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Northern Ireland: Six Women and the IRA

Last year the Irish Republican Army announced an end to its armed campaign and promised to pursue its goal through peaceful political means. It was the sustained campaign waged by six Irish women that compelled the IRA to disarm itself and swap violence for political negotiations as a means to achieve its goal.


Six Women and the IRA

Last year the Irish Republican Army announced an end to its armed campaign and promised to pursue its goal through peaceful political means. It was the sustained campaign waged by six Irish women that compelled the IRA to disarm itself and swap violence for political negotiations

as a means to achieve its goal.


n July 28, 2005, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), that had waged a violent struggle with the British government over the question of liberation of Northern Ireland announced an end to its armed campaign and to pursue its goal through peaceful political means. It was big news which had huge ramifications all over the world especially in those parts plagued by secessionist threats. The IRA in its official statement declared that henceforth it would cease all armed activity. Accordingly it ordered its units to “dump arms”. It was a crucial move to kick-start talks on a lasting political settlement in the violence torn province of Northern Ireland. The UK minister for Northern Ireland Peter Hain added that the government of UK and the Republic of Ireland had asked the province’s ceasefire watchdogs to produce a report in January 2006 so that progress on the disarming could be assessed. Enthused by the development the beleaguered prime minister of Britain Tony Blair was pleased that eventually “politics replaced terror”. Mitchell Reiss. George W Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland found the development “very encouraging”. He continued, “It is potentially historic and we need to wait and see over the next weeks and months if these words can be translated into deeds to determine if it is truly historic”.1

On September 26, 2005, the verification committee confirmed that the IRA had indeed been completely disarmed. The International Commission on Decommission stated, “We have reported to the British and Irish governments that we have observed and verified events to put beyond use very quantity of arms (sic) which we believe are all the arms in the possession of the IRA”. It added, “We are satisfied that the arms decommissioned represented the totality of IRA arsenal”. The Protestant and Roman Catholic churches also acknowledged the disarmament.

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

That IRA had actually “dumped” what was believed to be one of Europe’s largest illegal arsenals two months after it had pledged to end its campaign was still, however, a matter of disbelief for many. The disarming of IRA and its metamorphosis from an underground paramilitary outfit to a political organisation has not been an easy or smooth process. Fed up with the violent tantrums of the IRA, which had over time degenerated into a criminal organisation, the common people had been struggling for quite a long time to rein its activities. The civil society movement in Ireland that grew in strength over the years had pressurised the IRA to mend its disruptive ways and eventually to give up violence in favour of political means to achieve its objectives. But it was the lastditch effort of six Irish women that had completely alienated the IRA from the people and created the necessary conditions in which the IRA had no alternative but to mend its ways. These six women did not represent any political pressure group but were simply members of a bereaved family. Yet their efforts had the mandate of the people. They were representatives of the civil society, albeit unorganised, of Northern Ireland. This essay hopes to record and narrate the endeavours of these six extraordinarily courageous Irish women and their long, lonely struggle against the world’s most powerful underground outfit culminating in arguably, a significant victory in contemporary world history.

Irish Republican Army2

Ireland was England’s first colony. By the time the Irish people woke up to the fact of colonial rule in their land, drainage of resources and colonial exploitation of the Irish economy had led the country into a slow death. The ceaseless struggle of the Irish people to get rid of English colonial rule eventually led to the independence of Ireland albeit with a partition. With the partition, England retained Northern Ireland as a province within England while the rest of Ireland was constituted into the sovereign state of the republic of Ireland. Since then, the Irish people have been struggling to throw off the colonial rule of the English from Northern Ireland and unify it with the Republic. The matter was complicated by the violent communal conflict between Protestants and Catholics in which the former preferred their union with England while the latter wanted separation. The liberation and reunification of Northern Ireland movement was led by the political party of the Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) whereas the underground insurgency was largely the work of the IRA formed in 1920. Since then the IRA has been ceaselessly fighting a violent insurgency against the British state for the liberation and re-unification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.

During this violent history a number of negotiation and agreements were signed between the British government and representatives of Northern Ireland to reach some sort of settlement, almost all of which failed to usher in peace. The last agreement was signed in 1997 which brought a semblance of success. According to this agreement, the ceasefire, called off earlier in February 1996 unilaterally by IRA, was renewed from July 20, 1997. Mitchell Reiss, supervised this historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. After the 1998 Accord, the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act was enacted for elections to the Northern Ireland assembly. Elections were held in June 1998. The only hitch remained the question of retention of arms by the IRA cadre which they were reluctant to “decommission”. The eventual disarmament of IRA, as mentioned earlier, was completed in 2005 paving the way for a lasting resolution to the Northern Ireland imbroglio.


Post-ceasefire, the IRA experienced a slow degeneration of its lofty ideological moorings and gross indiscipline in its cadre. With guns in hand they ruled the roost in Northern Ireland indulging in large-scale criminal activities. The IRA had one of the strongest support networks amongst all similar revolutionary nationalist outfits.3 In the early days of militancy, the Dublin government in Ireland even assisted them in procuring arms with government funds. Libya supplied the IRA with formidable weapons such as Semtex, plastic explosives, heavy machine guns, firing armour piercing rounds which could pierce protected police vehicles, Sam-7 missiles and anti-aircraft guns capable of downing helicopters and plane and flame throwers. The IRA sympathisers in the US has generated about $ 2.5 million every year up to mid-1990s and $ 3.5 million since then. In fact, it is well known that IRA has been one of the world’s richest underground insurgent outfits.

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

The peace process since July 1997 further transformed Sinn Fein (IRA’s political wing) into Ireland’s wealthiest party. As an all-Ireland party it received one million euro a year from the British and Irish governments according to the Party’s own published accounts.4 This money is raised and spent by the party’s central office. The local party units are allowed to raise funds and spend as they thought fit.5 Herein lay the seed of criminalisation of this nationalist outfit. The cadres thrived in cross-border smuggling which cost the British treasury £ 20 million annually. One in every three cigarettes in Northern Ireland is smuggled by IRA depriving the state of its legitimate tax revenues. Illegal import of drug and contraband goods are one of their most lucrative trade ventures. One very important source of their earning is fuel smuggling. The international rise in crude oil prices had made the trade a lucrative, though illegal, business. They also controlled the trade of upgraded petrol and diesel products in the province. It was also involved in counterfeiting fuel, piracy of video and CD/DVDs as well as money laundering. They regularly extorted loyalist Protestants in the name of “protection money” promising not to harm or target. The IRA also had stakes in real estate. The IRA cadres controlled the real estate market causing a boom in the housing sector in Belfast by artificially forcing prices to rise. Its cadres ran flourishing pubs, night clubs and beer bars in Belfast and extorted owners and businessmen,6 and were involved in armed robberies and murders. All such acts made the M-15, the British intelligence agency regard the IRA as one of the “largest and richest organised gangs” in Europe.7 The leading US Congressman Jim Walsh expressed fears that IRA had lost its “sense of discipline”.8

Finally, in December 2004, the IRA launched a daring robbery bid in Belfast and successfully decamped with a sum of £ 26.5 million from the Northern Bank treasury. Despite denials by the Sinn Fein, the British police after investigation confirmed that the robbery was by none other than the IRA. It was immediately followed by another tragic event. A 32-year old ex-member of the IRA, and father of two, Robert McCartney was stabbed to death in Magenni’s Bar in Belfast City Centre on March 2005. Police investigations again confirmed that both the crimes were committed by IRA men but no case could be registered despite a wellpublicised newspaper outcry.9

Saga of Six Women

Drunken brawls in pubs and subsequent assaults, even murder had been regular and routine in Belfast’s evening life until the death of Robert McCartney. Robert McCartney’s murder too would have been another such incident had not his five sisters and fiancé decided otherwise. The five sisters were Paula, Catherine, Gemma, Claire and Dorina McCartney while his fiancé was Bridgeen Hagan. Together, they started a campaign for justice and demanded that the IRA hand over the guilty to the police so that prosecution could begin. The sisters tried to raise a sum of £ 2,50,000 so that a civil case could be registered against the IRA men who killed their brother. But they soon realised IRA could not be fought in its home turf where it had political patronage. Therefore they first moved the European parliament and addressed its members in Brussels. They were given a huge welcome and patient hearing. The European parliament representative Joseph Borrell said that he was “honoured” to meet the sisters and assured full European support to their cause. Alienated from the European community, IRA initially denied that the McCartney murderers were its men but later offered to capture and execute them to meet the demand for justice made by the slain man’s relatives. The sisters rejected the offer stating that they did not believe in “jungle laws”. The six women then decided to travel to the US as it has been a traditional sympathiser of the IRA cause. US has at least 38 million Americans of Irish descent who contributed the largest share of IRA’s financial fortune.10 The Irish-Americans had formed the International Fund for Ireland to which the US had itself contributed $ 20 million annually since the last 20 years.

Realising that US support formed the lifeline of the IRA, the sisters decided to apprise the IRA supporters in US of the degeneration and criminalisation of the outfit so as to cut off its political and economic supply line. The IRA threatened them with “dire consequences” but the ladies were undaunted. They reached US on St Patrick’s Day in February and briefed the American audiences to dispel the “republican romanticism” associated with the IRA. They emphasised the outfit was no more a revolutionary organisation but had degenerated into a “criminal gang”.11 At a meeting with 30 journalists and cameramen at Washington’s Baltimore Airport on March 15, 2005, the leader of the group, Catherine McCartney said, “What we want people in America to know is that any romantic vision they had of the struggle should now be dispelled. The struggle in terms of what it was 10 years ago is over and we are now dealing with criminal gangs who are still using the cloak of romanticism around the IRA to murder people on the street and walk away from it.”12 Next day the group met Democratic Party senators including Ted Kennedy, the single most influential individual supporter of the IRA in US, as well as Hillary Clinton, a very influential current senator from New York, to brief them about their objective. Senator Chris Dodd and Pat Leahy also attended the meeting. The ladies also met Mitchell Reiss, US envoy to Ireland. They were given a high profile reception at the Ireland Fund Dinner, one of the leading social gatherings of the Irish-American community.13 The dinner was also attended by another widow, Geraldine Finucane whose husband Pat Finucane had been murdered by the Ulster Defence Association in Belfast in 1989 for which the British government had refused to hold a public enquiry. Her attendance added a new dimension to the campaign waged by the sisters. The American newspapers commented on the visit of the McCartney sisters as, “The McCartney family group has become a powerful representative in the US of the victims of lawlessness in Northern Ireland and their presence reinforces the unprecedented demand for the end of IRA from friends and foes of the Sinn Fein alike”.14

Ironically, the McCartney women’s visit coincided with the annual fund raising visit to US by the Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams. But the impact of McCartney sisters’ campaign was such that for the first time in the history of IRA, the US bigwigs actually snubbed the Sinn Fein leader. Ted Kennedy cancelled his meeting with Gerry Adams citing “IRA’s ongoing criminal activity and contempt for law” as the reason. For the first time since 1995 neither Gerry Adams nor any other Irish political parties were invited for the St Patrick Day celebrations in the White House. Their names were also excluded from the Speaker’s Lunch at Capitol Hill which was attended by the McCartney sisters. The snub was not only unpalatable, it was loaded with implications. It demonstrated that the impact of the campaign waged by the McCartney women had

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006 been profound and had been able to mould the public opinion in the US.15 Like previous years, Gerry Adams was to hold a meeting with the Transport Workers Union and Sinn Fein’s New York Union. But this time it turned out to be different. Every year Sinn Fein collected tens of thousand of dollars from the American Unions but this time the meeting did not generate much funds.16

The Sinn Fein’s biggest rejection however came from the US president George W Bush himself who refused to meet Gerry Adams. To add insult to injury, the White House provided a redcarpet welcome to the McCartney women. This was unprecedented as they neither represented any state, traditional ally, diplomatic compulsion or any organised civil society group but were only six bereaved women moving from door to door to seek justice for their murdered brother. As American newspapers reported, “As McCartney’s five sisters were feted in Washington, (Mr) Adams repeatedly is called on to defend Sinn Fein’s record and repudiate (Mr) McCartney’s murder”.17 The American local newspaper Newark Star-Ledger stated, “The IRA’s standing… in this country has plummeted to its lowest point in 35 years. The reason is simple – the descent of elements in the IRA to gangsterism and murder.”18

The message was clear. The US, the foremost and traditional supporter of the IRA would no more ally itself with an organisation that had metamorphosed into a gun-totting criminal gang. Post-September 11, 2001, they could not support anything even remotely “terrorist”.


Gerry Adams returned from US emptyhanded but he had come around to accepting the responsibility he had of convincing his own comrades about facing up to the demands of the hour, essential for the political survival of IRA. He realised “people want to see the IRA leave the stage in a dignified way” as “no one wished to go back to violence”.19 In fact, he had to assure Mitchell Reiss about his “willingness and ability to bring about an end to the illegal activities”20 of IRA and pursuit of political objectives through exclusively peaceful and democratic means.21 Gerry Adams was successful in his persuasion. In a dramatic speech, he challenged the IRA saying, “Our struggle has reached a defining moment. I am asking you to join me (in) seizing this moment to intensify our effort, to rebuild the peace process.”22 Within a month of Adams’ return from the US, the IRA declared that it had decided to give up arms and adopt a dialogic method and ballot box to amicably settle the imbroglio. Its declaration stated unequivocally that it would “achieve (its) aims by purely political means and activity”.23 Adams in his speech added, “In the past I have defended the rights of IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee or turn a blind eye to oppression or for those who wanted a national republic. Now there is an alternative. The way forward is by building political support for republication and democratic objectives across Ireland and winning support for these goals internationally.”24

Despite the scepticism and cynicism about Adams’ statement, the IRA eventually declared its surrender of arms in July 2005. By September 2005, to the disbelief of many, the disarmament of the IRA was completed to bring an end to a 30-year violent campaign waged against British rule and for reunification of Northern Ireland. The goals still remained the same but politics had replaced that of insurgency for the achievement of that cherished goal. It was a significant metamorphosis for the world’s earliest and most powerful insurgent organisation. The six McCartney women had a substantial role in this historic metamorphosis.




[This is a report on recent developments based on the author’s research conducted as part of the Commonwealth Fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. The author is grateful to Jennifer Reagan and M Satish Kumar of Queen’s University Belfast for the intellectual inputs provided for this article.]

1 Mitchell Ross in an interview with CNN

cited in The Telegraph, Calcutta, July 29,

2005, p 2.

2 For a detailed account of its history and

politics see Don Mansfield, ‘The Irish

Republican Army and Northern Ireland’ in

Bard O’Neil, R Heaten and Donald J Albert

(eds), Insurgency in Modern World, Colarado,


3 Rohan Gunaratna, ‘Transnational Terrorism:

Support Network and Trends’ in Faultlines,

Vol 7, November 2000, pp 1-27 4 The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

5 ‘How Murky Finances Keep Sinn Fein Afloat’, news analysis inThe Times, London, March 16, 2005

6 ‘The IRA Is Just a Criminal Gang Now’, The Times, London, March 16, 2005. Also News Analysis in ITV Channel, United Kingdom, on March 9, 2005, 10 pm News; Simon Jenkins, ‘Comments’ in The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

7 Ibid. 8 ‘Congressman Fears IRA Has Lost Discipline’ The Irish Times, March 16, 2005. 9 Simon Jenkins in his editorial in The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

10 For details see James Adams, The Financing of Terror, New English Library, London, 1986.

11 ‘McCartney Women Tell America’, news item in The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

12 Ibid.

13 ‘McCartney Death to Dominate Irish Meetings in the US’, news item in Irish Times, March 16, 2005.

14 Ibid.

15 ‘Sinn Fein’s Challenge’, editorial in The Times, London, March 16, 2005; Also Simon Jenkins, ‘Poor Gerry Adams, All that Work for Peace and Now Snubbed by America’ in The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

16 ‘No Fund Raising as Adams Meets US Supporters,’ Irish Times, Belfast, March 16, 2005.

17 ‘US Turns Cool on Adams’ Lobbying’, news report in The Times, London, March 16, 2005.

18 Quoted in ibid.

19 ‘McCartney Death to Dominate Irish Meetings in the US’, news item in Irish Times, March 16, 2005.

20 Ibid.

21 ‘Taoiseach’s Work for Peace in Northern Ireland Recognised’ news item in Irish Times, Belfast, March 16, 2005.

22 ‘Your War is Over, Adams Tells IRA to Give up Violence’, news report in Daily Mirror, Belfast, April 7, 2005.

23 Gerry Adams quoted in Daily Mirror, Belfast, April 7, 2005.

24 Gerry Adams quoted in Daily Mirror, Belfast, April 7, 2005.

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Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

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