DUBLIN – An official in the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party was arraigned Friday on Irish Republican Army charges in a case that highlights a murder pivotal to Northern Ireland's peace process: the 2005 stabbing of a Catholic man outside a crowded pub.
The victim's sisters, from a hardline Irish nationalist part of Belfast, complained the IRA orchestrated a cover-up that made convicting his killers impossible. They defied death threats to take their campaign for justice all the way to the White House, receiving top-level U.S. backing and embarrassing Sinn Fein. Analysts say the political furor speeded the IRA's September 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm.
But nobody was ever convicted of killing 33-year-old Robert McCartney, who was targeted after arguing with IRA members in the pub. The case underscored how the IRA long protected its own from prosecution.
McCartney's sisters accused the IRA of forensically cleaning the murder scene, confiscating surveillance tapes and ordering witnesses to stay silent under penalty of death. The sisters ended up having to abandon the family home because of intimidation.
Now, seven years later, his sisters have decided to testify against Padraic Wilson, the IRA veteran and Sinn Fein activist whom they say was one of two IRA figures who met them face to face in their home in a bid to persuade them to drop their campaign.
Initially, the McCartney sisters said, the IRA men offered to have the members responsible for McCartney's killing executed, an offer they rejected.
Wilson, a longtime confidante to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and most recently Sinn Fein's director of international affairs, was charged with IRA membership and organizing meetings of the outlawed group. Police say the sisters' account is key evidence for the membership charge.
A detective told the Belfast court the sisters hadn't known Wilson's identity when he met them in their family home following their brother's murder, but was identified as a representative of the seven-man Army Council that ran the IRA. The detective, who wasn't identified by name for security purposes, said the sisters later recognized Wilson from photos following his later public appearances for Sinn Fein.
Wilson, 53, spoke only to confirm he understood the charges against him. He was refused bail after police said he posed a risk of intimidating the McCartneys or other potential witnesses.
Sinn Fein reacted furiously to the charges, which they say fly in the face of the spirit of the Good Friday peace accord. That U.S.-brokered 1998 deal offered early paroles to IRA and other paramilitary members convicted of pre-1998 crimes, but offered no such break to those convicted of crimes committed after the peace deal.
"This is a very serious situation and these charges need to be dropped and Padraic Wilson needs to be released immediately," said Gerry Kelly, a member of Sinn Fein's executive board and a convicted IRA car-bomber, who described the police targeting of Wilson as a "political charade."
Kelly, whose party today officially supports the police, said any detectives involved in building a case against Wilson "need to be removed from policing before they inflict further damage on the peace process."
Wilson was twice convicted of IRA offenses: a six-year term for possessing explosives in 1976 and a 24-year term for possessing a car bomb in 1991. He was the IRA commander inside the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland from 1995 to 1999, when he was paroled early under terms of the Good Friday deal.