Fortnight Magazine, December 2000
The Provisional IRA leadership rarely makes mistakes but the murder of Joe O’Connor must rank as its biggest blunder this year. The aim of inflicting a mighty blow against the dissidents has clearly backfired. Far from being put back in its place, the Real IRA occupies its strongest ever position since the Omagh bomb. Two shows of strength within 24 hours gained the organisation invaluable publicity. Such displays might horrify most people but they are deeply impressive among republican grassroots.
Most importantly for RIRA, they didn’t happen in some field along the Border. They took place in the Provos own heartland-west Belfast. The O’Connor murder was clearly authorised by the Provo leadership. It was not a rash act after a bar-room brawl. It occurred in broad daylight. Up to eight men were involved. The killers wore wigs and used two-way radios. They were seen in the street before the shooting. One is related to a Sinn Fein leader.
Apart from his political affiliations, O’Connor had personally annoyed the Provos by calling another prominent SF politician in Belfast ‘a dickhead’. The Provos are increasingly worried by such lack of respect. They have tried hard, with varying degrees of success, to keep a lid on dissent in the city. A pub where a RIRA prisoners’ function took place in September was burned down. Loyalist graffiti appeared outside but nobody believed loyalists were responsible.
Earlier in the year, a leading dissident was abducted, stripped naked and beaten. Armed RIRA members visited Provo homes to secure his release. A man selling the Sovereign Nation, the newspaper of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, was threatened with death. The next week, he went into the Felons’ Club in Andersonstown to sell the paper. The Provos tried to avoid political damage over the O’Connor killing.
They are keen practitioners of the art of black propaganda developed by their old British enemies. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, they briefed the media and their own base that O’Connor was killed by the Continuity IRA in an inter-dissident dispute. When that failed, they spread the word that he had been attempting to leave the Real IRA which had itself killed him. Finally, they claimed he had been a drug-dealer and the RUC had served him with a court summons just before he died. The summons turned out to have been for a minor traffic offence.
The Provos efforts were shattered when two of their own former prisoners, Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman, publicly blamed them for the killing. Both men refused to name the individuals involved and voiced their staunch opposition to RIRA. The pickets that have been staged outside their homes shows how desperate the Provos are to retain control in their own community.
The O’Connor killing drew no comment from any senior Catholic cleric. The SDLP issued an inane statement about the need not to jump to conclusions about who was responsible. Sir Ronnie Flanagan was also keen to keep an open mind. The Chief Constable, who can comment authoritatively within hours when republican or loyalist dissidents are involved, is still hmming and haaing over this attack months later.
The British government too has been keen to turn a blind eye. At least it can’t be accused of sectarianism. Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair have ignored the loyalist feud with equal determination. Here are two paramilitary groups-both meant to be on ceasefire, both publicly pro-Agreement-shooting the hell out of each other. The rule seems to be that so long as republican and loyalist violence doesn’t threaten the peace process, it will be tolerated. That’s a completely pragmatic and understandable political decision but please let’s not pretend it’s moral.
The Progressive Unionist Party has refused to even call for calm, let alone condemn the feud killings. If DUP politicians uttered sentiments similar to Billy Hutchinson’s they would be charged under incitement to hatred legislation. But the reality is there are different rules for individuals who have been invaluable to the peace process. PUP figures have kept the UVF and their support could also be potentially vital for David Trimble in an Assembly vote.
The UUP leader-unfortunately his supporters might think-can’t shoot his dissidents. He has to live with them and they will be back in the New Year snapping at his heels. Probably, Mandelson will be forced to suspend the Stormont institutions until after the Westminster elections in order to save Trimble’s scalp. London will be hoping that such a move will protect other safe UUP seats from suffering the same fate as South Antrim.
Suspension isn’t necessarily all bad for SF. Playing the victim would help the party eat further into the SDLP vote. But, militarily, suspension wouldn’t be so beneficial. Provo leaders need the peace process to be constantly moving forward. Stalemate is dangerous. They portrayed the armed struggle as outdated. But with the institutions suspended, politics won’t exactly look a trendy, viable way forward.
What worried the Provos about Joe O’Connor was that he wasn’t a defector from their ranks. He was a member of a younger generation who had no previous paramilitary involvement. When he decided to change that, it was RIRA-and not Big Brother-he joined. The Provos might make mistakes but they aren’t stupid. They know the last thing they or the peace process needs is more Joe O’Connors.