Eight years ago today Joe O’Connor was shot dead in a West Belfast street by armed Provisionals. It was a clinical execution carried out in broad daylight with scant regard for anything witnesses might say or do. O’Connor was a prominent member of the Real IRA in Belfast and had a history of friction with local Provisionals. Four days later the Provisional leadership denied any involvement in the killing and offered sympathy to the dead man’s family. This was widely seen at the time as a cynical ploy. While, eight years ago there were some who believed the IRA leadership, the body not yet having demonstrated its capacity for in-your-face lying, today only the terminally stupid or irredeemably obstinate maintain the pretence.
Although in their defence of the killing those Provisionals willing to discuss it sans protestations of innocence would point to the earlier friction, claiming that Joe O’Connor had been threatening their colleagues, this would seem a lame justification for the killing. Earlier a prominent Provisional had been shot and wounded by a hood in a Glen Road night club. It was an act much more grievous than any activity O’Connor had been pursuing against the Provisionals. The Glen Road assailant was subject to a punishment shooting, his life spared. Joe O’Connor was shot dead as a strategic strike against the Real IRA in the city, warning it to desist from an increase in its military activity at a time when the Provisionals were winding down their own. Any challenger to the throne would be ruthlessly dealt with.
Shortly after the shooting I and another former blanket prisoner Tommy Gorman penned an article in the Irish News laying the blame for O’Connor’s killing firmly with the Provisionals. This was done after much discussion with O’Connor’s family, witnesses to the attack and – although not disclosed by us at the time – with members of the Provisional IRA opposed to the killing in particular and the violent intimidation of dissident republicans in general.
The Provisional Movement, outraged that its writ would be challenged, moved to break us. Our homes were picketed by Sinn Fein organised mobs. The person who fronted the mob at each home is now a Sinn Fein councillor. Our own home was visited by the leadership of the Provisional IRA who sought to coerce our silence. A bad tempered exchange took place in the kitchen, loud enough to be audible to Brendan Hughes who sat in the living room with a US journalist.
After the first picket we travelled to Madrid where I was scheduled to launch a book for a Spanish friend. At Heathrow Airport, British police moved to separate me from my travelling companion on the pretext of examining his lap top. I knew instantly that something was amiss. A woman rapidly approached me, introduced herself as ‘Olivia from the Foreign Office’, and tried to thrust a piece of paper into my hand. She recoiled in embarrassment to a tirade of expletives exploding from my mouth. My friend, amazed at my outburst, and aware of my disdain for religion, asked if some biblical bigot had tried to pass me a religious tract. I merely told him it was a spook trying to turn me, nothing to get excited about; which left him wondering why I was so excitable. The spooks had been watching events, thought I might be under pressure and made their move. They were wasting their time.
On our return our house was picketed again. I was in Cookstown, at a political conference with another ex-prisoner. My wife, heavily pregnant, was left to face the gang alone. A neighbour crossed the street, jumped the fence and stood at her side. It was an act of courage in a difficult situation.
Although much ostracism was to follow, some of those involved in the picket saw it as political rather than personal. On occasion one of those most vociferous at our home would stop his car and ask me if I wanted a lift. He was always civil and would banter me about my political views. I was never sure if his friendliness or brazen effrontery impressed me most. I only declined the lift because I didn’t need one, not because I bore him any ill will.
Today we no longer live in West Belfast, having moved to a part of Ireland not subject to British rule. There remains a misconception popular amongst republicans that political Catholics hounded us out of Ballymurphy because of our willingness to dissent from their strategic project. It didn’t happen. Within a year of Joe O’Connor being butchered the worst of the pressure had abated, although tension could still be ramped up at times. Decommissioning took place in October 2001 and our critique no longer looked off the wall, while the word of the Provisional leadership had considerably depreciated. Today, they rather than we stand accused of authoring unremitting falsities. The hostility from Sinn Fein never disappeared but by the time we moved some of those most hostile in 2000 were back on speaking terms.
Looking back eight years, the killing of Joe O’Connor has not diminished in its characterisation as an act of brutal suppression against an alternative republican body. It was wanton violence - avoidable and counter productive. The tensions between him and the Provisional IRA could have been neutralised by means other than murder.
In a thoughtful piece written by a friend of the late Joe O’Connor to mark his eighth anniversary a call was made for the Provisionals to afford his family ‘the same values as they afford to others in the nationalist community, they should allow them the truth, admit their role in Joe O'Connor’s death and explain their actions.’
If the family of Joe O’Connor continue to be denied access to a true account of his slaying from those who perpetrated it, truth marches up the Falls Road and proclamations of support for truth recovery processes will be interpreted as something Sinn Fein is not genuine about and can thus be ignored. Nobody heeds demands for half the truth.