By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The IRA has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement denying involvement in the murder of a leading member of the Real IRA in West Belfast, though the dissident group insists republicans were indeed responsible.
Joe O’Connor, a 26-year-old father of three, was shot dead outside his mother’s home in Ballymurphy on Friday, Oct. 13. His funeral saw the first public display of a republican firing party in Belfast in more than a decade.
Two weeks after his death, controversy continues to rage over whether mainstream republicans, either with or without sanction from the IRA leadership, were involved. The RUC has refused to say whether it believes the IRA was involved.
O’Connor’s mother, Margaret, has accused Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams of having her son’s "blood on his hands." She refused an offer from Adams for a private meeting. The dead man’s widow, Nichola, says the killing part of a personal vendetta.
The IRA said in a statement, signed P.O’Neill: "In light of the speculation and allegations surrounding the killing of Joseph O’Connor the IRA wishes to state that it was not involved in his death.
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"The IRA leadership extends its condolences to the O’Connor family. Malicious accusations suggesting IRA involvement are designed to heighten tension and promote the agenda of those opposed to current IRA strategy.
"Threats directed at the IRA do nothing but exacerbate the situation. The IRA leadership will not be deflected from our current strategy."
At last Wednesday’s funeral, 10 men and women in full paramilitary uniform stepped out of O’Connor’s mother’s house behind the coffin and stood to attention to orders shouted in Irish.
One of them then produced a handgun and fired a volley of three shots over the tri-color-draped coffin on which a black beret and gloves had earlier been pinned.
It was the fourth paramilitary display in the area in less that three days. Under cover of darkness the previous night, two Czech-made assault rifles were fired into the air and a videotape produced that was handed to TV stations.
Leading dissident republicans were among the mourners present as the 300-strong cortege moved to Corpus Christi Church for a requiem Mass. There was a heavy RUC presence in the area, but police made no attempt to intervene.
Afterward, the RUC surrounded the burial plot at the city cemetery to ensure there were no further paramilitary displays. Among those who acted as pall bearers was veteran republican and hunger striker Brendan "The Dark" Hughes.
The graveside oration was given by another former hunger striker, Marion Price, whose sister Dolours also attended the funeral. In a particularly hard-hitting and bitter speech, Price said those who had killed O’Connor came from within the republican community.
"Let there be no doubt, contrary to deliberate misinformation being peddled by the Provisional movement and aided by RUC sources, those responsible for this foul murder have been clearly identified. Shame! Shame on you.
"Many questions arise as to why at this particular time, the Provisional leadership chose to sanction such a dastardly act. It cannot be ignored that it comes in the wake of mounting political and internal pressure over decommissioning and Patten issues, all of which the leadership have conceded.
"Is this the act of a leadership desperate and bereft of political direction? The people of West Belfast and beyond will judge in the coming weeks and months."
O’Connor, Price said, had refused to accept British rule "whether it be Peter Mandelson, David Trimble or Martin McGuinness.
"All are members of the British establishment, all administer it and now we witness how far the Provos are prepared to go to uphold it. They are now reduced to an armed militia of the British state."
Martin McGuinness said, however, that the IRA’s statement that it was not involved in the murder was "an important development."
"They have made statements in the past about very serious matters and people have accepted what they have said, so I do accept their statement," he said.