Transcript for Insight – ‘Killing for Peace’
Date – 26th October 2000
Reporter: Trevor Birney
The murder of Joe O’Connor in West Belfast two weeks ago brought to the boil the simmering hatred between the various factions within the Republican family.
The brutal killing in broad daylight upped the stakes dramatically as the threat of schism and feud once again falls over Belfast.
Tommy McKearney, former IRA hunger striker:
If, if the Provisional IRA which supports Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s participation in government, carried out the killing of Joseph O’Connor what we are are seeing is something coming very close to state secret police enforcing the maintenance of the state by bloody execution on the streets.
Professor Richard English, School of Politics, Queen’s University, Belfast:
The question is really how far it is possible to engage in this kind of action and sustain involvement in democratic government. That is the question not just in the republican movement but elsewhere is going to ask.
Anthony McIntyre, former IRA bomber:
It introduces an element of fear that despite the Good Friday Agreement, where the principle of consent has been elevated and enshrined that people can only consent to what the IRA wants them to. That there is no room for dissent. I think that it’s an indication of just how much danger exists in terms of the IRA adopting a fascistic totalitarian and authoritarian state I find it really frightening.
In the aftermath of Joe O’Connor’s murder, the streets of Ballymurphy were full of accusation and counter-accusation, threat and counter-threat — the tense atmosphere further soured by cordite as guns replaced rhetoric.
Trevor Birney, Insight reporter:
The family of Joe O’Connor is convinced that the Provisional IRA murdered him, claims strenuously denied by the IRA leadership and by Sinn Fein and given the deafening silence from the SDLP and the two governments apparently accepted at face value by the political establishment. Tonight Insight examines just why Joe O’Connor was murdered and asks why the Provisionals have resorted to killing in order to preserve the peace process.
Joe O’Connor was clinically and mercilessly assassinated.
He had called at his mother’s home on the Ballymurphy estate to make arrangements for his son’s first communion.
When he left the house at half-past-one two gunmen approached. He was shot five times in the head.
O’Connor, who’d become a senior member of the Real IRA in the area, died instantly.
Margaret O’Connor, mother of Jospeh O’Connor:
My daughter came into the room screaming that Joe had been shot dead. I didn’t know where till I tried to get out I didn’t realise it was at my own front door. I have to look outside that front door every night. People know I sit in that garden in summer I have to sit and watch where they killed him.
The killers struck in a busy street in the middle of the day. Witnesses approached by Insight say the gunmen made little attempt to disguise their identities.
They had approached the car and opened fire at point blank range before making off on foot, tearing off their masks and wigs as they jumped into a waiting getaway car.
Joe O’Connor’s wife was among the first on the scene.
Nichola O’Connor, widow of Joseph O’Connor:
Running up the street it was totally – everybody was out and he was just – there was just the car he was in it with his head covered – everybody was screaming and shouting at each other and everybody was grabbing each other. Everybody was just so angry at that time because nobody had ….. everybody was completely and utterly shocked.
The arrogance of the murder stunned Ballymurphy.
But the O’Connor family was unwilling to co-operate with the RUC and they called on a former IRA bomber who is now armed with a doctorate on the history of the Provisionals, to help them find out which organisation was responsible.
I wanted to establish who was responsible for killing Joseph O’Connor. I came away satisfied that the Provisional IRA were responsible for killing Joseph O’Connor. I have no reason to change my findings. The IRA have released a statement that they did not. If that is the case then the IRA should be concerned that there should be a community inquiry to find out just exactly who is prowling the streets of West Belfast murdering people like Joseph O’Connor.
O’Connor joined the Real IRA eighteen months ago and his strong republican views often led to disagreements with his wife. Ultimately it led to his death.
Joe was very very political. Joe was just going to change this world. Joe basically didn’t join any organisation. Joe joined an organisation to change Ireland. He wanted to change the future for his children.
With a reputation for unpredictability, Joe O’Connor was a constant irritant to the authority of the Provisional IRA in Belfast’s working class heartland of traditional Republican support.
But O’Connor was playing with fire and his swaggering approach made him vulnerable, especially if the mainstream movement decided to stamp its authority on the dissidents.
Reliable republican sources have told Insight that the Provisionals had taken a decision in recent weeks to eliminate a key figure within the Real IRA. The accusation gains in credibility when two previous attempts on O’Connor’s life are taken into account, one of which took place at his home.
The driver actually took out a gun and put it in between his legs and started to load it – and at this stage I started to panic, because the baby had run onto the landing and all I was thinking about is if they shoot through the door at the baby.
So I ran and grabbed the baby and shaking again, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know should I phone the police, what to do because everything was running through my mind.
But the driver had then tried my house and the house next door had no numbers on their doors, but in Springhill the numbers don’t go in twos. So they were confused as to whether it was his house or not. And that was the only reason they drove off.
In 1987, Joe O’Connor’s grandfather Francisco Notorantonio was shot dead in the same street in a killing which is linked to collusion between Loyalists and the security forces.
Notorantonio had been a member of the IRA in the 1940s and was given a Republican funeral. Among the pallbearers were Gerry Adams and Alex Maskey.
Ironically, Sinn Fein had met the family to discuss the murder of Notorantonio on the very day the Provisional IRA shot dead his grandson.
Informed sources close to the Provisionals have told Insight that the Joe O’Connor murder was authorised by IRA Commanders.
The family saw it as an act of betrayal.
My son watched him getting into the car, putting his seat belt on, closing the door – saw the lads coming down the street that did it – with their so called disguises on – but they weren’t really disguises – he’d closed the door, heard the shots and opened the door again and saw them getting into the car, they took the beard off, one had a false beard, two of them had wee small clear glasses, but when they got in the car they took the beard and everything off. My son said he was really afraid. And a few other members of the family had seen them too – without the mask on.
Rumours linked to Provisional sources suggested O’Connor was murdered because of his criminal activities and his involvement in the smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol, activities the Provisionals themselves are believed to be involved in.
But the Real IRA, the terrorist group responsible for the Omagh bombing, the single worst atrocity in the last 30 years, believe O’Connor was killed for more fundamental political reasons – destabilising the Provisional IRA’s base in West Belfast.
The Real IRA kept up the pressure, accusing the Provisionals of cynically exploiting the climate of revulsion at dissident activity after a television documentary on the Omagh bombing, to cover murder on the streets.
Such a linkage was tantamount to felon setting – the worst rebuke in the Republican lexicon.
The challenge clearly stung Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who refused to enter what he termed the politics of condemnation when questioned on the killing.
Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein (footage from press conference)
I am not going to get involved in condemnation I have refused to get involved in the politics of condemnation over the past thirty years.
But the very fact that Sinn Fein has entered the politics of condemnation in recent bomb attacks by dissidents suggests that the Republican movement viewed the rationale behind the incidents very differently.
Gerry Kelly warned that the IRA was prepared to face down dissidents.
The fear is there these accusations are unfounded and this group that is threatening the IRA should know that that threat is of no consequence.
The IRA has issued a statement declaring that it was not responsible for the killing. The statement goes on.
“Malicious accusations suggesting IRA involvement are designed to heighten tensions and promote the agenda of those opposed to current IRA strategy. The IRA leadership will not be deflected from our current strategy.”
Sinn Fein moved quickly to back up the IRA statement with the Education Minister asking the public to take the denial at face value
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein, Minister for Education:
I have heard the IRA statement and the public generally accepts these publics as being true. What we must do is insure that the peace process continues.
That tone of injured pride would hold more credence if it were not for the fact that the IRA sought to ensure in more direct terms that the republican community in west Belfast got the message. There was to be no investigation, no questioning, the matter was to be buried along with O’Connor. Anthony MacIntyre, derided as a self-styled investigator by the republican media in West Belfast was visited by senior IRA activists responsible for internal security – code for what in effect is the movement’s secret police.
It was a very intimidating affair and the IRA are not particularly pleased with me. I don’t think they have much reason to be displeased with me, I have certainly much more reason to be angry with them for having, in my honest judgement, carried out this killing.
Questioned by reporter:
The IRA wanted you to shut up?
I won’t shut up.
Questioned by reporter:
But they asked you that you shut up?
They demanded that I shut up.
Ballymurphy has had a long tradition of republican activism, some of the first skirmishes took place here in April 1970 and Gerry Adams ensured that it was a hotbed of radicalism as the province lurched towards civil war in the early 1970s.
The Real IRA was determined that O’Connor would be accorded full military honours.
It was the first time that Republican guns were openly displayed in Belfast since Ardoyne in 1995 at the height of the Drumcree disturbances. The message was clear – the rhetoric of the Provisionals was being challenged by the sound of Kalashnikovs.
Professor Richard English, Queen’s University:
The problem for the mainstream republican movement is that since the Belfast Agreement they have compromised on the consent principle, they have changed their attitude on armed struggle, they have compromised on weapons and on being in a Northern Ireland parliament and so on. In all of those ways they are open to the charge from republican sceptics that they have compromised on republican politics so in that sense the faultline is significant.
The funeral was another clear attempt to embarrass the Provisionals. Armed and masked men led a colour party.
Leading the charge of betrayal were the former IRA hunger striker Brendan Hughes and Marian Price, the woman who had bombed the Old Bailey in London for the IRA and whose credentials in republican terms are impeccable.
Marian Price, Funeral oration at burial of Joseph O’Connor
Volunteer Joe O’Connor was clear in his opposition to British rule; he did not dissent from republican principles or ideals. He refused to accept British rule under any guise, irrespective of who administered it, whether it be Peter Mandelson, David Trimble or Martin McGuinness. All are now members of the British establishment, all administer it and now we witness how far the Provos are prepared to go to uphold it. They are now reduced to an armed militia of the British state.
Marian Price interviewed for Insight:
You often find with the Provisionals that they will always move to rally the troops behind them before they make a major concession. Certainly the fact that Unionists are having difficulties, the pro-Agreement Unionists, it maybe that a major concession on behalf of the Provisionals is in the line and therefore to rally the grassroots, this is why this happen.
Noticable by his absence for the funeral of one of his constituents, was the MP for the area Gerry Adams who used the day to visit south Armagh to steady the nerves as speculation grew that there was to be another inspection of IRA arms.
The IRA may be opening its arms dumps, but security force sources believe the guns used in the O’Connor killing and two previous murders were part of a consignment brought in from America in a smuggling operation sanctioned by the IRA’s army council.
Gerry Adams interview for Insight on September 28:
The IRA leadership has been solid despite the difficulties within Republican activism in driving this process forward. Let nobody be in any doubt that it is a leadership led process and there are difficulties within the broad IRA constituency, there are of course difficulties there.
If the people on the ground in rural parts were to learn that the Provisional IRA had indeed killed Joe O’Connor I think there would be a lot of criticism of that action. Because, Republicans in general find it very difficult to accept that one Republican would shoot another Republican over matters of policy. It would also be inconceivable that Republicans in general would accept the need to assassinate a Republican in order to maintain the Stormont government.
Reliable sources say the stage is set for a major showdown within the republican movement as the defining moment in the peace process approaches.
A campaign of harassment has been mounted with pickets outside Anthony McIntyre’s house over a newspaper article that dared to ask for an independent inquiry into O’Connor’s death.
People like me, who must perform, giving our ability, given our education, given our academic qualifications, must perform some intellectual function if we are to be of any benefit to the community. If the IRA think that they can get me to stay silent and to start contribute to their regime of truth I might as well pack up and live in some kind of Orwellian or Kafkaesque world.
That campaign of intimidation also extended to the O’Connor family who had to barricade themselves into their home as swarms of young men paraded around the streets.
Insight has learnt that among the crowds were some of those involved in the O’Connor murder. What is clear is that the Provisionals are determined to stamp their authority on Ballymurphy.
Margaret O’Connor, mother of Joseph O’Connor
They came out in droves so they did. They might have driven through my street a few times- every corner around this place was crawling with them, they just marched down the hills as free as you like. The RUC did come up the street a few times, round and round, but they were still there, they didn’t go away. Are the two of them working together as a police force. If that’s policing, I don’t want it anyway.
Throughout the process Gerry Adams has sought to bring his entire movement with him but it is clear there is a seepage with the Real IRA actively recruiting in south Armagh, Fermanagh Mid Ulster and crucially in Ballymurphy itself.
While Adams accuses the government of losing the plot in relation to demilitarisation, it is alleged that the republican leadership has lost sight of its primary goal of a United Ireland in its pragmatic pursuit of short-term tactical advantage.
It is my belief that the Provisional movement has already crossed the Rubicon. It has certainly crossed the Rubicon mentally. It has crossed the rubicon politically. I am of the mind that it is about to cross that Rubicon physically. It feels itself vulnerable to criticism and not merely the criticism of the Real IRA types but also the trenchant critique that comes from those of us who are absolutely opposed to a return to a physical force campaign.
In previous splits the Provisionals remained intact in the North.
That is much more difficult when the people opposing the leadership are prepared to be openly hostile in what Republicans term the Northern arena.
In the 1986 split, Martin McGuinness contemptuously told the dissidents the only place they were going was home.
In 1986 in the midst of a debate over ending abstentionism it was hard to discount McGuinness’s claims that the war would continue to be prosecuted.
That belief carried greater legitimacy with the arrival in Ireland that year of a vast arms shipment from Libya.
But fourteen years on the logic of the peace strategy is now asking the republican movement to chose decisively between the ballot box and the armalite.
Professor Richard English:
The key difference between 1986 and the year 2000 is that in 1986 it was possible for the republican leadership to say that we are making comparatively minor concessions or pragmatic tactical concessions but we are holding fast to the key principles regarding armed struggle, with regards to the irreformibility and undesirability of Northern Ireland. Whereas in the year 2000 they are more open to the charge from sceptics that they have moved considerably further.
With former comrades turning against each other, the dispute is becoming more potent.
Marian Price, who along with Gerry Kelly bombed the Old Bailey, has now turned her fire on the Sinn Fein spokesman.
And it is the fact that leading members of the Provisionals are themselves allied to the cause that make the change in mindset so much more difficult to manage without further casualties.
I know they like to term people like myself dissenters, but we haven’t dissented any Republican principles, they are the people who have strayed from Republicanism. I believe today the same things that I believed in the early 1970s when Gerry was a comrade of mine. So he is the one that has changed, not me.
Professor Richard English:
The battle over northern heartlands is always going to be the fiercest one. Again that is a difference from 1986 and the split then and the splits that have been taking place recently in that the 1986 group had more of a southern base whereas the firecentre of the Provisional movement has always been in the north. So in that sense it’s the battle over northern heartlands, northern communities which is more fierce.
The transition away from a simple strategy of Brits Out has enevitably led to compromise.
For some who do not advocate a return to the armed struggle under any circumstances, the problem is that the compromise has involved the dilution of key principles.
The Provisional Republican movement is very likely in a process of transformation. The dynamic of its policy over the past 10 years is to participate within government in Northern Ireland and also to participate, I would argue, within a coalition government in the Republic and in order to do so I’m convinced they are going to have to make organic separations between the political party and the remnants of its armed wing.
For Sinn Fein’s detractors, their entry into constitutional politics means them being corrupted.
And with that corruption comes the turning on former colleagues as history repeats itself.
It happened with the creation of the Free State in 1921, it happened with Fianna Fail in 1927 and it’s now happening with the Provisionals.
The point was well put the other day by a Tyrone republican Sinn Fein is becoming the Fianna Fail of the North.
It’s obvious the Real IRA is seeking to capitalise on the divisions within the Provo rank and file, divisions openly admitted to by Gerry Adams.
This in turn raises uncomfortable questions for the wider political process. Has it become acceptable in order to preserve the peace process to kill opponents of the agreement?
It appears to me that there is a fear of asking the question who was responsible for the death of Joe O’Connor in case the answer would de-stabilise the political situation. I find that incredible that we have to tolerate murder to reinforce political stability. It is an absolutely bizarre situation to be in.
The Human Rights Act was recently incorporated into UK law.
Central to its provisions is the guarantee that citizens here have the right to freedom of speech. In the tinderbox of Ballymurphy that right seems as expendable as the life of Joseph O’Connor.
Insight requested an interview with the Secretary of State but our request was refused.
The question is will it take another death before action is taken to preserve the rights that Sinn Fein proclaimed were secured with the passing of the act in September.
With the appearance of guns on the streets of Ballymurphy in the battle for the hearts and minds of the republican movement the stakes have never been higher.