Provisionals Try to Assert Control Over Dissidents
21 October 2000
The Provisional IRA still dominates republicanism but the challenge from the so-called `Real IRA’ is growing, writes Suzanne Breen in Belfast
West Belfast is a divided community. In Whitecliffe Parade, where murdered “Real IRA” member Joe O’Connor lived, black flags fly from half the houses. At the other homes, there is no display.
Bunches of flowers mark the spot where he died. He had just left his mother’s house and got into his car when two gunmen appeared. One put his foot against the door as O’Connor tried to escape.
He was shot seven times in the head. He died instantly. Despite its denial, the Provisional IRA is widely believed to have been responsible. Around a dozen eyewitnesses saw the assailants putting on and taking off their disguises.
They were identified as members of a local Provisional unit. Their names are circulating freely in west Belfast. One is related to a prominent Sinn Féin politician. The killing was unexpected. It has bewildered all shades of republicans.
Up to eight men, including the scouts and getaway car driver, were involved. The attack was well planned. The killers used two-way radios and were seen in the street earlier.
The most common theory is that it was an attempt to thwart the growing “Real IRA” presence in west Belfast. Both sides agree that, so far, it seems to have done the opposite.
“Some houses have put up black flags to honour Joe and show their anger,” explained one resident. “Other families mightn’t agree with the shooting but are loyal to the Provos. The rest are confused or frightened.”
Whitecliffe Parade is in the heart of Ballymurphy. Unemployment is high, there is alienation from the State and strong support for the IRA. The question now is which one? Graffiti for the rival groups highlight the competition.
Life was once simpler. Gerry Adams grew up just two streets away in Divismore Park. He was good friends with Joe O’Connor’s grandfather, Francisco Notarantonio, who was shot dead by loyalists.
“I never thought the day would come when it would be the Provos killing us,” said Victor Notarantonio, O’Connor’s uncle. “Our entire family voted for Gerry Adams for nearly two decades. We never will again.”
His nephew was laid out in an open coffin in the small living room. Rosary beads hung around his neck. Hundreds of Mass cards sat in a box under the coffin. His combat belt and gloves rested on his chest. The black IRA beret on his head couldn’t hide the bullet wounds.
“I hardly recognised him,” said a cousin. “You should have seen him when he was alive. He was lovely looking.”
O’Connor’s friends lined up to touch him and say goodbye. Before he was just one of the lads. Now, he has a different status. His mother sat sobbing in the corner, hardly able to speak to mourners.
The wall above the coffin was dominated by a 12ft green, white and orange wreath proclaiming: Óglaigh na hÉireann – IRA. Even by republican standards, it was massive. “It’s a message of defiance,” said a relative.
O’Connor (26) had three young sons. He married his childhood sweetheart at 19. He was on the dole. “There was nothing special about Joe,” said Victor Notorantonio. “He was like any young man around here. He supported Celtic. He loved snooker and a pint. He was always full of chat but he didn’t talk politics much.”
The “Real IRA” has recruited heavily in Ballymurphy. Some members are disillusioned Provisionals but many, like O’Connor, had no known previous paramilitary involvement.
“Joe joined the `Real IRA’ because he had no faith in the peace process,” said a friend who didn’t want to be named. “This community suffered greatly during the war. We fought for things which haven’t been achieved. The Brits haven’t gone.”
A Provisional IRA source said it was impossible to prevent some young people joining dissident groups.
“The vast majority in this area still support us. We built up tremendous respect and loyalty over the years. The day for armed struggle is over but a section of the community hasn’t realised that. We work at Stormont and the dissidents bomb M16 headquarters in London. What seems more exciting?”
The Provisional IRA has tried hard to keep a lid on dissent in west Belfast. A pub where a “Real IRA” prisoners’ function took place last month was burned down.
Loyalist graffiti appeared outside but few people believe loyalists were responsible. Earlier, a leading dissident was abducted, stripped naked and beaten. Armed “Real IRA” men visited Provisional homes and secured his release.
Attempts to stop the sale of the Sovereign Nation, the newspaper of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, have failed. The movement denies that it is the political wing of the “Real IRA”.Tensions are now higher than ever in west Belfast. The “Real IRA” has threatened revenge for those who ordered and carried out the O’Connor killing.
Many Provisional IRA members have stepped up their personal security. At O’Connor’s wake, “Real IRA” activists joked about living in their cars for the next few weeks. The demand for revenge among dissident grassroots is immense. Their leaders are more cautious.
Not retaliating will bring the accusation that they can’t protect their members. It could also increase the chances of the Provisionals killing another dissident in future.
But retaliating would lose any sympathy gained and would risk a feud in which the dissidents could be wiped out. The sustained campaign which security sources believe the “Real IRA” is preparing to launch would be incompatible with a feud.
The “Real IRA’s” act of assertion was staging two shows of strength within 48 hours in west Belfast. On Tuesday night, nine dissidents armed with rifles fired shots into the air in front of a cheering crowd at O’Connor’s home.
It was all carefully organised. The “Real IRA” blocked off the street. Two men filmed proceedings and later released the video to the media. Women quickly collected the shells from the ground. The next day, in front of camera crews and photographers, eight “Real IRA” members appeared in full combat dress.
Shots were fired over the coffin from a handgun. It was the first armed display at a republican funeral since the 1980s. It was a scene most Northerners had hoped belonged to the past.
But it had an effect among republican grassroots. Many had believed the “Real IRA” was restricted to Dundalk and the Border counties. “I was shocked to see so many of them, and obviously well armed, in west Belfast,” admits a mainstream republican.
There is deep concern that two years after the Omagh bomb, the “Real IRA” is starting to recover. The Provisionals remain the largest and most powerful organisation but a security source points out it is a fluid situation.
“The Provos are still the big tiger. But big tigers get old and young cubs grow up.”