deal with any criminal elements in its ranks.

We support the McCartney family’s demand for justice, but justice is a scarce commodity in the North, not primarily because of the IRA but because of the state. The murder of Robert McCartney demonstrates that the IRA is not part of the solution but part of the problem. If the McCartney family receive satisfaction in their demand from either of these forces, or some combination of them, it will be by accident. Justice for everyone in the North will come only from working people themselves taking control of their lives by building an open and democratic movement opposed to both, one with a socialist programme.

Working people revolted at the murder of Robert McCartney are what put this issue to the top of the political agenda while the Provos attempted to cover it up and the PSNI were initially happy to let them away with it. Only winning these people to a campaign for justice can save the family’s demand from political manipulation by one side and attack from the other as a result.

The family have revealed the rottenness at the heart of present day republicanism in a way that no amount of controversy about bank jobs could ever have done. Explaining the political roots of this degeneration is an essential task for socialists. We also need to build an alternative vehicle for working class people opposed to oppression, no matter where it comes from.



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