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