Motive for O’Connor killing remains a mystery

Motive for O’Connor killing remains a mystery
by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune

While there now seems little doubt that gunmen from the Provisional IRA were responsible for the killing in Ballymurphy ten days ago of Real IRA man Joe O’Connor, the motive for the act remains more of a mystery. What is certain though is that the possibility of a republican feud has added to the long list of problems facing the Good Friday Agreement.

The evidence against the Provisionals is a mixture of the circumstantial and of the more soundly based eye-witness variety. According to accounts emanating from the O’Connor family circle the gunmen were seen and identified on three separate occasions as being members of the Ballymurphy unit of the Provisionals.

The first occasion was just before the shooting when the gunmen, both wearing disguises, walked past the car in which O’Connor was sitting before they returned to carry out the shooting. Despite their disguises they were identified. Nor were the gunmen the only Provisionals involved in the operation. Lookouts at each end of the street carrying walkie-talkie radios to warn of any approaching security forces were also identified as local Provos.

Minutes after the killing the gunmen were seen twice in a different part of west Belfast, once in the act of removing their disguises and then taking refuge in a safe house where, it is presumed, they got rid of their weapons. Again they were identified as members of the Provisional IRA. “There is absolutely no doubt of that”, declared one source.

The immediate claim, apparently supported by suggestions from security sources and reported in local Nationalist media, was that O’Connor had died as the result of some sort of internal dissident row, either at the hands of the other rival group, the Continuity IRA or because of some dispute he had with his own colleagues in the Real IRA.

Events in subsequent days were to cast doubt on those two theories. Republican Sinn Féin, Continuity IRA’s political allies, attended O’Connor’s wake at his Ballymurphy home and sent a funeral wreath. While relationships at leadership level between the Continuity and Real IRA’s are frosty – indeed so bad as to make nonsense of Gardai and British security claims that the two dissident groups act as one – RSF’s behaviour after the killing was hardly that of the guilty party.

And if O’Connor had had a row with the Real IRA leadership then the funeral he was given was oddly out of character. With two shows of paramilitary strength in Ballymurphy complete with firing parties, masked volunteers, flags, berets and gloves the Real IRA leadership appeared determined to send two strong messages. One was that they were restoring in full the funeral ceremonials which the Provisional leadership had slowly phased out during their long journey to the Good Friday Agreement and constitutional politics. The other was a clear signal that Joe O’Connor was their man in death as in life. O’Connor’s funeral became a subtle indictment of the Adams’ strategy.

So if Joe O’Connor was killed by the Provisional IRA what was the motive? The fact that the IRA has denied involvement can be discounted. The days when P O’Neill could be trusted to always tell the truth have long gone, the victim of the peace process’ need for constructive ambiguity. As Jeffrey Donaldson was quick to note, hadn’t the same P O’Neill denied any part in the Florida gun-running enterprise? And since Florida, according to a variety of republican sources, Provisional IRA members have been given strict orders never to acknowledge responsibility for their operations. The IRA denial is consistent therefore with that order.

Those with long memories will recall that the Official IRA went through a similar phase. For many years the Official IRA would carry out robberies and shootings but would never acknowledge responsibility. It was all part of the Workers Party’s strategy of attempting to persuade the world that it had ditched its militaristic past. The ploy was so successful that the idea that the Official IRA had ceased to exist took firm root not just in the southern ranks of the Workers Party but in the media as well.

None of this explains however why the Provos would have taken such a drastic step as to kill a rival republican knowing that it could have sparked off a retaliatory spiral of death.

One of the defining characteristics of this Provisional leadership has been its opposition to inter-republican feuding. Such disputes, it was successfully argued, served only the interests of the IRA’s enemies and from the late 1970’s onwards they ended, at least as far as the Provos were concerned. When the peace process began it became even more imperative to avoid splits and feuds, so much so that Gerry Adams’ insistence that he travel only as fast as his slowest member would allow, often infuriated other participants. Even so, such caution could not avert a split and when it came with the formation of the Real IRA in 1997 there were voices urging something akin to a night of the long knives against dissidents but these too were resisted.

So what has happened to reverse all this? It can only be speculation but three aspects of the killing stand out to suggest that the Provo leadership may have decided to strike first before events on the decommissioning or policing fronts or even the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement itself served to boost support for dissidents in Belfast.

The first is that Joe O’Connor was not just an ordinary Real IRA volunteer. He was the organisation’s Belfast Commander. The second is that he had established a base for the Real IRA in Ballymurphy and those familiar with the history of the Provos will know that it was their capture of Ballymurphy in 1970 which gave the Provisional rather than the Official IRA dominance of Belfast republicanism and which ultimately propelled the leaders of the Ballymurphy Provos to national leadership. If Ballymurphy was the cradle of the Provos could it also have done the same for the Real IRA?

The third factor may have been the relative weakness of the Real IRA in Belfast and the knowledge on the part of those who ordered the killing that a strike against the Real IRA in the city rather than, say Co. Louth or south Armagh would be much less risky or divisive and, if the Real IRA had responded in kind, might even have served to unite a jittery republican base during what may prove to be difficult days ahead.

October 22, 2000

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