Several of the seven Sinn Fein members suspended from the party in connection with a fatal stabbing at a Belfast bar are personally known to the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, he acknowledged yesterday.
Speaking during his party's ard-fheis (annual conference) in Dublin yesterday, Mr Adams said he knew some of the seven, who have been told to give full and truthful accounts of what led to the killing.
The victim, Robert McCartney from the Short Strand area of Belfast, died on 30 January after becoming involved in an altercation at the pub. He was fatally stabbed by a member of the IRA outside the bar.
Mr Adams told The Independent: "I do know some of them, but I can't make judgements." In addition to the seven Sinn Fein suspensions three members of the IRA, two of them described as high-ranking, have been expelled.
Both Sinn Fein and the IRA have taken radical measures to distance themselves from the killing, which has led to a wave of condemnation of republicans.
Mr Adams acknowledged that some republicans had expressed "outright opposition" to his decision to give the names of the seven Sinn Fein members to the police ombudsman, who has in turn passed them to the Northern Ireland Police Service.
The five sisters of Mr McCartney made a dramatic appearance at the Sinn Fein conference on Saturday, receiving a standing ovation when Mr Adams escorted them into the hall. They listened to his address, receiving several rounds of applause at the mention of their name, as Mr Adams pledged the party's support for the killers of their brother to be brought before the courts. Catherine McCartney, said: "We are encouraged by Gerry Adams's speech but until what he spoke about is delivered on the ground, this is not over."
The behaviour of delegates indicated that the Sinn Fein grass roots are closing ranks in reaction to recent criticism from their opponents.
The party is hopeful of a good showing in this week's County Meath by-election.