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THE IRA
Criminals who would police the streets

By Dara Purvis | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

This past week, I took a much-needed, relaxing vacation in Italy. As is my usual habit once the pressure of academic work is suddenly released, I plowed my way through several books for pleasure—in six days, amidst sightseeing various regions of Tuscany, I found myself on the plane back to Cambridge having exhausted all four books I had brought along.

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One of the books I read was Before the Dawn, the 1998 memoir of Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has long been of particular interest to me, and I lived there in the fall of 2003 interning at the U.S. consulate. In his book, Adams paints an understandably one-sided view of the sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland, giving detailed attention to his time in jail and the hunger strikers of 1980-81. These types of issues—from some of the most contentious years of The Troubles—are the most familiar to the average American. Probably because of the high numbers of Americans who trace their lineage to Ireland, the Irish Republican cause has always found a fair amount of support in the United States. And in the 1970s, when the British government implemented so many policies that were clearly wrong, and carried out acts like the famous shooting deaths of 13 unarmed marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and refused to treat interned Irish Republicans as political prisoners rather than common criminals (the struggle that prompted the deaths of ten hunger strikers in 1980 and 1981,) it was easy to sympathize with the Irish republicans calling themselves freedom fighters.

During my time in Northern Ireland, I became very familiar with how oversimplified a picture many Americans have been successfully presented with. At the same time, however, I will say that my understanding of IRA violence became more complex as well. During an earlier stay in Belfast at a summer program, I became involved in an extremely odd conversation, speaking to some men who claimed to be former IRA members discussing the “function” of IRA violence towards Catholics of their own community. While I definitely do not subscribe to their explanation, in their own minds it made sense—in the years when the British government of Northern Ireland refused to deal with republican areas except with the British military, community functions—from running buses to providing police—were performed by the IRA. And in lieu of prison cells, punishments for criminals included kneecapping by the IRA.

The justification offered to me certainly doesn’t excuse the barbaric violence of a militant group towards the community it supposedly represents, but I will say that the description informed my views about the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland tremendously. Part of the problem with how deep the divisions in the culture are, I believe, is that sectarians of both persuasions see themselves as presiding over a subculture that is entirely distinct from the other side. Just as Gerry Adams wrote of the hierarchy of internment prisoners, maintained and accepted by the prison workers, the IRA thinks of itself as the government and bureaucracy of Catholics. Conversely, Protestant paramilitary groups also see themselves as being the leadership of that segment of Northern Irish society. The peace process, therefore, is not simply a matter of getting the political leaders of all sides to agree to work towards peaceful relations with one another on a political and governmental level—it is about convincing those leaders to give up what they see as their sovereignty over one segment of the population.

In that vein, therefore, I have been hugely disappointed and frustrated with the sad saga of Robert McCartney. Robert McCartney was a Belfast man, Catholic and from an extremely republican area, who became tangentially involved in a fight in a pub this past January. While attempting to defuse a misunderstanding, and for refusing to leave the side of his friend Brendan Devine as men in the pub attempted to kill him, McCartney was murdered in a horrifically brutal manner. He was virtually eviscerated lying in the street outside the pub, and one of his attackers jumped on his head so hard that one of his eyeballs came out of his skull.

The atrocity visited upon this father of two is horrifying enough on its own. Even worse is the explanation pieced together much after the fact, that an IRA member named Gerard Davison allegedly gave the order to other IRA men in the pub to kill Brendan Devine, and after Devine was believed to have been beaten and stabbed to death, Robert McCartney was killed as the only uninvolved witness.

But most abhorrent is the behavior of the other people in the pub. Of about 70 people in the pub at the time, not one would give police an account of what happened. Famously, a huge number of people claimed to have been in the toilet at the time. It was well known that the IRA clamped down a wall of secrecy around the events that night, begun by the mysterious removal of the closed circuit surveillance tapes of that night taken by the pub.

It took a determined public campaign of six months by McCartney’s fiancée and sisters to move the investigation forward at all. They have had several death threats targeting them. Even as people in the community told McCartney’s family bits of what happened off the record, they refused to put their names on the record or speak to the police. It took months of meeting with politicians and reporters, including a meeting with President Bush on St. Patrick’s day, before two men were finally arrested; the uncle of Gerard Davison for the murder of Robert McCartney, one for the attempted murder of Brendan Devine.

And through all of it, leaders of the republican movement were distinctly unhelpful. First a stonewall of silence, then an informal mudslinging campaign slandering the McCartney family. Only after weeks of intensely negative publicity, news emerged that a few IRA members had been temporarily suspended for their parts in the murder, and Gerry Adams began insisting that Sinn Fein members must tell all they knew of the crime, eventually suspending twelve members of the political party until they did so, and expelling the members who did not.

So that is what the republican movement has come to these days: defending brutal murderers until the bitter end. Grudging exposure of one man for savagery committed by many, and protected by scores more.

If that is policing the community, then the IRA is more corrupt than any British police department has ever been. If that is the legacy of the hunger strikers, then all the sacrifices for Northern Irish independence from Great Britain was wasted on brutal, thuggish criminals. And if that is what the republican community sees as their role in Northern Ireland, then I truly despair for any prospect of peace.

Dara Purvis can be read each Monday, here at Raw Story. You can also visit her online at www.darapurvis.com.

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