Monday, October 12, 2015

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15 Years On. Joe O’Connor. No Need For An Admission

Ciaran Cunningham recalls the Provisional IRA slaying of his friend Joe O'Connor in Ballymurphy 15 years ago tomorrow.


IRA Volunteer Joe O'Connor

Time flying relentlessly in as it does, this Tuesday will mark fifteen years since Provisional IRA gun men murdered Joe O’Connor, a Volunteer of the organisation then known as the Real IRA. They shot him repeatedly in the face outside his mother’s door in Ballymuphy, Friday 13th October 2000.

Sinn Féin to this day denies claims of Provisional involvement.

I have always made a point of remembering and declaring the blatant wrongness of Joe’s murder at anniversary time, perhaps to beyond the point of proportionate concern. Many young men and women before and since have been wrongfully murdered, with just as appalling an outcome and perhaps not afforded the ceremony and reverence that a handful of Joes friends and comrades assured he received in death.

From the outset I declare a prejudice; Joe would have been my brother-in-law had he lived. The damage his killers left in their retreat is manifest in my home to this day. But there is a more prominent motivation that propels me to put my hand up at anniversary time. The blatant and crass nature of his murder and the political context in which it occurred stuns and offends me till this day.

You see Joe knew he was going to be murdered. Sometime around 1999, while I was a student at Queens University, he called to my house in an agitated state. It was a Sunday morning – not the liveliest of times in a South Belfast student house – but Joe being a persistent early riser thought nothing of grabbing the Sunday papers and driving to mine for a cup of tea to read them. He was probably glad of the chance to get away from the increasingly menacing atmosphere of the West, where the Provisionals were well into the process of banning dissent. Kidnapping and abducting men with sport like enthusiasm, no doubt floating on the confidence of Mo Mowlam’s ‘internal housekeeping’ declaration.

This one morning Joe sat on our dusty armchair with his knee rocking up and down persistently; that subconscious declaration from young men that all is not well. I asked Joe what was wrong, at which point he explained that a British based Sunday Newspaper was suggesting that his maternal grandfather ‘Francisco Notarantonio’ - who had been shot dead in his bed by the UFF many years previously - was in fact murdered as result of a British Army ploy to cover up for a high ranking agent within the Provisional IRA.

Me in my youthful naivety suggested to him however that this was a useful revelation. My young and absolutist political mindset back then welcomed any opportunity to throw back a snowball in the face of the rocks of condemnation which were coming our way from within the ranks of Sinn Féin, who we saw as engaging in a fundamentally flawed and ill founded strategy.

‘One of us is going to go to the wall for this’, Joe solemnly declared to me that morning. I have never forgotten the grim sounding dry pronunciation of that one line, nor the cold atmosphere it left in the room. In hindsight I understand exactly why he was concerned.

The stars were beginning to align against Joe O’Connor from that moment on, and he was well capable of reading the signs, signs which I did not see until a friend (unaware that we knew each other) causally informed me of his murder while I sat drinking tea on her couch on the evening of Friday 13th, October 2000.

It is difficult to relay exactly, the political atmosphere which existed in areas like West Belfast in the late 90s. Unless one belonged to an established and confident armed organisation (which we did not) public expressions of dissent from Sinn Féin strategy were quite simply not allowed. The Provisionals were having none of it and they made it very clear.

For some time, and across the country, they had embarked on a campaign of abduction and the brutal beating of activists singled out as ‘dissidents’. In West Belfast - where devotion to Gerry Adams had peaked at a religious like fervour - not only would they have been capable of murdering a dissident, but their appetite for it was palpable on the ground.

It goes without saying that the Provisionals would have loved to kill a ‘dissident’ at that time. The actions of a section of their membership, walking away from that organisation in late 97’ in opposition to the Mitchell principles, the subsequent immeasurable tragedy of Omagh, and the feverish appetite for violence that seemed to exist within the well drilled and equipped Provisional circles made it almost inevitable.

But the final provocative factor; the perception (real or perceived) that Joe's own family were party to the musings of an ex-British Army whistleblower, who asserted that IRA internal security was for years directed by Army Agent ‘Steaknife’; this was the key factor which surely brought the cross hairs closer to the head of Joe O’Connor.  

Joe was the easiest of targets for the Provisionals to pick. He was not identified in the locality as a ‘Republican face’ so to speak. Cruel necessity (his father dying while he was a child) saw him tasked in no small way with bringing up his younger siblings. While many other youths his age busied themselves with rioting or other fringe political activities of the late 80s and early 90s, Joe O’Connor was more likely to be seen in Castle Street selling Christmas wrapping or dish cloths in an effort to bring a few quid into an under resourced working class house.

Ironically this type of absence from the Republican scene was mooted as a valuable advantage for young men wishing to join the Provos. For Joe O’Connor (who instead Joined the Real IRA) it could be relied on as a key condemnation, to be expressed after his death.

By the time of his death he was most certainly a Republican, well capable of expressing where he felt things should be going politically and militarily, happy to travel around Ireland networking, securing and ferrying war materials and generally expressing frustrations, fears, suspicions, strengths and indeed weakness; no better or worse than the average Provisional of his age.

His locality made him all the more vulnerable; there were at the time no more than eight loosely aligned members of the Real IRA in Belfast, at least two were subsequently found to be working for the Provisionals. The Provisionals in comparison were a monolith, with an existence that extended to at least every street.

And the Provisionals could not have lashed out as they did anywhere else, not without a genuine prospect of taking hits in return. Had they done so in South Armagh for example, the ramifications would have rolled on for generations.

Joe had unfortunately been buoyed by assurances that he would be defended in the face of any Provisional aggression. This was of course an unrealistic assurance as events (or the lack of them) would go on to demonstrate. Thankfully the Real IRA never did exercise retaliation for the murder of their Volunteer. Indeed their political manifestation would go on to studiously avoid all mention of the man who sold their first paper in Belfast. And today the army he joined arguably no longer exists.

A predictably tragic pattern which should perhaps act as a tale of caution to all eager young men promised adventure and the world.

Hindsight being a great thing, the kindest thing that Joe’s organisation could have done was to tell him to go home, that they were unable to protect him in the hostile Belfast atmosphere of the time, and perhaps come back when it was safer to be ‘a Dissident’. 2015 perhaps.

In the run up to the tenth anniversary of Joe O’Connor’s murder, I busied myself with attempting to secure (via Relatives for Justice) an admission of responsibility from the Provisionals.

Aware that his mother (in ill health and getting no younger) could benefit from that thing called ‘closure’, a concept which I must admit to not understanding myself, not having lost a child to murder, a murder which (according to those now in the government) was committed by nobody in particular.

In fairness to RFJ, they were extremely helpful when approached in 2010. Fears had been expressed to me by others about RFJ, from people concerned in regards to the impartiality of the organisation and their willingness to confront Sinn Féin, in an atmosphere in which that party appear to pull the strings of so many community based organisations.

However in dealing with the Joe O’Connor case, the representatives of Relatives for Justice were (in my opinion) up front, transparent and as honest as could be expected.

I measure their honesty by their simple declaration to me (following their attempt to gauge the mood of the PIRA) that ‘The Provo’s are never going to admit to this’, and subsequent expressions of distaste for what was being proposed by Sinn Féin at the time as suitable means to address similar issues of the past.

And they were right; the Provisional’s are never going to admit to the brutal and unnecessary murder of Joe O’Connor, a twenty six year old working class dad who ended up on the wrong side of the Irish political pendulum.

Fifteen years on, does it now really matter if those who ordered his murder admit responsibility and explain their actions?

It would be helpful, but not altogether necessary. The Provisional IRA did murder Joe O’Connor, let that be stated as a historical fact, beyond the need for any further debate. Furthermore, the array of Sinn Féin, SDLP and Unionist politicians who for the sake of political expediency said or intimated otherwise, knowingly and deliberately lied to the people regarding the murder of a working class citizen of Ireland, let that be remembered also.

10 comments :

marty said...

The murder of vol Joe O Connor by pira sharply brings into contrast the hypocrisy of those bigots in unionism and their distraction tactics , not a peep apart from that cunt Mowlams "a house keeping exercise" indeed no bringing down Stormont or cries about paramilitaries in govt, anyway when indeed did unionism ever give a fuck when a taig caught a bullet? pira murdered Vol Joe O Connor and next year 2016 they will walk up the Falls rd celebrating those who stood up to the brits esp those who took up arms , Adams and his cronies allowed six brave men to die needlessly on hungerstrike ,they may have sacrificed many more volunteers for their political ambitions, I,m sure many people will recall the words of the Patriot Game and the line "I,m sorry my rifle had not done the same,To those quislings who sold out the patriot game ". Joe O Connor murdered by pira thats as low as they can go.

DaithiD said...

Thanks Ciaran, its quite emotive reading. Just one thing :

...But the final provocative factor; the perception (real or perceived) that Joe's own family were party to the musings of an ex-British Army whistleblower, who asserted that IRA internal security was for years directed by Army Agent ‘Steaknife’; this was the key factor which surely brought the cross hairs closer to the head of Joe O’Connor...

(I think) The first Stakeknife/Notorantonio rumours surfaced in August 1999 via the Sunday Times,and the Stevens Inquiry (III) was launched in the summer of 1999, covering Finucane but clearly this would cover the Notorantio murder too. Do you think the Provos panicked, not realising the killing would not alter the flow of information to come?

Henry JoY said...

Thanks Ciaran for your courageously honest and moving account of Joe's life and untimely death.

Alas sadly the only feasible resolution to the current bind that those who stand in opposition to Sinn Fein find themselves in is to dissent from the pan-nationalist gospels that have been peddled for too long and at too great a cost.

The ideological myths need to be disseminated and hard realities acknowledged.

Henry JoY said...

Oops, myths need to be decimated before dissemination ... smash the sacred idols and then scatter the broken fragments far and wide that the idols cannot be reconstructed!

AM said...

A very timely piece with Joe's anniversary today. It is often said in defence of the Provisionals that unlike the British all their killings have at least been acknowledged by the movement. Yet another myth of the peace process. Bluntly and accurately stated Ciaran.

Niall said...

Ciaran,
Someone had to get it and Joe was the unfortunate patsy chosen. His death sent a message to others while at the same time not upsetting the status quo of Belfast PIRA's rule. There was never going to be retaliation for who was Joe O'Connor to warrant such?
How many have believed the bullshit of the leaderships or whatever 'IRA', real or provisional and then been used as canon fodder......very moving tribute.

Ciarán Cunningham said...

Dathai D. My speculation on what was the Provisionals motivation would be speculation and no more obviously. I know that Newspapers had began reaching out to Joes wider clan sometime around 1999 suggesting the presence of a major infiltrator within the IRA and linking it to the murder of poor Fra back in 87'. (When the story first hit the print i cant be sure). From the outset though Joe had recognized the possibility that Journalists could 'kick the hornets nest' so to speak, in regards to his own personal safety.
There were of course other things going on at the time, other aggravating factors between the Reals and the Provisional s, this is why I use the term 'The stars were aligning', but no other factors as outstanding as the potential unveiling of an agent at the heart of the IRA.
A suggestion which at the time was unspeakable in West Belfast.

Republican Socialist said...

Thanks for posting this Ciaran, very moving and informative. You are a credit to Joe.

Eddie.

lizz burns said...

Murdered by cowardly scum we all know!! RIP CUS love you xx

Free Thomas McWilliams Now! said...

A very moving alt by ciaran about Volunteer. O'Connor. So very good to see Joe and his tragic killing is certainly NOT forgetten nor is the struggle to achieve the truth! Those who continue to cover the gunmen and cult who were responsible should hang their heads in shame. Your assassination was anti-republican, RIP Joe.