Northern Ireland’s Troubled Peace

As the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a Belfast family instead grieved.

Crowd of people raising both palms.
Seamus Murphy / VII / Redux

Every time Paula McCartney drives across a bridge to the Belfast neighborhood known as the Markets, she crosses the River Lagan, which she now associates with the deaths of both of her brothers. One died by suicide in 2000. The other was killed in a last gasp of paramilitary violence five years later.

“For a long time, I would just try to avoid driving on the bridges,” Paula told me. “It was all just too painful and too close to home to think how we lost first Gerard and then Robert. The river just always brought it all back.”

The McCartney sisters, all five of them, had gathered in the parlor of a pleasant home with a garden off a suburban cul-de-sac just outside the city, a world away from the menacing, narrow warrens of the Short Strand neighborhood, where they’d grown up amid Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence known as the Troubles. They lived in a predominantly Catholic and republican area on the east bank of the River Lagan, hemmed in by traditionally Protestant loyalist communities of East Belfast, patrolled by British soldiers and bristling with paramilitary organizations. One of the sisters, Catherine, left the Short Strand for this quiet suburb in 2003. Paula eventually moved in across the street, and several others now also live nearby.

The sisters, who range in age from 47 to 59, gathered at Catherine’s house on April 6, just days before a flurry of high-level visits to Ireland would mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. President Joe Biden planned to tour the country, and the agreement’s original brokers would convene to commemorate it. But the McCartney sisters were not celebrating.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the violence among paramilitary organizations that took more than 3,500 lives from 1969 to 1998 has largely abated, and the British military presence has all but vanished, but Northern Ireland remains an uneasy place for those who lived on its fault lines. Paula told me that the anniversary of the agreement meant nothing to her. “It is an anniversary of an agreement that has not been honored,” she said. “There’s not the bombs and the shootings and soldiers in the streets, but I would not call what we have peace.”

The McCartney family was never much involved in politics during the Troubles. But like many working-class Catholics in the Short Strand, they sympathized with the republican cause of a united Ireland. They still do.

Robert McCartney, 33 years old and the father of two young boys, certainly did not set out to antagonize the Irish Republican Army on January 30, 2005, when he met an old neighborhood friend at a local bar for a drink. The friend was Brendan Devine, and the rendezvous was at Magennis’s Bar in the Markets. The leader of the IRA unit in the area, Gerard “Jock” Davison, happened to be among the crowd at Magennis’s that night, and a group of republican supporters and IRA members arrived by bus from Derry.

In the suddenly crowded bar, Devine was accused of making an inappropriate comment to a woman who was with one of the local IRA leaders. A fight broke out. Devine was stabbed with a broken bottle and McCartney, a big but gentle man, tried to intervene. The fight spilled into the street, where McCartney was stabbed in the heart and left to die.

By all accounts, the violence had nothing to do with politics. And yet, the sisters say that dozens of people who were in the bar that night have privately shared with them the details of what happened—but that virtually none have had the courage to testify for fear of reprisals by the IRA. The McCartneys’ sources say that IRA leaders told the patrons of the bar that what had happened was “IRA business.” The implication was clear: The patrons should not say a word to the police.

They complied. No one at the bar called the police that night, and no one called an ambulance. The McCartneys’ sources told them that the IRA members in the bar “cleaned” the crime scene, wiping away fingerprints, disposing of the weapons used in the assault, and removing video-surveillance footage outside the bar. The police did question witnesses and eventually arrested three suspects, but no one was convicted. To this day, the case remains unsolved, like most of the other cases involving the victims of paramilitaries during the Troubles and in the years after.

For 17 years, the McCartney sisters have come up against this wall of silence as they’ve agitated for justice on their brother’s behalf. They believe that the IRA is still intimidating witnesses. The group has ceased to operate as a paramilitary organization, but security officials say that it continues to control a lucrative racketeering enterprise and exerts tight control over its community.

Back in 2005, when the McCartney sisters first began speaking out, neighbors they’d known all their lives greeted them with cold, ominous stares. That year, I was at Paula’s home, which was then located in the Short Strand, covering the family’s story for The Boston Globe, when the sisters, who had 20 children among them, received a bomb threat. They went on making sandwiches and changing diapers as the bomb squad swept the house and ultimately found nothing.

At the time, the world press took note of the sisters’ courage in standing up to their community’s violent enforcers. The family was invited to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day just two months after Robert’s murder, and President George W. Bush hailed the sisters as “brave souls” committed to peace. They met with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who proposed a U.S. Senate resolution condemning the IRA for Robert’s murder and urging the U.S. government to offer “all appropriate assistance to law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland to see that the murderers of Robert McCartney are brought to justice.”

But the flurry of attention has come and gone, and the McCartney sisters are still haunting gatherings of world leaders and activists, respectfully calling for closure for the families who lost loved ones in the Troubles and in the years of low-level violence that followed.

Robert’s story is the better-known of his family’s twin tragedies. The McCartneys’ other brother, Gerard, died at the age of 28, in December 2000, when he plunged into the frigid waters of the River Lagan. During my April visit, after the dignitaries left town and the news cycle turned away from Northern Ireland, after much thought and some hesitation, the sisters decided to share Gerard’s story publicly for the first time.

Gerard had suffered for many years from severe depression. He worked for a while as a gardener and then at a bakery. But he couldn’t hold down a job, and there wasn’t much in the way of opportunity. He was close with Robert, as they were only a year apart in age. Faded photographs on the wall of their mother’s home show them as children next to each other, smiling, often with their arms around each other.

As they got older, life in Belfast took a toll. Paula, Catherine, and Claire McCartney all work in social services and point to the community’s lack of adequate mental-health services for a generation living with the trauma of the Troubles. Gerard was placed in a mental institution, where he shared a crowded ward with patients who had histories of criminal violence.

“It was terrible, and it made him much worse,” said Catherine, who added that the family brought him home and tried to look after him, but he spiraled downward and attempted suicide once before he actually took his own life. The image of him jumping into the river was captured on CCTV, and his body was found the following day at the base of the Victorian-era stone arches of the Queen’s Bridge.

Group photograph of the McCartney sisters gathered in south Belfast in the home of Catherine McCartney, on April 3, 2023. The sisters campaigned for justice after the alleged murder of their brother Robert McCartney by an IRA crew.
The McCartney sisters gathered in south Belfast in the home of Catherine McCartney on April 3, 2023. The sisters have campaigned for justice since their brother Robert McCartney was killed in a bar fight in 2005 (Seamus Murphy / VII / Redux).

When the McCartneys left the Short Strand, they left behind a climate of despair that lingered there and in other so-called interface areas between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. These were the flash points of the conflict, places where there is still unrest in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, and where few residents seem to feel that they have benefited from a peace dividend. Instead, many survivors of the Troubles were left without jobs, economic opportunity, or hope.

After Gerard’s death, the youngest sister, Claire McCartney, 47, enrolled in a nursing program. Now she works in a mental-health facility and is committed to serving those who, like her brother, struggle with serious mental illness. “There is just so much need,” she told me. “It can feel overwhelming.”

In the first 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland saw more deaths from suicide than it had from sectarian violence during the roughly three decades of conflict. And the number of suicides continues to climb. One of Northern Ireland’s most promising young journalists, Lyra McKee, published an article in The Atlantic in 2016 on the increase in suicides after the Good Friday Agreement. “Peace seems to have claimed more lives than war ever did,” she wrote. Three years later, in 2019, McKee was killed covering a riot in Derry. She was shot by members of the “New IRA,” a fringe paramilitary organization still operating in the area, who were aiming at a row of armored police vehicles near where McKee was standing.

“The cohesion of a collective struggle gives people meaning and purpose,” Siobhan O’Neill, a professor of mental-health sciences at Ulster University who has researched suicide rates in Northern Ireland, told me. During the Troubles, O’Neill said, Northern Ireland’s suicide rates were relatively low, at about 8 deaths per 100,000 people. But 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement effectively ended the fighting, the rate had doubled, climbing to 16 deaths per 100,000. Data released that same year revealed that 4,500 lives had been lost to suicide from 1998 to 2018, compared with some 3,600 lost to violence from 1969 to 1998.

O’Neill says her data trace the spike in suicides most strongly in the neighborhoods where the violence had been most intense. In these neighborhoods, she said, “there have not been investments, and the young people there do not have the hope that we see in other corners of Northern Ireland.”

Since the Good Friday Agreement came into effect, paramilitary groups have largely decommissioned their weapons, and British military posts have vanished. The old Royal Ulster Constabulary, once feared by most Catholics as an arm of British military authority, has been disbanded and reconstituted as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, about one-third of which is now Catholic. A new power-sharing government ensures the representation of all of the country’s constituencies—though at the moment, that government has been temporarily dissolved because of complications stemming from Brexit.

The agreement was a crucial step in the process of leaving Northern Ireland’s painful past behind. But the McCartneys are not the only family whose need for resolution remains unmet. Sandra Peake, the CEO of the Belfast-based WAVE Trauma Center, one of Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community support group for victims and survivors, told me she was distressed by legislation before the British Parliament that would offer amnesty to those who cooperate with investigations and prevent future inquests and civil actions regarding murders connected to the Troubles. The nearly 100-page Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is currently in the House of Lords and seems to be opposed by all sides in Northern Ireland.

“This bill fails to recognize how important it is for these families to hold on to the idea that killers will be held accountable,” Peake said. “There is a terrible intimacy to the violence that people often don’t realize. It surrounds these communities. Imagine going into a shop and seeing someone who you know killed your brother wishing you a good day by name. That is what happens for the McCartney sisters and for so many.”

Indeed, the McCartney sisters say they have heard numerous accounts suggesting that Gerard Davison called for the murder of their brother. Davison was considered an “OC,” or “officer commanding” of the Provisional IRA in South Belfast. According to the McCartney sisters, witnesses that night in the bar saw him put a finger across his throat and gesture to Robert. Davison was never charged in the McCartney murder. He was shot dead in the Markets in 2015 for reasons that remain unknown.

For the McCartney sisters, the closest thing to closure would be a verdict in a court of law—one that not only names their brother’s killer but also reveals who in the bar knew what happened but never spoke out, even if they are members of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA and now Northern Ireland’s leading party.

Gerry Adams, who served for 34 years as the president of Sinn Féin and remains a spokesman as one of the signatories of the Good Friday Agreement, attended the ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary. I asked him about the McCartneys and Robert’s unsolved murder on the sidelines of the events. “We’ve done all we can do to help,” he said.

Catherine was incensed by his answer: “If Gerry is at a loss with what to do, I can tell him what to do. He can order members of his party, including a minister who was in the bar that night and never met with police, to tell them what she saw or didn’t see. But he hasn’t done that, and that’s why it feels like they are just going through the motions.”

On that afternoon in April, at Catherine’s suburban home, the sisters yet again reconstructed the night of Robert’s death from the witness accounts they’d heard privately over the years. One in particular has come to haunt them.

After the fight, a patron from the bar found Robert bleeding out on a side street along the River Lagan. This witness never testified to the police, although he was the one to call the ambulance that night. He told the sisters that when he arrived, Robert was barely conscious and mumbled one word several times: “Gerard.”

The sisters are divided on what Robert meant. Was he referencing their brother Gerard, with whom he was very close? Or was he fingering his alleged murderer, the late IRA leader, Gerard “Jock” Davison?

Catherine has her own answer to that question: “I believe Robert was naming our brother Gerard, and knew he’d be seeing him soon.”