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When One Tribe Goes To War
While the provisional IRA might not have a British licence to murder, they might be allowed a certain leeway when it comes to tackling dissident Republicans.
Eamonn McCann, 14 Oct 2003
The cops called round to a pal of mine in Belfast the other day and warned her she was on a Provo hit-list. The Provos reckoned she was a supporter of the Real IRA, explained the stern-face detectives at the door. So, she’d better watch her back.
The RIRA has been issuing threats, planting hoax bombs and burning the cars of members of the District Policing Boards. This has complicated life for Provo strategists. To wrong-foot the SDLP in upcoming elections, the Provos need to stoke up Nationalist hostility to the DPPs. Simultaneously, in order to stay on-side with Dubya Bush and Tony Blair, they have to present an image entirely cleansed of violent stain. The RIRA’s head-butting belligerence on policing has made the maintenance of this balance devilishly difficult. For this reason, the Provos may have resolved to get rid of the rival IRA. Hence the concern of the the Police Service of Northern Ireland for my friend’s safety.
Could she believe a word that came from a cop’s mouth?, she wondered. Might not the doorstep advice be part of some securocrat manoeuvre? An attempt to precipitate a feud, even?
Then again, it would be a foolish person who would pay no heed to such ominous counsel.
Confused? Well you might be. But hardly as confused as Conor Cruise O’Brien. He thinks the Provos have been excessively restrained in their approach to the RIRA.
In his Indo column (September 20th), O’Brien quoted SDLP chief Mark Durkan calling on the Provisional IRA to confirm that it had not been involved in the attacks on DPPs. Martin McGuinness had responded by accusing the SDLP of ‘politicking’. This, asserted O’Brien, showed that, “The Provisional IRA must be in tacit and deniable collusion with the Real IRA” – a leap of logic which would leave an ordinary mortal dizzy but which the Cruiser carried off with casual ease. Mind you, he has the experience.
He went on: “The Provisional IRA could snuff them (the Real IRA) out of existence with no difficulty. They show no signs of doing so. The Real IRA’s campaign goes on right under the noses of the Provisional IRA and the IRA does nothing at all about it.”
Parse and analyse that passage how you will, in stoned or unstoned state of mind, and there’s no meaning to attach to it other than that O’Brien thinks the Provos false friends of peace for not ‘snuffing out’ members of the RIRA. As a matter of fact, he’s wrong: far from doing ‘nothing at all’ to eradicate the RIRA, the Provos snuffed out JoJo O’Connor outside his mother’s house in Ballymurphy three years ago this month, and are commonly believed in Republican circles to have killed Gareth O’Connor in south Armagh earlier this year. What O’Brien must mean is that the Provos havn’t snuffed out RIRA members in sufficient numbers.
What tangled times we live in.
Another of those warned by the PSNI that they were under Provo threat is west Belfast Republican Brendan Shannon. Interned at 17, Shannon later joined in the blanket protest while serving a 12-year stretch for PIRA membership and possession of arms. He says he sees himself now as a ‘traditional’ Republican but isn’t aligned to any organisation. He fled his home last month after being told by the police that the Provos planned
to kill him on his way to work, apparently because he’d attended gatherings in support of ‘dissident’ prisoners.
In an interview with the writer Anthony McIntyre, Shannon said he’s been on the receiving end of Provo harrassment since 1995 when he first voiced concern about the direction the movement was taking. “When the ceasefire was called I supported the strategy and was actually involved in heated exchanges at republican family meetings with those who expressed reservations... It is not as if I am opposed to politics. It is the type of politics that I call into question... It has become apparent that the leadership have been lying through their teeth. And now it has come to the point where they are prepared to kill and disappear those who refuse to accept the lies and are upfront about their opposition.”
Shannon’s recall of encounters with former comrades deserves reading by anyone interested in the enforcement of a settlement which has the support of every mainstream party and media outlet on the island. “I was kidnapped by the Provos seven years ago and was accused of being a member of a dissident organisation. They told me that if I became in engaged in any military activity against the British they would kill me. Four years later, I was summoned to meet them and when I agreed to go they told me that I was not to be seen in the company of more than four dissident republicans at any one time otherwise they would view this as evidence of membership of and loyalty to such an organisation and they would kill me as a result. You wouldn’t get that type of law in South Africa under the apartheid regime. I take the Provisional threat very seriously, Gareth O’Connor is missing and Jo Jo O’Connor was murdered...
“Tony Blair and Hugh Orde have both said that the IRA ceasefire is intact despite Orde conceding that they killed Gareth O’Connor. It means the IRA have a licence to murder their own people but nobody else.”
This may be hysterical nonsense from a man rattled at being told, whether truthfully or not, that his life is in imminent danger. Suggesting that the British have issued the Provos “a licence to murder” stretches credulity beyond breaking point.
On the other hand, Shannon’s underlying point helps unravel the tangle mentioned above.
As far as threats to the DPPs are concerned, and generally, the RIRA is up to nothing which the PIRA wasn’t up to for more than 25 years. But public support for armed struggle – never as high as Provo propagandists insisted – has plummeted to its lowest level in the same period. Nevertheless, those who persist in armed action do have the capacity to disrupt the pacification plans of the Provo leaders and their colleagues in other pro-Ageement parties. The result is widespread rage against anti-Agreement Republicanism. At particular points – in relation to policing in the run-up to a make-or-break contest for Nationalist votes, for example – the anger becomes intense enough to verge on the murderous.
While the PIRA might not have a British licence to murder, they might be allowed a certain leeway. It’s not uncommon these days at gatherings of politicoes, journalists or community activists to hear unexpected people wondering sotto voce why the Provos don’t just take the ‘dissidents’ out. O’Brien isn’t far away from this attitude. He reckons the reason the Provos don’t put the boot, or the bullet, in is that they retain a sneaking regard for their erstwhile associates. He’s wrong about that, too. But his message – that the Provos should take the RIRA out – reflects an attitude which is more widespread in respectable company than is commonly acknowledged.
There are some who believe that the way for the Provos to clinch their constitutional credentials is to eliminate their aspirant military successors before leaving the battlefield themselves. As to what extent this view finds resonance within Provo ranks, we may find out soon enough. There is nothing in Irish Republican politics to prevent it, and no shortage of precedent for