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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 March 2005, 10:30 GMT
Will events affect SF's fortunes?
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Last week, shortly after the McCartney sisters' appearance at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, I surmised that the party's publicity coup in securing the family's attendance might take some of the political sting out of their campaign for justice.

However, a week is a long time in politics.

As the McCartneys prepare to fly out to the United States no one can argue that their campaign has diminished in either its media profile or its potential for doing damage to Sinn Fein.

Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney's family is taking a campaign to the White House

All the hard work of the Sinn Fein spin doctors who persuaded the McCartneys to travel to Dublin, was undone in an instant by the infamous IRA statement which publicised the organisation's offer to shoot those responsible for Robert McCartney's murder.

It is true that much of the IRA statement dwelt on the organisation's guarantees of safety to any witnesses that might come forward.

But the bald threat of summary justice made headlines around the world, and the revelation that the sisters had turned the IRA's offer down elevated them to yet more moral heights.

Now, as the St Patrick's week events in the USA are about to start, it has emerged a Sinn Fein assembly election candidate, Cora Groogan, was in Magennis's bar in Belfast when the fight erupted which eventually led to Mr McCartney's death.

Ms Groogan says she saw nothing and has made a statement to her solicitor, with instructions for it to be passed on to the Police Ombudsman.

But Mr McCartney's family remain unhappy that the Mid Ulster candidate did not approach directly either the detectives investigating the case or the Police Ombudsman investigators who have powers to take statements which can be used as evidence in court.

Gerry Adams told the sisters at his Ard Fheis "we are on your side", but the sisters must be wondering about this in the light of recent developments.

Belfast headquarters of the Northern Bank
The IRA has been blamed for December's Northern Bank raid
In the USA, the McCartneys will have their chance to put their views to the likes of Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and President Bush.

Gerry Adams, excluded from the White House along with the other politicians, could find this trip less comfortable than some of his previous forays across the Atlantic.

But once the focus on the White House has come and gone, will the McCartney murder and the allegations about the Northern Bank raid have any long term detrimental impact on the rise and rise of Sinn Fein?

This remains hard to assess.

Despite some opinion polls suggesting a fall in Sinn Fein's fortunes south of the border, their Meath by-election candidate, Joe Reilly, turned in a very respectable performance - increasing his vote from 9% in 2002 to just over 12%.

'Quick conclusions'

North of the border, a Belfast Telegraph poll appeared to suggest a slide in Sinn Fein support of 3.5% since the assembly elections of November 2003.

But on closer inspection a similar poll taken on the eve of those elections had understated Sinn Fein support by 3.5% and overstated SDLP support by 5%.

That enabled Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness to shrug off the latest results and predict that his party will confound its critics when the general election is held.

Certainly, the latest allegations about IRA activity of various kinds will give the battle for the nationalist vote extra potency.

However, it would be foolhardy to jump to quick conclusions about precisely how recent events will influence the contest.




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