McCartney suspect is freed after being questioned by police

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The prime suspect in the Robert McCartney stabbing case was released from custody in Northern Ireland last night after earlier presenting himself to police with his solicitor.

The prime suspect in the Robert McCartney stabbing case was released from custody in Northern Ireland last night after earlier presenting himself to police with his solicitor.

With the IRA giving signs of being in a dazed state, the man spent hours under questioning by detectives investigating Mr McCartney's fatal stabbing, which took place in January outside a city centre bar. It is believed that the suspect exercised his right to silence and did not answer police questions about the killing. After being held during the day he was released on police bail.

Police had been seeking for some weeks to question him about reports that he is the man who wielded the knife which killed Mr McCartney.

The killing plunged the IRA and Sinn Fein into a crisis so deep that the two organisations have overcome their profound antipathy to the police and ordered their members to co-
operate with the authorities. The sense of crisis led the IRA to announce earlier this week that it had offered to shoot three of its members, an offer that was firmly turned down by the McCartney family.

Chief Constable Hugh Orde said he had no doubt the IRA had offered to kill the men rather than wounding them, adding: "This is an organisation theoretically on ceasefire. This is an organisation that is still prepared to kill people now from its own community".

The IRA revelation was greeted with widespread outrage and amazement that the organisation, in apparently trying to demonstrate its serious approach to the McCartney killing, had so undermined and undercut its political wing. Sinn Fein has been making huge efforts to dissociate itself from criminality, so the public announcement of IRA preparedness to use its guns came as
a blow to the attempts to improve its image. The statement is regarded as another self-inflicted setback for republicans.

Police have already interviewed two high-ranking IRA figures who were present in the bar on the night Mr McCartney was killed. Detectives complain, however, that they made only brief statements and refused to respond to questions.

It is not known whether the man arrested yesterday came forward in response to the IRA statement. This said: "We have ordered anyone who was present on the night to go forward and to give a full and honest account of their actions."

At the weekend senior republican sources had said they doubted that the man involved would voluntarily turn himself in. He is thought to be one of three IRA members who were expelled by the organisation. According to the IRA one of these three used a knife to stab both Mr McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine, who was gravely injured.

The McCartney family said yesterday that they wanted the investigation into the murder to be conducted through due process. They went on to indirectly accuse the IRA of continuing to deter witnesses, saying that in the five weeks since the killing no one had come forward with substantial evidence.

The family declared: "This must be due to ongoing intimidation and fear." Family members are to travel to Washington for St Patrick's Day events, while the US administration has pointedly refrained from extending its usual invitation to Sinn Fein.

In the Commons yesterday Tony Blair said that the IRA statement defied description, adding: "There's no way we can make any progress in Northern Ireland that includes Sinn Fein unless we have a complete and total end to violence of whatever kind." The Commons will today debate punishing Sinn Fein by suspending the party's parliamentary allowances.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, described the IRA offer as shocking and horrific. He added: "We all want to see justice to be done, but their response to that was to eliminate three or four people. It's horrific."

Meanwhile, the Northern Bank, which lost more than £26m in a December bank robbery that is attributed to the IRA, has begun to issue new bank notes.

Hurriedly designed replacement notes have been produced in the hope of rendering a significant proportion of the money taken in the raid difficult to use. Millions of the stolen cash was in unissued notes with known serial numbers.