NS interview - Catherine McCartney

"We're not the bravest women in Ireland. That's just media stuff. The only way to restore the value

The Irish way of death is normally short and intense. Waking the dead lasts three days and nights, closed by the funeral, a meal and an embrace. Then the family is left with its private grief. Yet, eight weeks after Robert McCartney was murdered by members of the IRA, long after he was buried, his sister Paula's home in Belfast still feels like a wake house. Visitors speak in low tones; the kitchen has been turned into a production line for tea. Paula's two-year-old son is constantly hushed and moved out from under adult feet.

A longer look shows differences between this wake house and other billets of grief. Stacked inside the cramped glass porch are wooden placards reading "Murdered - who's next?". Many of the visitors are not friends, but members of the media. And there is no weeping, only anger at a death that brings no finality.

Catherine McCartney comes here every day from her home in Castlewellan, a mountainside village 30 miles south of the city, that looks out towards the Irish Sea.

At 36, she is the sister who was just above Robert in the family of seven. She says she has hardly seen her own four children in the past few weeks. She says she's become sick of hearing her own name on television.

"The most difficult thing is losing Robert: we haven't even started to deal with it yet. But the fact of having to do this" - she waves her hand at a tape recorder, a waiting photographer, the room where Paula is speaking to a French reporter - "I find absolutely a disgrace, a disgrace to republicanism.

"If they had been ordinary members of the public who'd murdered Robert that night, the police would have had them all. They would have been up in court. The witnesses would have talked and we wouldn't have had to go through this."

By now, Robert McCartney's death has reverberated across much of the world. On 30 January, the 33-year-old father of two wound up on the wrong end of a bar fight and was stabbed to death. Because his killers were members of the IRA, they were able to orchestrate an effective cover-up.

They did not count on McCartney's sisters. Since burying their brother, the five - a nurse, a student, a lecturer, a caterer and a teacher's aide - have thwarted every republican attempt to make the murder go away. Catherine knows, however, that they have thus far failed in their primary objective: seeing Robert's killers in a court of law.

So, the sisters continue to eschew attention directed at them, the stories that have dubbed them "the bravest women in Ireland". Concerned about distractions, they talk sparingly about their own lives, but ceaselessly about Robert's death.

"We've had some media pundits who have tried to focus on us as women, which should be dispelled," says Catherine, who is a politics and history lecturer.

"I mean, sometimes I feel that talks down to men. Is it saying that men wouldn't have been able to do this or men wouldn't have done this, wouldn't have had the capability to do this?

"This idea of being women, and being brave women - it's nothing to do with anything like that. Women helped clean the bar that night. So you can have women who believe very much in human rights and others who can very callously clean up the scene of a crime and not come forward to help a family get justice.

"They were women also, so gender is irrelevant in it. It's just people's human morals and integrity. We're not the bravest women in Ireland. That's the media, a lot of old tabloid stuff. Anybody who's lost somebody in these circumstances will tell you that the only thing that you have left, the only way that you can restore the value of their life, is through justice. I mean, they take the person away from you as if he meant nothing and the only way you can restore the value of that human life to yourself and to your community is by getting justice. Because human life and society become irrelevant if you can [commit] murder and walk away."

That conviction has turned Paula McCartney's home into the unlikely headquarters of a campaign that has gone international. The modern brick terrace is passed without notice by thousands of Belfast commuters on one of the city's main east-west thoroughfares, while in the two rooms downstairs, the sisters field phone calls and organise interviews. A male relative makes the tea.

Here, Catherine and her sisters are challenging the IRA in its own back yard. Short Strand, the small Catholic district where the McCartneys were raised and most of them still live, is where the Provisional IRA first established its reputation as the defender of Northern Ireland's nationalists.

This is not without risk ("They have murdered women in the past. Are people forgetting that?" asks Catherine), but it is also a strength. Their criticism of the IRA's handling of the murder carries additional weight because it is spoken in the IRA's own accents.

"I am a republican. I have supported Sinn Fein most of my adult life and I have supported the IRA," she says.

"There's a load of things they've done that I've criticised and challenged, but I'm no peace-loving pacifist and no way could I be described as one.

"They've betrayed my republicanism and republicanism as a whole. That's my conviction.

"And republicans who have the power to do something about this and allowed them to get away with it, they have betrayed republicanism too. That's where I'm coming from."

She dismisses the notion that the republican taboo against co- operating with police is what has prevented witnesses from com- ing forward.

"Why are people not talking?" she says. "The police thing is a smokescreen. If the police thing is for real, what I would like to know is: can every Sinn Fein party member say that they have never ever used the police for anything - have never co-operated with the police, have never spoke to the police, never went to the police in any avenue. Have they never called the police to their homes?

"If they can say not one of our party mem-bers has done that, then maybe their argument holds up. It just basically boils down to the fact that their members were involved. That's all this is about."

She acknowledges that the family has received attention "partly because the political climate has changed". There is a sense of the moment about their campaign.

In the wake of December's £26m bank robbery, blamed on the IRA, and the collapse of yet another deal to revive devolution, the McCartney murder has posed to Irish nationalists the question that begins to domi- nate the peace process: ten years after they first declared a ceasefire and embarked on a political path, what is the point of the IRA?

"You're not talking about being in a full-frontal conflict with the British establishment. We've had a peace process for ten years. We have a democracy in some form, not a perfect one, but who does have a perfect democracy?

"You have institutions that republicans have signed up to but are not implemented yet. There is a vacuum here of justice. Every republican will have to take a look at their son and ask themselves: 'If this IRA man murdered him in a bar one night for no reason, would I have to accept it because of what he did for the cause?'

"I'm certainly not going to accept that the murder of my brother by IRA volunteers is part of any bigger picture or part of any peace deal."

At a stage when other bereaved families might be thinking about moving on with their lives, the McCartneys may now be moving into some of their toughest days. Some of the sympathy for them is evaporating. Republicans mutter that they are being used as political fodder for the general election.

But they intend to keep going, even if that means mounting a private prosecution against the men believed to be the killers.

The sisters note with irony that republicans campaigned for almost 30 years for answers about the Bloody Sunday killings.

"There's no grand plan or 'how's this going to look from this point of view or that point of view'. We're not interested in anybody else's point of view," Catherine says.

"Maybe it is the right time or political situation. If things were different it wouldn't have stopped us saying what we're saying. But again, Northern Ireland is a very politicised place. It's one of the most politicised places in Europe.

"So, children here are brought up with a sense of what democracy means, and what we have and what we don't have.

"By the time they're teenagers, especially my generation, being brought up in the Troubles, they understand what the issues are, because they witnessed it.

"And it certainly wasn't about what happened to Robert on that Sunday night. The people who murdered Robert and covered it up have to be in court.

"That's the end of the story for us. That's where it starts and finishes."