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IRA bosses force out godfather of terror

(Joe Oliver, The People)

A top republican - once named in Parliament as an IRA Godfather - has been 'stood down' in north Belfast, The People can reveal. The decision to sideline Eddie Copeland has sent shockwaves through the republican movement. He has been replaced by evil sectarian killer Robert 'Cheeser' Crawford - a hated double murderer freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Crawford, 45, also from the Ardoyne area of the city, is considered a hardliner in republican circles.

The overthrow of Copeland was shrouded in mystery last night but republican sources did say that the move is not linked to change of strategy - even though Crawford is said to have been sceptical of the peace process and has opposed the idea of any Provo weapons being handed in. Another republican source said Copeland had been out of favour following an incident almost two years ago when the IRA ceasefire was called into question.

Copeland, 32, has long been a loyalist hate figure and has had a number of close brushes with death. As one of the most senior republican figures in north Belfast he was top of loyalist Johnny Adair's personal hit list. But in 1993 he was nearly killed by a soldier. He sustained bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen when the soldier opened up on him and other mourners outside the home of Shankill bomber Thomas Begley.

The soldier was later jailed for 10 years - and Copeland received £27,500 for the injuries he suffered in the shooting. The following year David Trimble used the cloak of Parliamentary privilege to name Copeland and two others as "IRA Godfathers" during a debate on the renewal of anti-terrorist powers.

Mr Trimble claimed that Brian Gillen was commander of the Provos in Belfast. He added: "There is the gentleman who probably planned the Shankill Road bomb, one Eddie Copeland."

Crawford is still said to be a man loyalists would love to 'take out'. It's believed he has been involved in discussions regarding republican riots at the Ardoyne interface with loyalist Glenbryn in north Belfast.

His predecessor, Copeland, hit the headlines three years ago when he was at the centre of a political storm after being awarded £60,000 for injuries he received when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car. He was reversing away from his mother's home in December 1996 when the device erupted, injuring his arm and blowing away the calf muscle of his right leg.

The NIO tried to block the compensation claim on the grounds that he had been engaged in terrorism. Copeland, whose father John was shot dead by a solider in 1971, was also named by a Crown lawyer two years ago as "the senior IRA man in the north of the city" after he was charged with abducting and threatening to kill a drug dealer. But when the case came to trial last August the charges were withdrawn.

The man said to have replaced him as republican leader in north Belfast - Cheeser Crawford - was part of a heavily armed Provo hit team foiled during a bid to murder top cop Derek Martindale in 1994. They were nabbed red-handed by a special police unit which swooped on their hijacked van in the Belmont area of the city.

Crawford and David Adams, a cousin of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, were later jailed for a total of 25 years on a string of charges including conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause an explosion.

A third man, Paul Stitt, was jailed for 22 years for the same crimes and two others sentenced to 10 years for false imprisonment and hi-jacking. At the time Crawford was out on licence after being convicted of murdering two young Protestant men in Belfast in 1975.

June 22, 2003

This article appeared first in The People on June 22, 2003.