The funeral cortège of Alan Ryan, Officer Commanding the Dublin Brigade of the Real IRA, Dublin, Ireland, 2012
It’s twelve months since Alan Ryan, Officer Commanding the “Real” IRA in Dublin City, was assassinated by members of the capital’s notoriously violent and repercussion-free criminal underworld in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained. Whatever one’s feeling about Ryan and the confluence of those on the edges of Irish Republican ideology and activism with Ireland’s drug-dealing cartels (and I for one am a staunch critic) there is no doubt that his killing was something of a “game-changer”. Up to 2012 most Dublin crime-gangs took a subservient position to Irish Republican revolutionary or military organisations wherever the two butted up against each other. Since the 1980s the “taxation” of criminal organisations had formed a very minor part of the military budget of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army in its war against the British Forces in the Occupied North. A number of unwritten rules governed this loose and even within the Republican Movement highly controversial association which kept violent disagreements to a minimum.
However by the mid and late 1990s those rules had begun to unravel as the Irish Republican Army’s decades old struggle came to a negotiated end via the Irish-British Peace Process and Ireland’s emerging crime cartels began to stretch their violent muscles in the new, post-war era of the Celtic Tiger. Through their experiences stemming from the internal rivalries that tore apart the criminalised Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and its IPLO off-shoot the nation’s narco-gangs found themselves on an equal gun-for-gun, member-for-member footing with any Republican counterpart, whether the genuine thing or simply a “flag of convenience” for apolitical crime (as some would argue Ryan’s section of the Real IRA were engaged in and parts of the so-called New IRA may still be).
Ireland’s current criminal underworld, the cartels that act with relative impunity in our largest cities, are as much children of the post-ceasefires’ Peace Process and Celtic Tiger decade as any number of corrupt bankers, lawyers or politicians. They stem from the same toxic cocktail of unregulated affluence, greed, selfishness and cultural disintegration mixed with political and judicial maleficence. In one sense Alan Ryan was no different from any of his Tiger Cub peers. He looked the same, he dressed the same, he talked the same and on many things no doubt he thought the same. Yet by other measures he was an outsider and a dangerous one to some in power – and outside it. That perhaps is reflected in this article written by Brian Whelan for Vice following Ryan’s murder:
“On the 3rd of September, Alan Ryan, the Dublin leader of the Real IRA, was murdered; blasted in the head and chest in broad daylight near his family home. His close friend Paul Stewart was with him at the time of the assassination attempt, and narrowly escaped by taking cover behind a car.
One month after the killing, I met Paul in Dublin to find out about the wave of gang warfare that is engulfing the city and which nearly cost him his life.
Paul perhaps isn’t the kind of man you’d expect to find in a predicament like this. A 23-year-old Masters student with a keen interest in politics, Paul confides that he saw the ex-Real IRA (RIRA) leader as a kind of big brother figure, but insists he never knew he was an IRA volunteer. Now, drug dealers have put a price on his head, so he rarely spends too long in one place and lives under constant (and unwanted) surveillance from the special branch. Police harassment is a standard part of life for anyone who, like Paul, is a supporter of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the Real IRA’s marginalised political wing. We meet in an open space and he jokes he’ll use me as a shield if anything goes awry.
Paul explains how just a month ago he was walking with Alan near the Ryan family home, when a man came running from behind carrying a “short” and began firing wildly at them.
The Real IRA leader was hit repeatedly in the back but Paul managed to dive behind a car. He is angry that he didn’t chase after the killer but accepts it would have been futile. A third man, Aaron Neilis, was walking with them and also survived, but was shot in the leg.
Setting aside the back story and motivations for a moment, Paul says that it was indifference from the police which ultimately led to his friend’s death. “There is no way the cops didn’t know this was coming,” he insists. “A journalist went on the radio and said he was aware of a plot to kill Alan Ryan.
When the police did arrive, Paul claims they mocked his dead friend in front of Ryan’s grief-stricken mother and later held guns to the heads of republicans who arrived to support the family.
The Real IRA have played a bloody and complicated role in Ireland’s criminal underground. Drug barons have been staging a vicious gangland war in Dublin for almost two decades, fighting for control of the market and for survival against heavily armed republican vigilantes.
Alan Ryan was just 31 when he died, but he’d been fighting drug dealers in North Dublin for years. Under his leadership, the Real IRA gunned down crime boss Micka “The Panda” Kelly and boldly claimed the action by spray-painting “RIRA anti-drugs. Micka Kelly drug dealer dead,” on a wall in their Northside stronghold.
At the height of the Celtic Tiger economy boom, Irish drug crime was roaring, worth an estimated €1billion. The police claim the IRA were taxing criminals and running protection rackets. But now that the demand for cocaine has collapsed, the 20 large gangs at the top of the food chain are competing for control of a shrinking market (which also includes heroin, meth and cannabis) and desperately trying to protect their incomes.
Alan’s murder was ordered by a drugs gang who mistakenly believed that he was no longer under the protection of the IRA. Realising their error too late, many fled the country as RIRA heavies flocked to Dublin and their new operations commander promised to avenge the death.
In recent years under Alan Ryan’s leadership, the Dublin RIRA were hoping to clean up their image – the media may have cast them as a purely criminal gang extorting money from rival groups but they saw themselves as guerrillas fighting an ideological war.
His friends described him as a deeply political man who read Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, identified as a socialist and hated to see vulnerable people picked on, to the extent that he was willing to act as a vigilante for the local community.
It’d be wrong to paint the Real IRA as saints – they’re sometimes “forced” to intersect with the criminal world to raise funds, with the robbing of banks and the smuggling of cigarettes and diesel being the preferred options. The routes they use are often the same ones used by the criminal gangs they claim to be so appalled by.
Nevertheless, Paul says Alan is a “dangerous symbol” now that he is dead – an example of someone who had made something of himself “without exploiting anyone”.
In north Dublin, and other areas where deprivation ravages communities, there are clearly some people who believe Alan Ryan was an example to be followed; the graffiti in local parks makes that clear. Football fans have already held banners reading “RIP Volunteer Alan Ryan” at matches. Despite Ryan’s death, it would seem that those currently in the scope of the RIRA are operating on borrowed time.”
If we get the politicians we deserve, it could also be said that we get the criminals and would-be revolutionaries we deserve too.