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Robert McCartney's sisters reveal reasons for withdrawing from IRA trial

Exclusive: Women tell of lost faith in justice system

By Suzanne Breen

Published 13/06/2015

Paula McCartney and sister Catherine in front of a wall of photographs of their brother Robert, who was murdered in 2005
Paula McCartney and sister Catherine in front of a wall of photographs of their brother Robert, who was murdered in 2005
Robert McCartney was murdered in 2005
Gerard 'Jock' Davison
Padraic Wilson
Sean Hughes

The sisters of Robert McCartney have broken their silence to reveal, for the first time, why they withdrew as witnesses from an IRA membership trial after the Belfast Telegraph successfully fought a court gagging order preventing them from talking about the case.

The five women said they had lost all faith in the criminal justice system and they branded the Public Prosecution Service's decision-making as "fundamentally flawed".

They also denounced comments made by the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory, when defending the handling of the case to a Stormont committee, as "disgraceful and dangerous".

Leading republicans Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes were due to go on trial at Belfast Crown Court last Monday on charges of belonging to a proscribed organisation and addressing a meeting to encourage support for the IRA.

The charges related to alleged meetings with the sisters as part of an IRA internal investigation into Robert's murder in 2005.

But the case collapsed and Wilson and Hughes were acquitted after the women withdrew as the main prosecution witnesses.

Last night, they told the Belfast Telegraph that key decisions by the PPS had totally undermined their confidence in the case.

They strongly disputed remarks by Mr McGrory to Stormont's justice committee on Thursday that there was nothing the PPS "could have done that it didn't do in the prosecution of the case" and that "the appropriate charges" had been brought against Wilson and Hughes.

Catherine McCartney said she "categorically refuted" Mr McGrory's claim.

Her family had wanted the two republicans to face the "far more substantial charges" of perverting the course of justice, but the PPS would agree only to the limited charges of IRA membership, she claimed.

Catherine said: "We approached the PPS in 2012, because the IRA leadership's internal investigation into Robert's murder had contaminated vital evidence.

"During the 2008 trial of three men charged in connection with Robert's murder, it became clear that, by interviewing key witnesses for hours on end - witnesses who were later called to give evidence in the murder trial - the IRA had driven a horse and carriage through the court proceedings. The trial judge said so himself.

"That is why we wanted Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes charged with perverting the course of justice. We felt that the PPS's decision to charge them only with IRA membership made our family look petty and vindictive.

"It was also meaningless, as it was no secret to anybody that Padraic Wilson had been an IRA man.

"He had been the commander of IRA prisoners in the Maze prison. But the PPS declined to bring the more substantial charges.

"We got a stock reply that the 'evidential test hadn't been met', but we weren't told why, or how, that was so. The PPS's failure to offer a detailed explanation was absolutely unacceptable to us."

Paula McCartney said: "I hoped that the PPS would bring the more substantial charges. But as the court date got nearer and nearer and the PPS didn't, my heart left the case. Everybody in our family felt the same.

"This trial was going to be about IRA membership and holding meetings. Where was Robert in it all? Robert was lost. He was once again being denied justice.

"The charges didn't come near what we thought Padraic and Sean should have to answer for in court. Being in the IRA was not what we wanted them held accountable for.

"We believed the PPS had just brought the membership charges because they'd been approached by six witnesses with evidence and they had to be seen to be doing something.

"They were never interested in bringing substantial charges." Wilson and Hughes were the two most senior mainstream republicans to have been prosecuted for paramilitary offences here since the start of the peace process.

The arrest of Wilson, from west Belfast, led to allegations of political policing by Sinn Fein, which staged a protest outside PSNI headquarters at Knock.

Like Wilson, Sean Hughes, from Jonesborough in south Armagh, is another key supporter of the peace process.

The sisters' two alleged meetings with the IRA were held in Clonard Monastery in west Belfast and in Holy Cross Church in north Belfast.

The women asked that a key independent witness to the alleged meetings - who still cannot be named because of a court gagging order - be questioned by police and called to give evidence at the trial of Hughes and Wilson.

Catherine said: "We believed that, if this man didn't agree to be a witness, he should then be charged with withholding information. But the PPS refused to bring charges against him.

"Again, the PPS never gave us an adequate explanation. We felt this man was treated with kid gloves and was protected from prosecution."

Paula said: "The PPS was very vague when we asked questions about anything. They'd just fob us off and respond with meaningless cliches. Issues we raised were constantly put on the back-burner. We just didn't have the trust left in them to continue with the case."

Catherine said that what little faith the family had in the PPS at the start of the case had totally evaporated by last month. "In 2008, the PPS cobbled together a case against three men in connection with Robert's murder and brought it to court. It was so weak, it was destined to fail.

"The three were acquitted, because the evidence wasn't there. Our family had been through the trauma of that trial and we had no desire to repeat the process. The PPS can unfortunately run with weak cases just to appease the public and be seen to be doing something. That does a disservice to both victims and the accused.

"In this membership case, the defendants were found not guilty because we withdrew our evidence. As critical as we are of the system, we believe in the rule of law, so we respect that."

Mr McGrory told the justice committee that the murder of IRA commander Gerard 'Jock' Davison was a factor in one witness's decision to withdraw her evidence. Davison was shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast last month.

The McCartneys have always claimed that he gave the order for Robert to be killed outside Magennis's bar. The Director of Public Prosecutions said that, after Davison's murder, one individual felt, in their point of view, there was no need to go ahead with the case against Wilson and Hughes.

Catherine McCartney said: "Barra McGrory was referring to me and I have contacted my solicitor about his remarks. He disgracefully disclosed details of my witness withdrawal statement without consulting me and he took part of my statement totally out of context.

"I believe he has compromised my security. Very worrying comments have been made on social media by others and I have been contacted by people suggesting that I cut a deal with the IRA to have Jock killed.

"Anyone who knows me and my family know we don't do deals with the IRA. Jock's murder definitely played a part in us withdrawing as witnesses. We questioned the point in continuing with proceedings when the man we held most responsible for Robert's murder was now dead.

"But we had lost confidence in the PPS and talked about withdrawing from the case long before Jock was killed. By suggesting otherwise, we believe Barra McCrory is attempting to shield the PPS from criticism of its own actions."

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