DUBLIN, March 5 -- Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party under fire over the IRA's killing of a Belfast man, invited the victim's sisters into its party conference Saturday in an unprecedented effort to defuse their criticism.
As four sisters of Robert McCartney sat in the front row, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said McCartney's killers -- among them, allegedly, seven suspended members of Sinn Fein and three expelled members of the outlawed IRA -- "should admit what they did in a court of law. That's the only decent thing for them to do."
During a speech at Sinn Fein's largest annual gathering, Adams offered sympathy but no new commitments to the McCartneys, whose high-profile campaign over the past month has put a spotlight on IRA intimidation of witnesses to the Jan. 30 attack on their brother.
Adams said he wanted to assure the family, as well as the man's fiancee and two young children who didn't attend, "that we are on their side."
The four sisters listened with grim expressions.
Adams -- whom the Irish government identified last month as an IRA commander -- said witnesses should "come forward." He did not specify they should talk to the Northern Ireland detectives trying to gather evidence on the mob that fatally knifed and beat McCartney, 33, outside a Belfast pub.
The McCartneys left the conference saying they were not yet satisfied. They noted that none of 72 potential witnesses has given police statements identifying the attackers, whose names are common knowledge in the McCartneys' Belfast neighborhood of Short Strand, a traditional IRA power base.
"These men murdered my brother. Everyone knows who they are," said Catherine McCartney.
The McCartney case has highlighted a major obstacle in the peace process -- whether Catholics will cooperate with the mostly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein rejects current efforts to reform the police, while the IRA reserves the right to kill anybody who tells police about IRA activities.
Such policies were supposed to have ended by now as part of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, which proposed a joint administration of Protestants and Sinn Fein, which has grown to become the biggest Catholic-backed party in the British territory.
Protestants say they won't cooperate again with Sinn Fein until the IRA disarms and disbands.
David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party that formed a power-sharing administration involving Sinn Fein that collapsed in 2002, told his own party conference Saturday in Belfast that Sinn Fein must become "a purely peaceful, democratic movement with no private army."