A welcome, if belated, move by Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online

When the history of the Northern Ireland peace process comes to be written, will the death of Robert McCartney be recorded as the tipping point, the event that finally compelled the republican leadership to complete its transformation from apologists for terrorism to full members of the democratic political process?

Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin this weekend will not give us the answer - the situation is too turbulent for that - but it may offer clues. In a dramatic eve-of-conference decision, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams suspended seven party members in connection with Mr McCartney's murder outside a Belfast bar in January, and announced that the party would pass their names to the police ombudsman.

Sinn Fein has a vested interest in being seen to take such action. The party is at its lowest ebb in its 100-year existence. An opinion poll published yesterday showed that Mr Adams's personal popularity rating in Ireland has dipped to its lowest point in three years, an indication surely, of the collapse in Sinn Fein's standing as a direct result of the McCartney family's courageous campaign.

Yet, in a sense, the Sinn Fein president's gesture is an extraordinary development. Stunned by the groundswell of public anger at a succession of events - the breakdown of talks on decommissioning, the £26m bank robbery, and then the McCartney killing - he is ordering republicans to co-operate with a police force that would formerly have been in the firing line of IRA terrorists.

The McCartney family is nevertheless right to insist that Mr Adams's action is only a start. For anyone to be convinced that Sinn Fein is serious about democratic politics there will have to be a complete and visible end to complicity with illegal activity of any nature, including the kind of intimidation that is making it so difficult to bring Robert McCartney's killers to justice.

Few republicans can have bargained on the people power behind the campaign in Belfast that has now emerged as the biggest challenge to paramilitaries and their sympathisers. But the crisis for Sinn Fein and the IRA is also a crisis for the peace process. If Mr Adams wants to show he is serious about salvaging that process, and not just his party's electoral standing, he must use the Dublin conference to convince followers to stop turning a blind eye to the crime and intimidation that still characterise life in Northern Ireland.