Killing Joe O’Connor

Ten years have passed since the Provisional IRA murdered RIRA Volunteer Joseph O’Connor in Ballymurphy.

It was 1999 that Mo Mowlam gave a green light for the Provos to maim and murder their own people, when she classified the murder of young Charles Bennett – alleged to have been killed to keep him from exposing corruption – as “internal housekeeping”; the Provos routinely kidnapped and threatened other republicans, justified as necessary action to keep the movement from splitting, in order for the Adams leadership to carry the bulk of supporters through the peace process. As recently published memoirs have shown, that was a load of cobblers, but the governments were prepared to look the other way when it came to Provo violence. This free run of ‘housekeeping’ ran out of steam with 2 incidents, coupled with the Northern Bank robbery, that mark the ending of ‘peace processing’ and the beginning of the bedding down of Stormont as we know it today: the attempted murder of Bobby Tohill, and the murder of Robert McCartney. However, the bedding down comes with a caveat, as often happens when the Brits take the Mowlam line. The murder of Paul Quinn shows that the governments are still prepared to turn a blind eye to Provo violence when it suits them.

Prior to Joe O’Connor’s murder, Charles Bennett and Andrew Kearney had been murdered by the Provos in North Belfast. Andrew’s mother, Maureen, from Twinbrook, was one of the first to break ranks and speak out against the organisation that brutally killed her son. In a sense, her speaking out was the start of a shadow peace process, one that has never been acknowledged and today exists amongst those families seeking the truth of what happened to their loved ones.

By October, 2000, the stage was set for the Provisional IRA to assert its dominance and murder a dissident republican. In West Belfast in particular, challenges were being made: the RIRA was making some inroads in recruitment and beginning to shake off the shackles of Omagh. A dissident magazine, Fourthwrite, was being published and presented a threat due to the attention it was getting; respected republicans like Brendan “The Dark” Hughes were publically questioning the direction the Provisional movement was going, while writers like Anthony McIntyre were accurately predicting the inevitable future of that direction, in clear contrast to the propaganda being churned out by organs of the movement such as the British funded Andersonstown News. Financially, the Provos feared former members were starting to shift some money-making enterprises over to dissident organisations. Rumours of “Stake Knife” were doing real damage via the Sunday People, who relentlessly covered the concept of an informer at the top echelons of the Provisional IRA, in its weekly stories. The tension was building; a relative of O’Connor’s was kidnapped and only rescued from being brutally tortured by the arrival of O’Connor kicking the door in where his relative was being held.

The Wednesday before the shooting, Sinn Fein had held a meeting on policing in the BIFHE on the Whiterock Road. Some challenges were made to them from the floor; it got heated. By Friday afternoon, Joe O’Connor was dead, shot seven times in the head in broad daylight at his mother’s doorstep.

Whitecliff Parade, where his mother lived, is one of those narrow Belfast streets where every front window looks into its neighbour’s sitting room. Privacy doesn’t exist; terraced homes cheek by jowl and cars scattered on the pavement – there are no driveways, as these homes were built in a time when having a car was not the norm – mean that a winding road becomes more serpentine as moving cars weave around the parked ones. Like many families in Ballymurphy, Joe’s family, the Notorantonios, tended to live close to each other, with sisters and brothers and aunts and mothers living on the same street. Whitecliff Parade was no different; Joe, murdered in front of his mother’s home, was killed on the same street his grandfather, allegedly targeted to divert the shooters away from the British asset, “Stake Knife”,  was shot dead by the UFF 13 years to the very week before, in his grandmother’s home just a few doors up.

When Joe’s killers ran from the shooting, they were seen by dozens of people, and easily identified. They were all local volunteers known to the tight-knit community. Those who were lookouts at the street’s corners were seen and identified, and the killers were also seen and recognised as they ran through a nearby schoolyard. In an estate the size of Ballymurphy, to mount a shooting like that in broad daylight, on foot, was pure madness – unless dependence on the silence of the victims and witnesses was vital to the plan. Talking amongst themselves was one thing, but the Provos were confident victims would never go to the police.

Where the family did go was to Anthony McIntyre, a Republican writer who had contacts with the media. He and Tommy Gorman, another former Provisional volunteer and ex-prisoner, publicly condemned the murder of Joe, who left a widow and three small children, and, unknown at the time, a fourth to come. They wrote a statement identifying the Provisional IRA as the organisation who carried out the murder, which was carried in the Irish News. They never identified the individuals involved; the responsibility lay with the IRA. The afternoon the statement was published, Bobby Storey and Martin Lynch, the heads of the IRA’s internal police, called to the McIntyre home.  Brendan Hughes and then Boston Herald reporter, Jim Dee, were present, as Jim Dee had earlier arranged for an interview to take place. Storey and Lynch went with McIntyre and his wife into the kitchen.

“Are you investigating the affairs of the IRA?”

“Did the IRA kill Joe O’Connor?”

Threats were made – Storey and Lynch were clear. The McIntyres were to shut up, or else.

After the funeral, the leadership of the Provisionals drove the point home when they mounted pickets on the homes of McIntyre and Gorman. Tommy Gorman’s wife was home that evening when the large crowd arrived in buses. The small cul de sac their home was on was filled to the brim with people. Many were people she knew, people who had been comrades during the long years when her husband was in prison and she was raising their children. The McIntyres were in town when they got a call about the picket at Tommy’s, and went straight up to the Gorman’s. While on their way to Andersonstown, a neighbour phoned: “Don’t come home. There is a squad of men in [the house across the street from yours]. There is a mob waiting for you to return.” The McIntyres did not return for four days.

Brendan Hughes and Billy McKee were working behind the scenes along with Fr Des Wilson to mediate, to help stymie the escalating tensions; no one wanted Joe’s murder to blow out into an all out feud. Unless that was the intention of the shooting all along: were the Reals to attempt to strike back, the Provisionals would have made it a night of the long knives. Word came back from the Provisionals that the efforts of Hughes and McKee were not wanted.

The picketers returned to the McIntyre home two weeks later. This time McIntyre’s wife, Carrie, who was six months pregnant with their first child, was home. Marie Cush, who is now a Belfast City Councillor for Sinn Fein, but was then a SF candidate, led the picket which Carrie confronted on her own. An editor of the Andersonstown News, Gearóid MacSiacais, who now speaks at events organised by the dissident group éirígí, was amongst the crowd shouting abuse at her. The Andersonstown News at the time was instrumental as a messenger of the hate campaign being conducted by the Provisionals. Twice weekly they were to the fore in spreading disinformation and malicious lies about those who had the temerity to stand up to Provo rule.

As the picketers left the McIntyre home, they ran into the widow of Joe O’Connor returning to hers. Harassed with hate mail (“Provos Rule. Scum Out.”) and malicious phone calls after her husband had been murdered, Nicola O’Connor now faced a 100 strong mob waving placards.

The hate campaign being waged against “dissidents” by the Provisionals was intense: it encompassed pregnant women, one a widow made by their volunteers.

All of this had the imprimatur of the State behind it: at the time of the murder the then RUC immediately raided offices belonging to Republican Sinn Fein in an act of deflection meant to stoke fires between RSF and the RIRA. Despite it being widely known who was involved in the murder and that numerous witnesses to the crime existed, nothing was done. Even the coroner, John Leckey, ruled that the police failed to act, with not one person questioned in connection with the murder over two years after it was committed.

As recently as 2009, Gerry Adams was frequently photographed with a bodyguard, whose name had long been associated with the murder of Joe O’Connor. It was a double message being sent, for Adams to have employed him in such a visible position: “We can get away with murder, we are untouchable”.  It was a direct message to any dissidents thinking of challenging the leadership, an unsubtle notch on the belt.

Much more went on – the McIntyres eventually left their home for over a month, after the second picket and Carrie was hospitalised; a leading member of SF’s prisoners’ group, Coiste, had Tommy Gorman fired from his job; it became impossible for McIntyre or Gorman to work in West Belfast. Eventually, years later, the Notorantonio family was completely burned out of Ballymurphy, a campaign orchestrated behind the scenes by some of those most closely involved with the O’Connor murder and hate campaign. A digger was driven through the home of the elderly matriarch of the Notorantonio’s by a Provisional IRA volunteer.

Reading back through the material documenting the time, it is remarkable, in terms of republican thinking, how little has changed. What McIntyre and Gorman were saying back then, isolated and on their own, has finally become the accepted wisdom of many; the majority have caught up to their thinking. What is ironic of course is that many of today’s newly minted members of various dissident groups were to the fore at the time of the O’Connor murder defending “Provo Rule”, wilfully and energetically engaging in the hate campaign against those whose thinking they now endorse.

Killing Joe O’Connor and the hate campaign that followed was strategically important for the Provos to continue pushing their way through the peace process. It arrested the emerging growth of dissident groups in Belfast, closed all potential space for a republican political alternative to Sinn Fein and instilled a powerful fear throughout the community. The price of standing up to the Provos, speaking out against them or challenging them politically was extremely high. The attacks on McIntyre, Gorman and Hughes, intensified by the organised social isolation, ostracisation, and black-listing set an example few wanted to follow. For McIntyre, being silent was not an option, yet he recognised why many remained so: “It is important that we continue to reassert what we believe to be the truth. We live in a world where many are more afraid of being isolated than they are of being wrong.”

The hatred engendered during that time still runs deep; to acknowledge that McIntyre and Gorman were right, and not just about the O’Connor murder but in their complete analysis of where the Provisional Movement was going, means these new dissidents – Provos ten years ago –  must acknowledge they were wrong, and accept some amount of guilt, not only for how they treated the likes of McIntyre and Gorman and other dissidents such as Brendan Hughes and, later, Richard O’Rawe, but for their complicity in enabling the Provisionals to lead Republicanism to where it is today: nowhere.

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