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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Republican community appalled by gruesome murders

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Suzanne Breen, Northern Editor, examines a barbaric dissident republican fall-out

The phone call came just before 8am. There was a body in an alleyway, off Elmfield Street in Ardoyne. Fr Aidan Troy prepared for the worst as he ran over.

"I presumed it was suicide. A lot of young people in North Belfast have taken their own lives recently so I was expecting tragedy. This was even more horrific. In 35 years as a priest, I've never witnessed anything like it."

In the alleyway lay the body of Joe Jones (38), battered to death with a spade in a row between republican dissidents. Across the city, in west Belfast, another dissident, Eddie Burns (36), lay dead with a bullet wound to the back of the head.

A third man, Damien O'Neill, was in the Royal Victoria Hospital with gunshot wounds to the upper body. Jones and Burns had just left the Continuity IRA (CIRA) to form a breakaway group, according to republican sources. Early last Monday, they were murdered in a guns' dispute.

It has stunned the republican community, who usually suffer such brutality from loyalists, not their own. The murdered men were known to their killers. Until very recently, they'd been comrades and friends.

Jones was so badly beaten, it was difficult to identify him. "The ambulance man said to me 'Father, don't go down the alleyway unless you have to," says Troy.

"I wanted to give this poor man the last rites. It was three hours before police let me but I waited by the road. It was my vigil as a priest, staying near to bring some human dignity to this awful scene – not leaving him to lie on his own, like a dead animal."

Before Troy anointed Jones, he had to put on a white forensic suit, mask and gloves. It was deeply disturbing: "The body was so badly disfigured, had it been my own brother, I wouldn't have recognized him. His whole face was gone. Just the back of his head was left."

Several worried Ardoyne mothers, unable to locate their own sons, quizzed Troy about the victim's appearance: "I'd no facial description. I could help only one woman. She said her son had reddish, sandy hair. I was able to tell her the body in the entry had dark hair.

Two Belfast republicans are said to have murdered Jones and Burns, and seriously wounded Damien O'Neill. The same names have been given to the Sunday Tribune by republicans from several different organisations.

However, there are conflicting reports as to whether the two suspects were serving CIRA members or if – like Burns and Jones – they'd resigned recently and joined the breakaway group. There are even suggestions of dual membership of CIRA and the breakaway group.

"People have been flitting in and out of Continuity so much, it's hard to know who is what," says one republican. "Even the Continuity leadership are confused which is why it's difficult getting a clear picture about these killings."

Another source says: "At one stage last year, there were three factions in Belfast all claiming to be the Continuity IRA and all green-booking each other." In a statement to UTV, CIRA "categorically denied" involvement in the double murder.

The first suspect ,'L', is in his early 20s and from Ardoyne, but works in Dublin during the week. A strong Celtic supporter, he has previously been involved in rioting with police and challenging Orange marches. Some sources believe he has fled across the Border.

His family was previously connected with the Provisional IRA. Two uncles have been linked to Robert McCartney's murder but not charged. A third uncle reportedly joined CIRA , ordering a series of 'punishment' attacks in Belfast, according to republican sources.

The second suspect, 'M', carried out a recent CIRA 'punishment' attack where the victim was dumped in west Belfast. Sources said the CIRA leadership in the Republic strongly disapproved and demanded such actions stop. Burns and Jones were both previously known to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as CIRA members. Jones, a father of twin 17-year-old daughters and a 10-year-old son, had been thrown out of his west Belfast home by his wife Linda over an extra-marital affair. He moved to Ardoyne to live with his girlfriend Joanne.

School-friends, from the Market area of south Belfast, talk of "a mild-mannered guy who couldn't beat snow off a rope". Those who knew him later saw someone different. "People were sick of him. He was always throwing out his chest, boasting 'I'm a Conto (Continuity)'," one says.

He fought with a prominent Ardoyne INLA man in December but this isn't linked to his murder. Some suspected Jones was an informer. The Real IRA raised doubts about him "but CIRA interpret everything as an attack on themselves and don't listen, or take ages to listen, which is why they're in this mess", a source claims.

Like Jones, Eddie Burns – a father-of-five from west Belfast, also living in Ardoyne – worked as a taxi-driver. They were close friends. Burns was due to have a heart operation last week.

Both Burns and Jones had recently left CIRA to form their own self-styled vigilante group, the Irish People's Liberation Army (IPLA). Five days before their murder, it boasted of a deadly arsenal and pledged to target alleged drug-dealers in a "clean-up" of nationalist areas.

Jones and Burns fired shots at three houses in Ardoyne and Lagmore in west Belfast, according to republican sources. Jones also threatened to kill a black American drug-dealer, who operates in Belfast and allegedly raped a female friend of Jones'.

In a statement announcing its formation, the IPLA made no mention of challenging British rule, or the security forces, leading some to suspect its real raison-d'etre was to protect Jones' and Burns' own gangsterism. "Some people just want into dissident organizations as a cover for criminality and to gain muscle and a façade of respectability in their own areas," says one republican source.

That was very obvious last Sunday. The two murder suspects – 'L' and 'M' – spent the day drinking heavily in west Belfast. They reportedly produced a gun at least once in one bar, threatening several individuals.

Late in the night, 'L' and 'M' allegedly phoned Eddie Burns who agreed to meet them near St Galls' GAA pitch, off the Falls Road. Republican sources said the suspects demanded access to a dissident weapons' dump from Burns. He refused; they shot him dead.

When Damien O'Neill, who was also present, protested, they shot him several times, and then fled the scene, believing him dead.

'L' and 'M' then drove to Ardoyne looking for Joe Jones, who also had access to the dump. Sources believe they obtained a spade to dig up the weapons. When Jones, like Burns refused them, they planned to shoot him too but the weapon jammed, so they battered him with the spade instead.

"Murder is murder," says Fr Troy, "but at least a gun is clean. This was gruesome. It has numbed the community. There is outright condemnation now – none of the 'ifs' or 'buts' you sometimes get."

Even republicans who still support 'armed struggle' are appalled. "It denigrates the very name of republicanism. It's like something the Shankill Butchers would have done. The person who did this is a psychopath. Given the chance, he'll kill again," warns a source.

The only question is whether the double murder was a fall-out among friends, all in the same breakaway group or if, despite CIRA's denials, its members were determined to take revenge on Jones and Burns for trying to steal its guns.

Republican Sinn Féin is widely viewed as CIRA's military wing, a claim the party denies. In its Falls Road office, veteran republican Geraldine Taylor is surrounded by photographs of republican giants: Wolfe Tone, Liam Lynch, and Bobby Sands.

"We know nothing about recent happenings," she says. "We fully condemn the horrific way in which Joe Jones died. We don't know how any human being carried out such an atrocity against another. It makes us sick at heart. We've no contact with any organization except Republican Sinn Féin."

The double murder will harden opinion, even in militant nationalist areas, against all dissidents. Sinn Féin's argument that people face a straight choice between the peace process and barbarity is strengthened.

So too is the PSNI's battle for hearts and minds. Forensic experts combed Ardoyne, and police house-to-house enquiries went unhindered. The PSNI's image was slightly dented when an officer opened fire after an alleged sighting of a suspect. A bullet entered a hallway, narrowly missing the innocent house-holder. But even this didn't cause a riot as it would have in the recent past.

Eddie Burns was buried on Friday. Joe Jones' funeral will be next week. His girlfriend is distraught at losing him and, because they weren't married, his body won't be released to her and he can't be waked from the home they shared.

Fr Troy says that, whatever the speculation about the murders and their political repercussions, the pain caused is overwhelming: "Whatever these men were or weren't, whoever killed them, women have lost the partners they loved; eight little children have lost the fathers they worshipped. That must not be forgotten."

March 18, 2007

This article appeared in the March 18, 2007 edition of the Sunday Tribune.