If the IRA is found to be responsible the result is likely to be a clamour not just to suspend Sinn Fein temporarily from the multi-party talks process, as is about to happen, but to exclude them permanently. The identity of those responsible has thus assumed vital political significance.
The British and Irish governments will, probably today, announce the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the process because the RUC has said two recent Belfast killings were the work of the IRA. A sustained Sinn Fein attempt to avert expulsion, which took up three days of the talks in Dublin earlier this week, has been unsuccessful.
A republican attempt to have the Dublin High Court issue an injunction against their expulsion was yesterday adjourned.
The governments' verdict means that Sinn Fein will not be eligible to enter the talks when they re-convene in Belfast on Monday. On past form the republicans can be expected to mount a symbolic protest by turning up for the talks in the knowledge that they will encounter a lock-out.
The initial theory was that the latest shooting was the work of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, currently the most active of the loyalist paramilitary groups. By yesterday afternoon, however, security sources were suggesting that republican responsibility was more likely, and at 5pm the LVF issued a statement denying involvement. Sinn Fein, by contrast, insisted that loyalists were responsible, calling on the RUC to release forensic details of the weapon used.
The dead man was Kevin Conway, a married man with a three-month-old child. He went missing from his home in the Catholic Kilwilkie estate on Tuesday and his body was discovered in a derelict farmhouse in the loyalist Aghalee area on Wednesday. Mr Conway's hands were tied behind his back with wire, and he had been killed by a shotgun blast to the head. He was wearing bedroom slippers when found.
Last July the LVF shot dead a teenage Catholic girl, Bernadette Martin, as she slept in the home of her Protestant boyfriend a few hundred yards away from the spot where Mr Conway's body was discovered. While LVF involvement is not discounted, the theory of republican involve- ment is based on a number of factors.
To begin with, the shooting might fit into the pattern of the two other recent killings, which the IRA carried out but did not admit. Loyalist killers normally gun down their victims on the spot, while Mr Conway was led out of an estate, apparently without a struggle, in daylight.These facts, together with the fact that he was shot in the head while his hands were bound, give rise to the theory that he was abducted by republicans.
Arguing that loyalists were responsible, a Sinn Fein councillor John O'Dowd said: "We believe Mr Conway may have left the area with somebody he knew, voluntarily, and he has fallen into the hands of loyalist gunmen. He did deal, he bought and sold goods, and he may have dealt with the wrong individual and fallen into the hands of these people."