Sinn Fein asked United States ambassador Richard Egan to attend the party's September ard fheis to signal to the rank and file that the US did not intend to shut them out of the negotiating process.

The request was made through Sinn Fein's US representative, Rita O'Hare, when the party was still reeling from the fallout to the arrest of three republicans in Colombia and the World Trade Center attack.

The Bush administration granted the request. This contradicts British newspaper reports that Egan was reprimanded for attending the ard fheis as an observer.

"It was a crucial signal that the US approach was one of absolute inclusivity," said O'Hare last week.

"It was vital that the US continue its role as honest broker and not take sides and Richard Egan's presence proved that. It had a huge effect on our membership that the US was not turning on us."

O'Hare said there had been attempts by the British Information Office in America to link Sinn Fe´in to Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network and to make them "untouchable" for the US government.

Last Tuesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Sinn Fe´in's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness that the US would continue to stay involved with the Northern Ireland peace process, despite the attention being paid to Afghanistan. In his inner sanctum next to the State Department's Treaty Room, Powell told McGuinness that the Irish breakthrough was "a ray of light" at a very dark time for Americans.

"Now that we have things moving forward, we know they will still need attention from us. You have my commitment on that," said Powell.

Earlier, the Sinn Fein delegation consisting of McGuinness, O'Hare and Aidan McAteer, an aide to McGuinness, had met Richard Haas, the Bush administration's special envoy on Ireland.

Also present was Rosemary O'Neill, daughter of the late Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, and now a senior State Department official, and Frank Kerber, who heads the Irish desk at the department.

Haas made it clear that the American support would continue to include all parties.

He told the Sinn Fein delegation that the administration saw its role as that of an honest broker and it intended to stay involved.

The IRA decommissioning announcement was greeted with relief in Irish American circles where issues such as Colombia and the proposed Adams visit to Cuba had created enormous difficulties.

Irish Americans had made it clear to the Sinn Fe´in leadership their unhappiness with developments.

Some went public with their criticism, including William J Flynn, chairman of Mutual of America and a key supporter since the Adams visa battle.

According to Sinn Fein sources, the criticism had a considerable impact as, "unlike much of the criticism we received from elsewhere, we knew that these people had our best interests at heart and they were not just jumping on any bandwagon."

However, it was noticeable at the McGuinness press conference in Manhattan last week that a key group of Sinn Fein supporters was present, giving their imprimatur to the move.

Almost all are successful businessmen in New York, originally from Northern Ireland, and have supported Sinn Fe´in since well before the peace process began. Despite the IRA weapons move, the failure of the Real IRA to obtain any kind of foothold in the US is hardly likely to change, according to Irish American sources.

The revelation that David Ruppert, a leading official in the dissident group, was an FBI informer has shocked Real IRA supporters and limited any opportunity to capitalise on dissension over the IRA move.

"The Real IRA has missed its opportunity in America because of Omagh and informers," said a senior Irish American republican source.

"After the World Trade Center attacks, it is even more unlikely they will draw any support. Adams and McGuinness have it locked up again over here."