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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March 2005, 12:50 GMT
Sinn Fein on horns of policing dilemma
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

It is uncertain whether Gerry Adams' latest intervention will make any practical difference to the quest for justice by the family of Robert McCartney.

Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney's family want his killers brought to justice
However, the Sinn Fein president's decision to hand over the names of some of his party members to the police ombudsman reveals both the extent of the pressure now on his party and its difficulties in grappling with the vexed issue of policing.

On the same evening that Sinn Fein were announcing the suspension of seven members, the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Sean Brady, put his finger on the dilemma which faces republicans over policing.

"Surely it is time", the archbishop argued, "for Catholics in Northern Ireland to set aside their historic reservations about the police, however well founded they may have been, and to assume their full civic responsibility for an agreed and representative system of law and order.

"A community which was prepared to make a deal which included accepting shared responsibility for devolved powers over policing in December, cannot credibly fail to support co-operation with policing on such a grave and criminal matter in March."

Archbishop Sean Brady says it is time for nationalists to cooperate with police

Even though the names Sinn Fein is passing to the police ombudsman are almost certainly known to the police already, the move could prove significant if it leads to the emergence of any new evidence by way of witness statements.

Sinn Fein has proved more than willing to use the ombudsman in the past, although that has tended to be during attempts to bring the police to book.

The Adams initiative appears without precedent in as much as Sinn Fein are dealing with some of their own.

The party's opponents will probably look upon the latest move as cynical spin in the face of an effective grassroots campaign by the McCartney family, which appears set to overshadow both the Sinn Fein ard fheis (annual conference) and Mr Adams' St Patrick's Day trip to the USA.

There are signs that the McCartney case has empowered others in republican areas in Londonderry and north Belfast to raise their concerns about the IRA.

Moreover, republicans have to be worried about some opinion polls appearing to show their support declining just ahead of elections on both sides of the border.

But anyone tempted to believe that Sinn Fein is about to implode, or turn full circle in its attitude to policing should think again.

Republicans have appeared isolated before but have rallied in the face of external pressure.

On policing, the party has not yet shown any sign of changing its policy which ties its acceptance of the police service to an overall deal and the transfer of policing and justice powers to local politicians.

Sinn Fein's leaders face a dilemma over policing
Some people in republican areas may appreciate a more flexible attitude to cooperating with the police over "ordinary" crime.

But others - such as the backers of a number of motions at the Sinn Fein conference - want to withhold support until they get a united Ireland.

For many people in Northern Ireland the failure of the parties to reach a deal in December might have appeared fairly irrelevant as the politicians inhabit a separate parallel world.

But as the McCartney case has vividly highlighted, when it comes to policing, the lack of an agreement does have real consequences for real people.

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