The murder of Joseph O’Connor, allegedly at the hands of the IRA, in West Belfast last week could not have been better timed to derail the political process in the North of Ireland in it had been planned by the Rev. Ian Paisley himself.
O’Connor, a member of the so-called Real IRA — the group responsible for the Omagh massacre, which killed 29 people in August 1998 — was gunned down in Gerry Adams’s constituency by two men who were identified by locals as IRA activists.
The killing comes just two weeks before Unionist leader David Trimble faces a crucial meeting with the Unionist Party’s ruling body. Trimble is already under enormous pressure by hardliners within the UUP to pull out of the power-sharing Executive unless the IRA begins "real" weapons decommissioning. The shooting will certainly be used by the anti-agreement Unionists to prove their case that regardless of the IRA cease-fire, it is still engaged in violent crime and that its political wing, Sinn Fein, has therefore no place in a democratic government.
Controversy still rages around the shooting, with allegations and counterallegations about who was responsible. The most likely explanation, one supported by O’Connor’s widow, is that it was a "vendetta" killing, not involving "politics" as such.
Already this year the IRA has murdered two men — both alleged drug dealers — one in South Belfast and another in South Derry. However, the killing of O’Connor has shocked and angered not only Unionists but Nationalist opinion as well.
Trimble was correct to express his concern that the North was in danger of slipping into a "Mafia culture" — witness the murder and mayhem just lately visited upon the Protestant working-class community of the Shankill by feuding loyalists. The murder of O’Connor may well provide us with further proof of that a similar danger exists within the Catholic community.
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For too long armed organizations have created their own brutal and callous version of "law and order," enforcing their rule and control of money-making rackets under the veneer of patriotic endeavors. Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, is the last resort of a scoundrel.
These same organizations and their political spokesmen are usually the first to criticize the police and are most vociferous in their demands for police reform. Yet they stand back and make excuses for what is simply murder sanctioned by a kangaroo court not answerable to any democratic mandate.
Unionists are right to say that the participation in government of any political party associated with such organizations is incompatible with the democratic process. Sinn Fein will have to do more than issue feeble apologies. Weasel words are not enough. They will certainly not be enough to prevent the collapse of the democratic institutions voted for by the Irish people and now put under grave risk by a handful of murderous gunmen.