MARTIN McGuinness is a former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA and, if the Irish government is to be believed, still a senior member of its ruling army council. So when Mr McGuinness "warns" anyone not to get involved in standing against candidates of Sinn Fein, his words have a particular (and chilling) resonance.
This week, he issued his "warning" to the sisters of Robert McCartney, whose throat was cut by leading IRA thugs in full view of customers in a Belfast public house. Among the customers at the time were two Sinn Fein candidates - possibly the very candidates Mr McGuinness likes to "warn" British citizens not to stand against in democratic elections. Naturally, these two Sinn Fein candidates "saw nothing". Nor have they bothered to contact the police.
It is this climate of intimidation and fear which the brave sisters of Robert McCartney have challenged by refusing to accept that their brother could be murdered in public and no-one does anything about it. One sister, Catherine McCartney, has effectively replied to Mr McGuinness’s "warning": "The only person behind this is our Robert and he is the person pulling our strings."
The McCartney sisters are now in the United States, where they will meet President Bush on St Patrick’s Day. Their visit is important because the sisters may succeed where everyone else has failed: in eroding US public sympathy for the IRA and forcing Sinn Fein to break finally with its violent past. For without such a break, the Northern Ireland peace process is effectively stalled.
It is now time for those in the republican movement who genuinely wish to break with the organisation’s violent past - and that probably includes Gerry Adams - to ask themselves how IRA volunteers have sunk so low that they murder people in pubs for non-political reasons and then intimidate witnesses. Those republicans need to face the truth - obvious in the wake of the McCartney murder - that the IRA is no longer an organisation of freedom fighters, but a gang of ordinary criminals, and that if republicanism is to retain any shred of historical respect, the IRA should be wound up immediately.
Meanwhile, Mr McGuinness - with breath-defying hypocrisy - has now denounced the Northern Ireland Police Service for failing to make an arrest in the McCartney case, in order to "drag out the investigation" and so "damage Sinn Fein".
The ball is now in Mr Adams’s court. As for Mr McGuinness, if he wants to stay in democratic politics and unite Ireland, he needs to learn a further lesson: blaming everyone else for a problem is not how great leaders behave. And threatening a grieving family is hardly statesmanship worthy of the Irish people.