IRA Offers No Cease-Fire to Criminal Competitors
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The Irish Republican Army couldn’t wait for Chris Johnston to be convicted on drug charges.
Gunmen lay in wait until the 38-year-old returned to his south-central Belfast home Tuesday night, then shot him dead in the street as he tried to run away.
During Northern Ireland’s shaky official cease-fire, unofficial IRA violence goes unclaimed or is attributed to fictional organizations _ but it still casts a shadow over peacemaking efforts.
Alongside regular ``punishment″ beatings, the killing of Johnston and four other alleged drug-pushers this year demonstrates one reason why IRA leaders are so reluctant to begin disarming _ the price Britain demands for the start of peace negotiations.
Occasional killings even in ``peace time″ enforce obedience on its hard-line Catholic turf and deter locals’ cooperation with Northern Ireland’s mostly Protestant police.
They also help the IRA keep its business interests secure.
``These killings are about money and power and fear, and the Provos (IRA) are in the middle of it all,″ said Joe Hendron, a moderate Catholic lawmaker for west Belfast.
``You get in the way of their plans, they rub you out. They’re like the Mafia.″
The IRA sustains itself on money-making rackets in ghettoized Catholic parts of Northern Ireland and in the mainly Catholic south. Police claim the IRA makes more than $6 million annually from robberies, pubs, clubs, taxis, video piracy, protection, welfare fraud and, most controversially, drugs.
Through intimidation and occasional ``executions,″ the IRA keep at bay what Belfast people jokingly call the ``ordinary decent criminals,″ and can be confident that few Catholic civilians will risk testifying against the IRA in court.
And when their targets are loathed hoodlums, such ``punishment″ attacks prove surprisingly popular.
After the IRA killed Belfast’s top drug dealer, Mickey Mooney, in a central Belfast bar in April, an IRA ``hit list″ naming a dozen other alleged dealers was circulated openly.
Two on the list have already been gunned down: Tony Kane, 29, after attending a funeral near the Sinn Fein headquarters in September, and Paul Devine, 35, two weeks ago. The rest are lying low or have fled Northern Ireland.
On Monday night, gunmen fatally shot Francis Collins in his north Belfast fast-food shop.
Collins, 40, had been imprisoned in the early 1980s as a middle-ranking IRA figure. Police said that after being paroled, he turned increasingly to criminal rackets.
Tuesday night’s victim, Johnston, was out on bail after being charged in connection with a drug find last year.
A phone caller identifying himself as spokesman for ``Direct Action Against Drugs″ later claimed responsibility for killing both Collins and Johnston. Police called this a likely cover name to mask the IRA’s violations of its cease-fire, which supposedly precludes using firearms.
The IRA stopped its 24-year campaign against British rule on Sept. 1, 1994. It called its cease-fire ``a complete cessation of military operations″ _ a carefully crafted phrase that leaves open the option to attack opponents within its own Catholic power bases.
The IRA-allied Sinn Fein party has stuck doggedly to its own carefully ambiguous position on punishment beatings and killings.
``We do not condone them,″ Michael Ferguson, a Sinn Fein councilman, said repeatedly. When pressed to say whether his party would actually condemn the practice, he refused.