Video: Taking on the IRA

By Kelly O'Donnell Capitol Hill Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/17/2005 2:11:59 AM ET 2005-03-17T07:11:59

They are an unlikely force for change: Five sisters from a war-scarred Catholic neighborhood in mostly protestant Belfast. Wednesday they were welcomed by the powerful in Washington, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

These wives and mothers will meet President Bush on Thursday, St. Patrick's Day — invited in place of Northern Ireland's most famous politician, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

"We don't believe peace and violence can co-exist in Ireland," says Caroline McCartney.

The McCartneys' mission could expose one of the world's most secret guerrilla organizations, the Irish Republican Army.

"We want justice, not revenge," says Paula McCartney.

That justice is for their brother, Robert, who was stabbed and beaten to death by known IRA members in a pub brawl in January.

The McCartney sisters blame members of the IRA not only for the killing but for a cover-up.  They say the crime scene at the pub was cleaned, evidence wiped away. Security camera videotapes disappeared and about 70 witnesses in the pub were told to keep quiet. Intimidation was reinforced at times with spray-painted signs reading, "Whatever you saw, say nothing."

But the cry for change is loud and clear. Hundreds attended rallies after Robert McCartney's killing. Other graffiti signs spelled out what few felt safe to utter publicly, "IRA disband" and "no more lies."

"Now people are seeing that they're the ones that are committing the crimes against their community, but the scary thing about that is they're accountable to no one," says Paula.

Formed 35 years ago, the IRA was once respected as defenders against British forces, but now is increasingly viewed with suspicion and fear. The IRA is also blamed for Britain's largest bank heist ever, a $50 million robbery in December. 

Sinn Fein is the IRA’s political wing.

"I think there are people around the McCartneys who are trying to politically manipulate them," says Sinn Fein Party spokesman Martin McGuinness.

But the sisters say they simply want their brother's killers punished.

"We believe our love for Robert outweighs any fear," says Paula McCartney.

Yet the McCartneys’ search may unexpectedly lead to an even wider justice in the long road to Northern Ireland's peace.

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