On the ground in Short Strand
The fallout in East Belfast since the murder of Robert McCartney

Short Strand is a community on the ropes. It finds itself at the epicentre of a national tragedy and the focus of unremitting media attention. But the Ballymacarret spirit which has seen the embattled nationalist area emerge unbowed from 30 years on the frontline is serving it well today, say prominent community activists.

On Friday last, the Andersonstown News visited area to allow locals to speak for themselves.

Everyone, without exception, who spoke to us, stressed the sorrow they felt for the McCartney family.

However, there was a fear that the media was using the ordinary people of Short Strand as “A whipping boy”.

“There is not one person from this entire area who doesn’t feel for the family and think that it was disgusting,” said well-known community activist and Aisling Award winner Bernie McConnell. “It was wrong and needs to be dealt with.”

Witness intimidation has featured heavily in the press coverage of the recent events. Bernie said that if this is happening it is unacceptable.

She said that republican famlies are also on the receiving end of hostile media attention. One family named by the media as being involved are, she said, receiving threats through messages on the internet, being spat at on the street and being ignored.

Speaking as a member of the community sector she also called on anyone who is being intimidated to come forward and to let them know.

“I’m calling for all intimidation to stop whether it is intimidation of witnesses or whether it is intimidation against people who were in Magennis’s that night.”

She is worried that the tension in the Short Strand could spill over and result in another tragedy.

“I just fear that because this is such a close-knit area with extended families that there will be another life lost over this whole media frenzy.

“Because of the lies that are being printed in the media, people are getting hyped up within the area. There have already been families fighting with one another over accusations in the media.

“I am also very angry at the likes of the SDLP and the Alliance Party and other unionist parties jumping on the bandwagon here. They are politicising it. They have never done anything for anybody in the Short Strand,” adds Bernie.

Local woman Patricia Johnston was angered at the targeting of houses belonging to republicans by the PSNI. “This was for no reason other than gathering intelligence,” she claimed.

Patricia believes that amidst the whirl of news stories the real issue has been lost. “It is very much politicising the agenda and taking away from the issue here which was the killing of Robert McCartney and making it more about trying to get Sinn Féin to come to the table on the policing issue — getting them to say openly that their electorate or people in the nationalist community should approach the police.”

In the run-up to May’s local election she did not feel that the Short Strand would experience a change in political allegiance after recent weeks.

“This is still very much a staunch republican area for all the hype that’s in the media. Most of the area do support tMcCartneys in terms of getting justice for their brother, but they certainly don’t support the anti-republican agenda, and that’s what this seems to be developing into.

“I think that there are people in the background that are manipulating this situation to suit a much wider agenda.”

Both Patricia and Bernie felt that the Short Strand had been criminalised in the press since the killing. “Everyone in this area has been demonised and vilified,” said Patricia.

One local man told the Andersonstown News that recent events would damage the republican vote in the area.

“Most people are disgusted by Robert’s death. It will hurt Sinn Féin’s vote. Ex-republican prisoners who I’ve spoken to are disgusted too. The general opinion is that most people would be disillusioned with Sinn Féin in the area because of the murder and what happened after the murder.

“Sinn Féin had a strong vote but people’s opinions will have changed.”
Another community activist held a different view. “People are 100 per cent behind the family but there is a ‘but’ there.”

He went on to say that the week after the killing a vigil for Robert – which was well attended – was portrayed by some of the media as an anti-republican protest. This persuaded a lot of people who had been at the vigil to remain away from last Sunday’s protest, he said.

Referring to the possibility of one of Robert McCartney’s sisters standing in the May elections, he said that he would expect the SDLP to tactically stand aside as they could never win the seat. “However, the republican vote will stand up,” he said.

Another local man said that unionists have just jumped on the bandwagon and have “no real compassion for the family”, but was also critical of republicans. “I knew Robert McCartney from no age and have grown up with him.

“In my book there is a simple solution and that is that the IRA to give up those responsible. There is no point expelling them. They can expel them now and in two or three months they could be back in. That is what people here feel.”

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