seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Murder of Joseph “Jo Jo” O’Connor

Joseph “Jo Jo” O’Connor, a leading member of the Continuity Irish Republican Army according to security sources in Northern Ireland, is shot to death in west Belfast on October 13, 2000. Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) gunmen are blamed for the murder.

The 26 year old O’Connor is shot dead as he sits in a car outside his mother’s house in Whitecliffe Parade in Ballymurphy. He comes from a well-known republican family and is understood to have been involved in welfare work for “Real IRA” prisoners. Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) sources do not suggest a motive for the shooting, except to say it is not sectarian and they believe it is a result of an inter-republican dispute. Continuity IRA sources deny their organisation is involved and the killing is condemned by Republican Sinn Féin.

O’Connor had just left his mother’s home and got into the passenger seat of a car when two hooded gunmen approach on foot and shoot him at point-blank range. He is hit in the head and dies instantly. A relative who is in the driver’s seat is uninjured.

O’Connor’s cousin, who lives nearby, says, “I heard one shot, then a silence, and then four more shots in quick succession.” Tensions between mainstream and dissident republicans at the time are high in Belfast but without serious violence.

O’Connor, who lives nearby in the Springhill Estate, is married with two young sons. His grandfather, Francisco Notarantonio, was shot dead by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in highly controversial circumstances at the same house 13 years earlier. That killing is at the centre of a legal battle between the British Ministry of Defence and the Sunday People over allegations of security force involvement.

O’Connor’s killing is condemned by First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble. He calls on the RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, to state who he believes is responsible. “I understand a police operation is still ongoing and there may very well be further developments, but the question we will all ask is who was responsible for this murder.”

The killing is condemned by Republican Sinn Féin. A Sinn Féin councillor, Sean McKnight, says local people are “shocked” by the killing. “We call on those responsible for this deliberate shooting to declare themselves and spell out to the people what their motives are,” a spokesman says. “Local sources indicate the deceased man was associated with the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. Republican Sinn Féin has no hesitation in condemning this action and points out the obvious dangers that lie ahead.”

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) representative for Belfast West, Alex Attwood, condemns the murder as pointless but says no one should “rush to premature judgment” about who is responsible. “The overwhelming mass of political and wider opinion is determined to consolidate the political and peace process and no words, no acts and no narrow politics will destabilise it.”

(From “Leading ‘Real IRA’ member is shot dead in Ballymurphy” by Suzanne Breen, The Irish Times, October 14, 2000)


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Final Republican & Loyalist Prisoners Released from Maze Prison

maze-prison-releaseThe final seventy-eight republican and loyalist prisoners are released from the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland on July 28, 2000 as the final phase of the Good Friday peace accord scheme to release 428 inmates early.

Some of the most prolific bombers and gunmen involved in the Troubles have been imprisoned in the Maze, originally called Long Kesh, since it opened in 1971.

One of the freed republicans, Seán Lynch, describes what he saw as the real and symbolic importance of the Maze. “We had achieved the status of political prisoners even if the British Government never admitted it. The prison struggle was a microcosm of the larger struggle.”

Founder member of the Ulster Defence Association, Thomas McKeown, released in 1990 is one of over 10,000 loyalists sent to the prison. He reflects, “We had it pretty easy. We made replica weapons and instruments from wood and conducted military parades and drill every morning. There were also political classes and other sorts of education.”

After the H-block hunger strikes of the 1980s there are numerous escape attempts and by 1994 the authorities have given in to many of the prisoners’ demands for freedom of association and high levels of autonomy. A total of 2,700 incidents of officers being threatened or attacked are reported. A granite memorial outside the gates bears the names of the 29 prison guards murdered since the prison opened in 1971.

On September 29, 2000, the remaining four prisoners at the Maze are transferred to other prisons in Northern Ireland and the Maze Prison is closed. Redundancy packages are arranged for staff. These are accepted by 300 who left in June 2000.

The future of the buildings is uncertain, but some republicans want it to be turned into a museum to commemorate their struggle.

A monitoring group is set up on January 14, 2003 to debate the future of the 360-acre site. There are many proposals, including a museum, a multi-purpose sports stadium and an office, hotel and leisure village. In January 2006, the government unveils a masterplan for the site incorporating many of these proposals, including a 45,000 seat national multi-sport stadium for association football, rugby and Gaelic games. In October 2006, demolition work begins in preparation for construction on the site, however, in January 2009 plans to build the new multi-purpose stadium are cancelled, with Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Gregory Campbell citing a lack of support and concerns for a net loss to the economy.

Discussion is still ongoing as to the listed status of sections of the old prison. The hospital and part of the H-Blocks are currently listed buildings, and will remain as part of the proposed site redevelopment as a “conflict transformation centre” with support from republicans such as Martin McGuinness and opposition from unionists, who consider that this risks creating “a shrine to the IRA.”

In January 2013, plans are approved by the Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood, for the site to be redeveloped as showgrounds as the result of an application by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society with the objective of relocating Balmoral Show from its current location in Belfast. The site is now known as Balmoral Park.

In October 2019, the European Union withdraws £18m that had been approved to develop a peace centre, due to disagreements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party.

(Pictured: IRA prisoners walk out through the Maze turnstile, BBC News Online, July 28, 2000)


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The Murder of Benedict Hughes

File written by Adobe Photoshop? 4.0Northern Ireland is plunged into a new crisis after Benedict Hughes, a Catholic, is shot dead on January 21, 1998 as he is getting into his car after finishing his work in a loyalist area of south Belfast. It is the latest murder aimed at wrecking the peace process and the eighth sectarian killing since Christmas.

Hughes, age 55, dies in a hail of bullets in Sandy Row shortly after 5:00 PM, as he is preparing to travel back to his Suffolk Crescent home in west Belfast. The father of three is shot at least five times in the neck and chest as he tries to get into his car which is parked in Utility Street off the Donegall Road. He is taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he later dies. The lone gunman makes off on foot in the direction of Felt Street.

The attack comes after the funeral of Fergal McCusker, a Catholic shot dead by the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) just days earlier and ahead of the funerals of Catholic taxi driver Larry Brennan and prominent loyalist Jim Guiney held on January 22.

When forensic people arrive on the scene soon after the shooting, the area is packed with onlookers who believe the shot man is a Protestant.

As a recovery truck comes to remove Hughes’s car later that night, small groups of people are still watching the scene. The Rev. Richard Darmody, the rector of nearby St. Aidan’s Church in Sandy Row, who went to the scene thinking the victim was one of his parishioners, condemns the murder. “I’m shocked and horrified that the life of an innocent person has been taken and that another family has been plunged into grief and pain. I feel very concerned about where this is going to lead and the possibility of more lives being taken and more families being bereaved.”

There is no immediate admission of responsibility. However, the blame is placed firmly on loyalists, either the LVF, which has admitted being behind a series of recent killings, or the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which has remained silent but which is suspected by the security forces of having joined the killings.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) councillor Alex Attwood calls on mainstream loyalists to “clarify whether they are really on a ceasefire” because it is clear, he says, the LVF has received help from other loyalist groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) or the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

SDLP councillor Alastair McDonnell says the peace process is not in crisis. Hughes was “an innocent Catholic who was just trying to earn a living, who has no connections with any political or paramilitary grouping. If he had he wouldn’t have worked here.” He adds that there is a “small handful of evil people” who do not want to see peace.

Alliance spokesman Dr. Philip McGarry says there is “no excuse, no justification for causing pain to yet another family.”

(From: “Catholic shot dead leaving work in loyalist Sandy Row” by Louise McCall, The Irish Times, January 22, 1998)