McCartney sisters get standing ovation from conference of beleagured Sinn Fein

A dramatic show of sympathy in Dublin with the family of the murdered man, as republicans struggle to repair their image. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

The McCartney sisters of Belfast, whose brother Robert was recently killed by republicans, made a dramatic appearance at Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin yesterday. More than 1,000 republicans gave the five sisters a standing ovation and repeatedly applauded them after they were escorted into the hall by the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other party leaders.

The McCartney sisters of Belfast, whose brother Robert was recently killed by republicans, made a dramatic appearance at Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin yesterday. More than 1,000 republicans gave the five sisters a standing ovation and repeatedly applauded them after they were escorted into the hall by the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other party leaders.

As part of a strong show of sympathy, Mr Adams sat with the sisters who have been critical of both Sinn Fein and the IRA in the wake of the killing of their brother. They then listened to his address, some of them appearing tense, before leaving hurriedly and without ceremony afterwards. The unusual event was broadcast live on RTE, Irish state television.

Mr Adams used particularly strong rhetoric in his speech, declaring: "His murder was dreadful, not only because of the way he died and not only because it robbed his family of a father, a partner, a brother, a son. His murder was dreadful because it is alleged some republicans were involved in it. That makes this a huge issue for us.

"As president of Sinn Fein or as an individual I could not campaign for the victims of British or unionist paramilitary thuggery, if I was not as clear and as committed to justice for the McCartney family." He added: "Those responsible for the brutal killing of Robert McCartney should admit to what they did in a court of law. That is the only decent thing for them to do. Others with any information should come forward. I am not letting this issue go until those who have sullied the republican cause are made to account for their actions."

While the sisters were given a warm reception, everyone was aware that the family's highly publicised campaign to bring Robert McCartney's killers to court has inflicted huge damage on Sinn Fein and the IRA. Robert McCartney was stabbed to death in a backstreet following an altercation with republicans which began in a Belfast city-centre bar.

This has had a striking effect on republican popularity ratings, with a recent poll showing approval ratings for Mr Adams dropping from 50 to 30 per cent. Some of this is due to the fact that most people blame the IRA for December's £26m Northern Bank robbery in Belfast, which was followed by swoops on a large-scale IRA money-laundering operation in County Cork.

But most of the ratings fall is attributed to the McCartney killing, which has produced a wave of revulsion not only among the general public, north and south, but also in republican circles. In the aftermath the IRA expelled three members. One of these, the individual who is believed to have stabbed Mr McCartney, is being urgently sought by police but has gone missing and is presumed to be on the run.

Republican sources say their information is that he does not intend to come forward and provide statements on what happened during the incident, as Mr Adams has asked republicans to do.

Mr Adams, meanwhile, announced that seven members of Sinn Fein were being suspended, adding that he had instructed a solicitor to send their names to the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. According to reliable sources, the Ombudsman has received the names and already passed them on to the police. Mr Adams has said he wants them and others to give full information about events in the bar.

A number of republicans have previously been arrested and questioned, but gave only perfunctory statements and would not answer questions from detectives. According to one security source: "They just sat and stared at the wall for an hour."

While this was once standard republican anti-interrogation drill, it is clearly not what Mr Adams had envisaged when he called for information to be offered.

The Sinn Fein president's action in passing information to the police, even by this indirect route, is known to have caused some unease within a movement which has traditionally regarded the police as deadly enemies.

Others appear to recognise, however, that the damage inflicted by the McCartney affair has been so great that extraordinary actions were required on the part of Sinn Fein.

Chief negotiator Martin McGuinness expressed outrage at the fact that IRA personnel had been involved in the killing, which was described by Mr Adams as "a dreadful murder".

The party's ard-fheis, or annual conference, was well-attended with shows of support for the leadership and, in line with republican tradition, little or no overt dissent or dissatisfaction was voiced from the floor.

Mr Adams maintained that he believed the IRA when it denied carrying out the Northern Bank raid, saying: "The truth is that no one knows at this time who did the robbery, except the people involved." He added, however: "But one thing is for certain - activities like this have no place in the peace process."

Defending the republican movement against allegations of criminality, he declared that he was "working to create the conditions where the IRA ceases to exist". Addressing recent criticisms from Irish government ministers, he said he did not believe that the IRA's army council was the government of Ireland.

Referring to so-called punishment beatings and shootings, he said the policing vacuum "cannot be filled by physical punishments, no matter how frustrated communities may be by those who engage in anti-social behaviour". Such punishments were counter-productive and should stop, he said.

The most important feature of this year's conference was the republican defence against charges that their movement is wedded to criminality and unwilling to give up activities such as robberies.

Speaking after the conference, Paula McCartney said they had received a warm welcome but their bottom line was that until people have been charged, they would not accept that everything that could be done had been done.

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