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Killing sparks fear of Republican feud

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland

BELFAST — Members of the IRA are being widely blamed for shooting death a dissident republican man last Friday in West Belfast. Sinn Fein says the IRA was not involved, but the dead man’s family, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA all blame mainstream republicans for the killing. The Real IRA has threatened to avenge his death.

Late on Tuesday, the IRA described as "malicious" allegations that it was responsible.

Though the shooting of Joseph O’Connor is being portrayed by some as a political assassination, a reliable source suggests that the 26-year-old father of three was murdered as a result of a dispute over smuggling.

"He was threatening their turf," said the source, referring to the IRA’s trade in illicit cigarettes and diesel fuel. "He was trying to muscle in on it."

O’Connor was shot at point-blank range, in the head, as he sat in a car outside his mother’s house in Ballymurphy. She blames the IRA for the murder and says local people recognized the killers as they put their masks on.

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Ballymurphy is Gerry Adams’s power base and has been strongly identified with the Provisonal wing of the republican movement since its foundation in 1969.

"A hit in broad daylight in Ballymurphy has to be authorized," said the source. "Nobody in the Provisionals would do something not authorized at this moment."

The killing has led to further pressure being put on Unionist leader David Trimble to force Sinn Fein out of the power-sharing Executive or to withdraw himself.

The shooting could spark what many have feared for some time, a feud within republicanism, but there are powerful forces mitigating against that, not least being the determination of most shades of republicanism not become embroiled in a potentially damaging cycle of retribution.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has offered to meet the dead man’s family if they think it would be helpful. He said many nationalists and republicans were shocked by the killing and were dismayed and disappointed at the claims and counterclaims that have followed.

"There is a need for everyone to remain calm and reflective," he said. "The republican agenda will not be served by any action or rhetoric that would exacerbate the situation."

O’Connor was a member of the Real IRA, the group responsible for the Omagh bombing on Aug. 15, 1998 in which 29 people died. The group is ostensibly on cease-fire but is increasingly active.

Its members are being held responsible for the recent rocket attack on the MI6 building in London and other bomb attacks there as well as on RUC stations in Northern Ireland.

The dead man’s widow, Nichola, said if members of the IRA were involved, it was more likely to have been the result of a personal vendetta than for any political motive. "People hated him because he would have wiped you out with his bare hands," she said.

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