Gerry Adams was barracked and abused in republican south Belfast this week over Sinn Féin’s support for the McCartney sisters.
Anger has grown in the area over the high-profile campaign of the McCartney family to secure convictions in the death of their brother Robert following a knife-fight outside a city centre bar in January.
Three of those accused of taking part in the fight were members of the Provisional IRA, and have since been expelled by the organisation. Two members of Sinn Féin were also recently expelled following allegations that some party members had failed to help turn in the killers.
The move has caused anger and resentment, with family members of some of those linked to the incident shouting abuse at Mr Adams as he canvassed in the Short Strand.
The Sinn Féin president said he had been “barracked by some women who obviously disagree with the stand our party has taken in terms of the murder of Robert McCartney.
“Particularly my call for people to come forward with full and frank statements, and also when I gave names that were given to me to the Police Ombudsman.”
The Sinn Féin president stressed that the “vast majority” of republicans were behind his attempt to flush out the killers.
He said: “We weren’t talking yesterday about activists, we’re talking about women family members of some of the people who have been caught up in all of this.
“I can understand their position. The big focus, clearly and quite rightly, is on the murder of Robert McCartney, but there are lots of families traumatised by the fallout of this and lots of people feel they have been demonised and their community has been demonised.
“When I went to the Markets it was no great surprise that there would be a protest by some people there.”
With the victim’s sisters fighting a campaign for justice that has taken them to the White House, Sinn Féin said two members were expelled for not following Mr Adams’ orders to disclose what they saw in Magennis’s bar before the brawl went outside.
A further half dozen remain suspended, while a further seven members have resigned in protest.
Sinn Féin representative and community worker in the Markets, Sean Hayes, blasted what he described as the “disenfranchising” of local voters following the suspensions. Both Hayes and one-time local council candidate, Deirdre Hargey, were suspended.
Mr Hayes said: “Thanks to this, the party in south east Belfast and the Ormeau Road has been effectively shut down.
“We are really annoyed. People in the Markets were expecting big things from Deirdre, who is young, dynamic and has no baggage whatsoever.
“She would have been a real force for good for the Markets and given badly needed representation for the community in council.
“What the party have done here is wrong. We have now been removed from the scene of these elections and it is this community which will suffer,” he added.
Both Mr Hayes and Ms Hargey deny witnessing the murder on the evening and say that they were not present when it happened.
“We have to stop punishing people for something they didn’t do. It will get to the stage where as soon as a republican walks into a bar, they will be attacked or accused of something.”
Mr Hayes added that residents in the Markets were “angry” about the party leadership’s decision but stressed the importance of people still voting for Sinn Féin.
“Of course it’s natural for people to get angry about this. I have had many people who supported Deirdre approaching me and saying that they are not going to vote for Sinn Féin now.
“But whatever has happened, Sinn Féin are still the only party who can deliver services and resources to the community.
“We must now work on rebuilding local membership and strengthening our grass roots base.”