McCartneys: how the personal became political

From the Short Strand to the White House - the internationalisation of a local campaign for justice.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

As they arrive in Washington for a special audience with the most powerful man on Earth, receiving what one commentator called a ‘heroines’ welcome’, the McCartney sisters have been hailed as a paragon of people power. Six weeks ago, their brother Robert was murdered outside a bar in the republican Short Strand in east Belfast, allegedly by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Since then the five McCartney sisters and Robert’s partner Bridgeen Hagans have kicked up a stink, calling on Sinn Fein and the IRA to help bring to justice those involved in the attack.

The women have appeared on the front pages of the papers in Britain and Ireland, described as leading a ‘people’s revolt against the IRA’. They are said to have made an ‘historic impact’ on Irish politics (1). Now, as if to confirm their historic role, President George W Bush has invited them to the White House for St Patrick’s Day, while Sinn Fein and the other parties from Northern Ireland have been told to stay away.

The McCartneys have certainly shown grit and determination in trying to get to the truth of who killed Robert. But the transformation of their campaign, from local protests to an international media and political story, is less the result of their own people power, than of politicians and commentators cynically latching on to the campaign for their own ends. The elevation of the McCartneys shows that what is seen to matter most in politics today is not politics, but personal emotion; not having a mandate, but having strong feelings.

Clearly the McCartney campaign has its origins in the Short Strand, and in an increasing sense of frustration in republican communities with the IRA and Sinn Fein. Catherine McCartney made a strong point when she said she would tell Americans to ‘dispel’ any romantic notions of what the IRA is today. ‘The struggle in terms of what it was 10 years ago is now over and we are dealing with criminal gangs that are still using the cloak of romanticism around the IRA to murder people on the streets and walk away from it’, she said (2).

This suggests that the McCartneys are not ‘anti-IRA’ in the way that some commentators have claimed, but rather express a concern with what the IRA has become. Where in the past the IRA was involved in a struggle against British rule in Ireland – a struggle widely supported by residents of the Short Strand – today it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Without the wider sense of purpose or legitimacy that went with fighting a war, the IRA’s actions appear increasingly arbitrary, even criminal. And there is little to prevent its former supporters from asking awkward questions about what the organisation is up to.

Yet the angry reaction to the violent behaviour of alleged IRA members has been transformed into something else by media and political interest. A spontaneous response to a horrible attack has been made into a morality tale about ‘ordinary people’ standing up to ‘gangsters’; it has been used by some to put pressure on Sinn Fein to ‘change its ways’, and on the IRA to disband (something that the McCartneys have not called for) (3). US officials, meanwhile, are queuing up to be photographed with the McCartneys in Washington, in a desperate bid to demonstrate their own caring and sharing credentials (4). What was talked up as the power of ‘ordinary people’ to set the agenda in fact highlights the power of the media and politicians (especially American ones) to manipulate such events to say what they want them to say.

It is not difficult to see the attraction of the McCartneys to the media. At a time when expressions of emotion, anger and outrage trump political debate – when a mother or wife shouting at Tony Blair for failing her son/husband with his rubbish NHS is celebrated for spicing up Britain’s bland political landscape – the McCartneys look like a godsend. Photos of these five strong-willed, working-class women have appeared everywhere. As Kevin Toolis, a commentator on Irish affairs, says: ‘They’re very photogenic, very media-friendly, and they clearly have been wronged.’ (5) The media have turned the McCartneys into symbols of emotional defiance, into their favourite victims of the moment, and transformed a largely local spat into a ‘revolt’ of historic proportions (6).

Political leaders, meanwhile, have attached themselves to the McCartneys’ campaign for the benefit of making their own demands. A spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist Party said the McCartneys’ grief showed that there is no place for the IRA. British and Irish ministers have discussed punishing Sinn Fein, and used the McCartney murder to demand further IRA decommissioning (7).

A report in the Guardian describes how US officials are falling over themselves to meet and greet the McCartneys in Washington: ‘The Senate’s biggest celebrities, including Hillary Clinton and Edward Kennedy, will take turns to be seen with them, while other members of Congress are scrambling to set up a meeting.’ (8). The McCartneys’ starring role at the St Patrick’s proceedings in Washington does not demonstrate people power, so much as American power to dictate the terms of the peace process in Ireland. The McCartneys will be granted an audience with Bush and Sinn Fein will not, because, according to one White House aide, ‘the president wants to register his displeasure [with republican leaders]’ (9). Behind the warm welcome for the McCartneys there lurks power politics, with Bush chastising the political parties of Northern Ireland as if they were naughty schoolkids who must buck up their ideas.

All of this takes place at the expense of democracy. So when Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said that the allegations against the IRA would unlikely impact on Sinn Fein’s standing, because thousands would still vote for Sinn Fein on the strength of ‘our policies’, he was roundly denounced for being insensitive and for playing politics (10). (And when, on 13 March, Sinn Fein’s vote increased by three per cent in a by-election in County Meath in the Irish Republic, it was simply ignored by those who predicted that, post-McCartney, their support in the Republic would decline.)

Having an elected mandate, it seems, counts for little in the face of five grieving women and their supporters in the media and the White House. The McCartney campaign has become a way of bashing elected officials in Northern Ireland, especially republicans, and calling for them to correct the error of their ways if they want to remain part of the peace process. This is the politics of emotion turned into the politics of emotional blackmail. And it shows that it is not Short Strand republicans who are influencing events in Northern Ireland, but political fixers and chancers in London, Dublin and Washington. It is a strange ‘people power’ campaign that further removes power from the people.

The irony of the McCartneys’ campaign for local justice is that they are now removed from their local community, and their campaign transformed from holding individuals to account to something beyond their control. There are reports that some residents in the Short Strand are becoming disgruntled by the changing nature of the campaign. Might the politicisation of the McCartneys’ grievance end up exacerbating the unravelling of old bonds in east Belfast?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) See Sold short in the Short Strand, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Forget ‘romance’ of IRA, Guardian, 16 March 2005

(3) McCartney family to meet Senators in the US, Belfast Telegraph, 16 March 2005

(4) Adams isolated as Washington elite lines up to meet McCartneys, Guardian, 16 March 2005

(5) From terrorism to politics, violence continues in the IRA, ABC, 13 March 2005

(6) See Sold short in the Short Strand, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) The IRA’s day has passed in new Northern Ireland, Houston Chronicle, 14 March 2005

(8) Adams isolated as Washington elite lines up to meet McCartneys, Guardian, 16 March 2005

(9) dams isolated as Washington elite lines up to meet McCartneys, Guardian, 16 March 2005

(10) IRA claims ‘will not hit Sinn Fein vote’, BBC News, 6 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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