|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.