Sinn Féin and the IRA were under renewed pressure tonight following threats to burn down the homes of the family of murdered Belfast father-of-two Robert McCartney.
Politicians on all sides queued up to condemn Sinn Féin and paid scant regard to president Gerry Adams’ protestations that republicans were not behind the threats to the sisters of the man an IRA member stabbed to death in January.
Police visited the sisters – and Mr McCartney’s partner Bridgeen Hagans – to tell them “criminal elements” were threatening to burn down their homes and the business one of them runs.
The women believe they are being targeted by republicans for their campaign to bring their brother’s killer to justice.
Mr McCartney was stabbed in a pub used by republicans and his family believes the IRA was involved in the murder, with one of them accusing Sinn Féin of being part of a cover-up.
Northern Ireland Office minister Angela Smith said the threats were “beneath contempt”.
She said she was shocked they could ever be made. She had admired the dignity of the campaign for justice mounted by the sisters.
New Northern Ireland Security Minister Shaun Woodward said he took the threats “extremely seriously”,.
Mr Woodward was given details of the warnings issued to the McCartneys during his first security briefing with senior Police Service officers.
He spent nearly two hours with the Deputy Chief Constable Paul Leighton and other officers during a visit to a North Belfast police station.
He said: “I have huge respect for the members of that family and what they are trying to do and intimidation, wherever it happens is a very, very bad thing.”
He added: “People should be able to live in Northern Ireland without fear of intimidation. I fully support the family in everything they are doing and I fully support what the police are doing and I encourage anybody in Northern Ireland to come forward and help.
“By coming forward, by being brave, by helping with this thing you will achieve a lifestyle for people in Northern Ireland which is one everybody should be able to expect.”
Mr Woodward went on a brief walkabout in North Belfast, and visited the ’peace line’ which separates rival republican and loyalist communities.
While he was in the station 10 members of Sinn Féin, including four local councillors and Shankill bomber Sean Kelly staged a protest outside the police station to highlight their allegations of security force collusion in loyalist murders.
By the time the Security Minister emerged from his briefing the protesters had gone. Mr Woodward said he was disappointed not to have met them and urged them to visit him to voice their concerns.
He said: “I was really looking forward to meeting that group of people that were outside the police station when I was inside. Unfortunately they had gone 20 minutes after I was made aware they were there. I say to them come and see me I’d like to talk to you, it is important that people here understand I am here to listen.”
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said he condemned the threats to the McCartneys but claimed they were not the work of republicans.
He said: “I want to deny that republicans are involved and I do that without any qualification whatsoever.
“Whatever the family may or may not believe or what they may or may not say, no republican is involved in any threat against this family.”
He said he was quite sure that if the Police Service of Northern Ireland believed republicans were responsible, they would have said so.
But Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim, rejected the denial saying Sinn Féin and the IRA had gone back to violence now that the election was over.
“What interest would criminals have in the political campaign of the McCartneys, unless Sinn Féin are now outsourcing such disciplinary matters to criminal gangs.”
Mr Wilson added: “The Sinn Féin leopard has not changed its spots and its true colours are now being more clearly seen with the election out of the road.”