Sisters praised for dignified campaign as Sinn Fein is forced on to the defensive

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The Independent Online

In Ireland, north and south, the view seems to be that the McCartney sisters have been dignified and highly effective voices seeking justice in Washington.

In Ireland, north and south, the view seems to be that the McCartney sisters have been dignified and highly effective voices seeking justice in Washington.

That is contrasted with a markedly defensive performance from Sinn Fein, clearly struggling to come to terms with its new and diminished status in official Washington.

The progress of the McCartney family is being watched in Belfast with fascination as the sisters have taken pride of place in celebrations that usually highlight Sinn Fein and its president, Gerry Adams.

Many have wondered whether, in making the move from the backstreets of Belfast to the White House, the McCartneys might have damaged their aim of seeing people prosecuted for the killing of their brother Robert.

There was some doubt about the wisdom of the family decision to attend the recent Sinn Fein annual conference in Dublin but, in the event, their campaign does not appear to have been damaged. They appear to have avoided falling into traps, and have retained the moral high ground. Rather than making mistakes, they have carved out a place for themselves as an important new element.

The principal worry of their supporters is that they might stray from their quest for justice into the minefield of party politics, incurringSinn Fein criticism that they have a hidden agenda.

Sinn Fein is locked in an intense propaganda battle as republicans try to contain the damage inflicted by the McCartney affair and by December's £26m robbery in Belfast.

But, so far, they have not placed the McCartney family on the defensive and remain under intense pressure. A security worker said: "This is a sea change, because you usually see Sinn Fein reacting in a very controlled way - this time it looks uncontrolled."

Others, however, feel the republicans will stage a recovery so the basic shape of an eventual political settlement will still take the form of a deal between Sinn Fein and Unionist politicians.

But the sight of a rattled Sinn Fein has given huge pleasure to its opponents, who have for years hoped to end the republicans' triumphant electoral march in Northern Ireland and the Republic. The early signs are that Sinn Fein is holding on to grass-roots support, but, as this week's events in Washington showed, is losing friends and influence on the wider scene.

Both Sinn Fein and the IRA have repeatedly called on their members to make full and frank statements about events surrounding the killing. A number have come forward and given statements to police, but all of these are believed to have been brief and uncommunicative.

Republicans argue that Gerry Adams has taken considerable risks in calling for co-operation and forwarding the names of Sinn Fein members who were in the bar that night to the Police Ombudsman.

But his initiative has yet to result in charges being brought, and as long as co-operation is not viewed as meaningful, the McCartney sisters can be expected to keep up the pressure, and republicans will remain vulnerable.