Calls grow to disband the Irish Republican Army

Five sisters of a man allegedly killed by the IRA meet with President Bush Thursday.

It's been a bad stretch for the Irish Republican Army and its political ally, Sinn Fein.

In December, the IRA was accused of a $50 million bank heist. Then an independent commission charged it with massive money laundering. Now the organization's very existence is threatened by outrage over a murder and its coverup.

The IRA, once an all-powerful group that commanded the loyalties of Catholics of Northern Ireland in their quest for independence from Britain, has been thrown on the defensive by five sisters who have refused to remain silent about the January slaying of their brother, Robert McCartney. Their relentless campaign has given hope to other aggrieved families who not long ago wouldn't have dared speak out against the IRA. With the war against the British over, people here say that IRA members have degenerated into mafia-like gangsters who prey on their own people.

As the McCartney sisters meet with President Bush Thursday, St. Patrick's Day, to present him with a dossier on the alleged perpetrators - while Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, was snubbed by the White House - calls are intensifying from here to Washington for the IRA to disband.

"The good cause of the IRA, these bullies have destroyed it," says Kathleen Coyle, aunt of Derry man James McGinley, killed by an alleged IRA leader who was recently sentenced to manslaughter. She says that members who died fighting for a united Ireland would be appalled at what the group has turned into.

The republican movement is mired in one of the worst crises in the 100-year history of Sinn Fein and the IRA. It could prove far more damaging than any setbacks inflicted by Protestant rivals and the British during the stop-start peace process of the past seven years, or the 30-year civil strife known as The Troubles that came before. For now it appears that the group is losing the support of mainstream Catholic and republican opinion. Many ordinary Catholics, experts say, are less concerned with the IRA dream of a united Ireland than simply being allowed to live untroubled by gunmen and warlords.

"The mainstream republic movement now virtually accepts partition," says Henry Patterson, professor of politics at the University of Ulster in Belfast and an expert on the IRA. "But key people in the IRA still see themselves as a vanguard which has fought and struggled and suffered for 30 years. It remains a problem of how to put to bed an organization when there's a consensus in the leadership" against doing so.

Under Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace accords, the IRA is supposed to renounce its weaponry - tantamount to emasculation for some of the die-hards in its ranks. While it has made certain commitments, the IRA has still failed to disarm completely, putting the peace process on hiatus.

Instead, certain rogue elements appear to be reinventing it as a very different organization. The heist of the Belfast Northern Bank was almost certainly the work of the IRA, as were two other robberies last year, police say. And Robert McCartney was killed Jan. 30 outside a Belfast pub frequented by well-known IRA members.

The McCartneys campaign has made an impact. In a speech in New York Monday, even Mr. Adams conceded that Sinn Fein was on "the back foot." He said he hoped the IRA would disband.

At Sinn Fein's recent centennial party conference in Dublin, Adams called on witnesses to the McCartney murder to talk to lawyers or the police. He said the party was working to "create the conditions where the IRA ceases to exist," but said, "I do not believe that the IRA can be wished away ... or demonized or repressed out of existence."

He has also ordered the names of seven suspended Sinn Fein members linked to the killing to be passed on to the police, an unprecedented move.

In Armagh, meanwhile, the parents of Gareth O'Connor say they hope that the attention the McCartneys have brought to Northern Ireland will help them find the killers of their 24-year-old son, who went for a drive in 2003 and never came back, only days after the IRA threatened his life. The family has received threats, had windows broken, and a fence burned, they say. "We're sure someone knows what happened, but we know if you open your mouth you could get same thing," says Bertie O'Connor, Gareth's mother. "We'll keep fighting, though, until we find out what happened to our son."

Mark Rice-Oxley contributed to this report from London.

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