Who Killed Joseph O’Connor

Magill Magazine, November 2000

The recent murder of a Real IRA member in Belfast has served to underline increasing tension in the North between the RIRA and the Provisional IRA. The RIRA seems to have increased its membership to pre-Omagh levels. If everybody seems to know who the killers are, why has there been no official reaction? By Liz Walsh


Ballymurphy, west Belfast in the third week of October and it’s like the bad old days never went away. Black flags hang from lampposts through-out the web of narrow streets in this Provisional IRA stronghold, reminiscent of times thought long since gone. Beneath them, people huddle in little clusters, lamenting yet another republican death. Familiar scenes in an all-too familiar setting.

Joe O’Connor was the Belfast Commander of the Real IRA (RIRA). What set his murder apart is that it was carried out by republicans with the finger of blame being pointed firmly at the Provisional IRA. Also remarkable is the absence of official reaction. As Magill goes to press, ten days after the murder, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Catholic Church and the British and Irish governments have not condemned the killing. Even more significant is the fact that they have so far ignored what is, prime facie, a breach of the IRA ceasefire.

Few believe the Provisional IRA denial that it carried out the killing. Joe O’Connor was shot seven times in the head in broad daylight on 13 October outside his home on Whitecliffe Parade. Some of O’Connor’s family recognised the two men who shot him; so too did others in Whitecliffe, as did a plethora of other eyewitnesses. Between them on three occasions, witnesses saw seven members of the IRA unit – the gunmen, two scouts and three others waiting in getaway cars. All are local members of the Ballymurphy/upper Springfield IRA, they say.

Little doubt then as to who was responsible for the killing: the only imponderable is motive. Joseph O’Connor was a member of the staunchly republican Notorantonio family, who have lost several family members during the Troubles. O’Connor’s grandfather, Francisco, was murdered by Loyalists in 1987.

As Belfast Commander, O’Connor had been recruiting on behalf of the RIRA with some success. The new recruits are mainly young with no previous involvement in republican politics.

Until recently, the RIRA had no base in west Belfast. It was and is a Provo stronghold. Apparently, though, the Provos were sufficiently concerned about the possibility of the dissidents getting a foothold in Ballymurphy to kidnap O’Connor’s uncle, Anthony Notorantonio, on 15 March last.

The IRA took him to a house in west Belfast, stripped him and questioned him about membership of the Real IRA. Joseph O’Connor reacted by getting together a RIRA unit and kicking in the doors of local Provisional IRA men demanding his uncle’s release. According to another uncle, Victor Notorantonio, who acted as a mediator, both sides gave assurances that “there would be no feuding. They (the Provisionals) wanted it sorted out,” he told Magill. “They killed Joe, everybody in the area knows who did it.”

Although the Real IRA has denied it, tensions between the two groups have heightened in recent months. With a second inspection of Provisional IRA arms dumps imminent, the Provos are fully stretched trying to pacify those in their own ranks not overly enthusiastic about decommissioning. At the same time, the rate of attacks by the Real IRA has intensified (panel in article). With the Continuity IRA seen as a paper tiger, the RIRA was there as an alternative for those still hankering after military activity. Republican observers felt it was only a matter of time before a RIRA man was “taken out, as a shot across the boughs.”

If so, Joe O’Connor was perfect. Regarded as somewhat of a loose cannon, he was apparently “pretty quick with his fists” and had been involved in at least one fistfight with a local Provo. If the Notorantonio family is correct, and the Provos did interrogate Anthony Notorantonio about RIRA membership, it’s clear that the seeds of a feud existed before the kidnapping last March.

The IRA may have had a second reason to feel aggrieved by Joe O’Connor. The Ballymurphy man was close to a cigarette smuggling operation, of which some of the proceeds had for years been diverted to the IRA. Informed sources believe that at least some of that money would now go towards funding the RIRA, a group the Provos were trying to stamp out.

If, as believed, the Provos decided they could take O’Connor out, they could not have chosen a better time to do it, in the wake of the Panorama Programme (which named four suspects in the Omagh bombing), the harrowing evidence emanating from Omagh inquest and the current wave of arrests in the south.

“We don’t want retaliation”

Joe O’Connor’s family are in no doubt as to the reason he was killed. “He was killed because he was a member of Oglaigh na hEireann. Why don’t they stop denying it and come clean, come out and tell the truth?” said Charlotte Notorantonio, O’Connor’s aunt. His mother Margaret said her son had just closed the door and went out to the car when they heard shots. “We saw them running away, we know who they are.” Anthony was in the car when the gunmen opened fire but he escaped. The weapons used, a 9mm Browning pistol and a revolver, were subsequently found to be clean. “The family don’t want any retaliation, we don’t want any more republican deaths. But we want them to own up, we’ve had nothing but constant denial.”

Ballymurphy Sinn Fein councillor Sean McKnight is standing by the IRA statement. “I would stand by what Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness has said publicly and by the IRA statement. I haven’t spoken with the family yet so I don’t know where they’re coming from. But if the IRA killed him they would say so, and they would say why they did it.”

Previous denials show that is not necessarily the case: the IRA denied any part in the Florida gun-running operation, they also denied, initially, any responsibility for the murders of Garda Jerry McCabe and postman Frank Kerr in the mid-nineties.

At 8pm on 19 October, between 70 and 80 mainstream republicans swarmed into Ballymurphy in cars, vans and on foot. A group of women picketed the home of the republican critic, Anthony McIntyre, while others, mainly men, walked up and down from the Whiterock Road to Divismore and Whitecliffe. It was an extraordinary show of strength. Those watching were left in no doubt as to who controlled Ballymurphy.

“They are back pre-Omagh”

The previous day, O’Connor had been given a full paramilitary funeral with a volley of shots fired over the coffin. The RIRA took the opportunity to show off its new “hardware”: pistols, rifles, and submachine guns. Despite blanket surveillance by the two police forces they are apparently fairly well armed. Recent RIRA arms finds in the south included an updated version of the RPG 18 rocket launcher manufactured in 1990 capable of piercing up to 375mm of armour. It was the first weapon of its kind found in the Republic. A further ten RPGs were included in a weapons arsenal on route from Croatia to Ireland last July but the haul was seized by Croatian police. Small quantities of semtex, which could have been filched from Provo dumps pre-1997, have also been found as have brand new sub-machine guns.

Numerically, the RIRA strength is back to where it was before Omagh: about 120 members. It has the same core leadership but below that, the membership appears to have changed significantly. Apart from the defection to the RIRA last May of a senior border Provisional, it has had limited success in attracting Provos disaffected with the current strategy. Most of the new recruits are very young, some still in their teens. Mainstream republicans regard some suspiciously as being on the fringes of criminality, although the Real IRA has denied it, one new member from the Falls is a well known cannabis dealer; his involvement is thought to be purely opportunistic rather than ideological.

Last spring, security forces in the Republic questioned members of a Real IRA ‘colour party’ near the border. “They were people we’ve never seen before, they were very young, little more than kids,” said a senior source.

Geographically, the organisation’s power base is still South Armagh/North Louth although as recent events have shown, they now have a presence in Belfast. Despite its recent sabre-rattling, the RIRA does not have the capacity to mount a sustained military campaign. Neither does it have the capacity to take on the Provisional IRA should a feud break out between the two rival groups – the Provos would wipe them out. Evidently they have informers in their ranks – one at senior level – given the high number of seizures and arrests.

But its very existence offers an alternative to the Adams’ strategy and therein lies the danger for the Provos in the weeks and months ahead. Part of the political strategy includes a readiness to enter coalition in the south with Fianna Fáil – or whichever party has the numbers to form a government – after the next election. As a pre-requisite, Sinn Fein will have to hive off the IRA once and for all. This involves uniting a jittery republican base so the last thing the Provos want is to leave another standing army behind. They will attempt to crush resistance before it begins. This is the dominant theory to emerge after the O’Connor killing but in the absence of hard evidence, the motive remains entirely speculative.

Outside of Provisional republican circles there is no doubt that the IRA is responsible for the killing, one that would necessarily have had to be sanctioned at the top – at Army Council level.

If the family know who shot him, if eyewitnesses and the RUC know who did it, it makes the official silence surrounding the killing all the more remarkable. At this stage, there is more evidence available of IRA involvement than there was available in the killing of Andrew Kearney, the Belfast man murdered by the IRA in July 1998. His killing was condemned by the Bishop of Down and Conor, senior members of the British and Irish governments and Opposition politicians and led ultimately to Sinn Féin being suspended from the Stormont talks.

In contrast, there appears to be a Nelsonian blind eye turned to the O’Connor killing and a de facto breach of the IRA ceasefire.

The murder happened two days before the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made his Bodenstown speech, in which he promised to crush the Real IRA. There was no reference to the O’Connor killing. The Catholic Church, the SDLP and the Opposition politicians have maintained a deafening silence. The question is why?

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