McCartney sisters welcomed as Sinn Fein leader gets cold shoulder in US

The McCartney sisters arrive in America today with the full weight of international support behind their campaign to bring their brother's killers to justice ­ in contrast to the fortunes of a fellow visitor, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein.

Mr Adams' trip has been eclipsed by the arrival in Washinton of the McCartney sisters from Belfast, whose quest to find Robert McCartney's murderers has propelled them into the international limelight and exposed what they say is Sinn Fein's attempt to cover up the killing. This year it is the sisters who will have pride of place in a city which has for years fêted the Sinn Fein leader.

Mr McCartney, 33, was stabbed to death after an argument in a bar in Belfast on 30 January.

Washington's doors have swung open for the five sisters, together with Mr McCartney's partner, Bridgeen Hagans, whose campaign has caught the imagination of the US public. They will meet President George Bush and others with the message that their brother was killed by members of the republican movement which, despite Sinn Fein's protestations, is not co-operating to catch the killers.

After revelations that two female Sinn Fein election candidates were in the bar on the night Mr McCartney died, Paula McCartney said yesterday that Sinn Fein "stinks of a cover-up".

And last night Sinn Fein confirmed that a third political figure ­ Sean Hayes, a former councillor and one-time Westminster candidate ­ was in the bar on the night of the killing.

Meanwhile one of the three men expelled by the IRA after the incident, who is regarded as a key suspect in the case, has contacted police via his solicitor and has agreed to be interviewed by detectives.

The sisters' access to the White House gives them a much more impressive itinerary than Mr Adams, who will not, for the first time in more than a decade, meet the President. Nor will he meet Senator Edward Kennedy, one of Irish-America's most important figures, who has pulled out of a meeting because of the IRA's "ongoing criminal activity and contempt for the rule of law". The senator will, however, be meeting the McCartneys.

Mr Adams will not be fundraising on this trip as usual. Although many of his engagements were originally planned as fundraisers, Sinn Fein became worried that this could become a contentious issue for the US administration.

Last night Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness appeared to warn the family to back off. With one of the sisters threatening an electoral challenge to the party, the Mid Ulster MP said the campaign to bring the killers to justice could be left open to political manipulation.

He said he supported the McCartney family but said they "would need to be very careful" that they "don't step over the party political line and allow themselves to be used or manipulated" by others opposed to Sinn Fein.

THE WOMEN'S WASHINGTON SCHEDULE

Tomorrow:

* Meetings with Mitchell Reiss, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Hillary Clinton and other members of the Senate and the House

* Appearances at Northern Ireland Bureau reception and congressional committee hearings

* American Ireland Fund dinner

Thursday

* White House for meeting with President Bush, followed bySt Patrick's Day reception, at which no Northern Ireland politicians will be present

* There may be other meetings scheduled with members of Congress

* Irish embassy reception

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