The violent death of former “Real IRA” volunteer Aidan O’Driscoll early on Wednesday evening underlines in many ways the dark cloud of rank criminality that hangs over the disparate organisations making up the activist core of the so-called Dissident Republican movement. While that is not to tar every individual with the same brush, there is no doubt that those bodies styling themselves the “Irish Republican Army“, whether “Real“, “New” or “Continuity“, bear little resemblance to the revolutionary forces which bore the same title in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (or in more recent times). O’Driscoll’s life and untimely end, fatally wounded by two gunmen a short distance from his workplace in the Blackpool district of Cork city, serves to illustrate the crooked path taken by armed republicanism over the last two decades.
The Cork-born native came to prominence in 2006 following his conviction of Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) membership by the anti-insurgent Special Criminal Court in Dublin, allegedly as part of an Active Service Unit based in his home city. While being held in Port Laoise Prison, where political detainees have been traditionally housed for decades, he befriended a rising figure in the Dublin Real IRA, Alan Ryan, who was serving time for weapons offences. In 2008 O’Driscoll’s sentence was overturned on a technical issue by the Court of Criminal Appeal, along with those of several of his co-accused, and he was free again. By 2009 he had achieved the rank of Officer Commanding the RIRA in the province of Munster, before the group’s northern-dominated leadership selected him to serve as a temporary chief-of- staff in 2011. Moving to Tallaght in Dublin, he and Ryan, by now the OC of the local brigade, worked together to wage a war against the city’s leading narcotics gangs, causing mayhem among them. In reality, however, both men were actually seeking to “tax” the capital’s profitable underworld through protection rackets, in theory to increase the RIRA’s almost nonexistent military budget for operations against the British Forces in the UK-occupied north-east of the country.
Unfortunately for Aidan O’Driscoll his tenure as the CS was to be all-too brief. Following accusations of associating with a convicted criminal and siphoning off funds for his own personal use, the Corkonian was suspended from his role, several members of the ruling Army Council in Belfast and Armagh insisting upon an investigation. By 2012 he was demoted back to the ranks, returning to his native Cork, his relationship with Alan Ryan irreparably damaged (the later was to suffer his own violent end in September of 2012, gunned down by the very gangsters he was demanding money from). A perfunctory court martial led to O’Driscoll’s dismissal from the organisation and in the summer of 2013 he was the subject of a disciplinary-shooting: two grazing gunshots to the legs, carried out in an almost surgical manner, and with the compliance of the victim. Despite a few hours of hospitalisation O’Driscoll declined to make any complaint or to cooperate with investigating Gardaí and the matter was soon forgotten about.
Following his dismissal from the Real IRA Aidan O’Driscoll moved from politically-motivated offences into explicit criminality, with no pretence of ideology, becoming associated with a well-known gang in the Cork region. In 2015 he was questioned by Gardaí about the detention and brutal torture of a member of the Traveller community in Limerick. Though released without charge it was clear that the former-volunteer was now acting as a leading underworld enforcer in Munster, despite his outward appearance as a painter and decorator. This may have contributed to his assassination this week, killed by a rival gang or by his former comrades in the Real IRA who in recent times have made a great show of tackling drug-dealers and the like (though claims that the local Cork RIRA – in whole or in part – is being paid protection money by at least some of the city’s cartels continue to circulate).
Despite the “house-cleaning” initiated by the northern-dominated leadership of the Real IRA in 2012-13, following the death of Alan Ryan and the averse publicity his alleged corruption brought to the organisation, there is no reason to believe that the edges of the movement is any cleaner now than it was four or five years ago. Though subsumed into or rebranded as the so-called New Irish Republican Army (NIRA), the RIRA organisation has moved on only a little from its perceived need to “tax” criminal gangs, from bank-robbers to drug-dealers. If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas, and the Real/New IRA is so ridden with fleas that it virtually hums.
As uncomfortable or infuriating as it may be for some New IRA volunteers and sympathisers to read or hear, a petty criminal and thug like Aidan O’Driscoll is as symbolic of where their movement now stands as patriots like Tom Barry and Liam Lynch were of where the “Old” IRA stood in the 1910s and ’20s. Whereas the latter generation were – in the main – men and women of honour and integrity, committed revolutionaries, those who claim to have picked up their mantle have far less noble aims or methods. All armies, conventional or otherwise, attract their share of misfits, and that is especially true of irregular forces where the ability to recruit or vet new members is often limited. However one has to wonder, is the Real/New IRA so desperate, so lacking in support, that it has all but abandoned any attempt at filtering out those individuals previous generations would have regarded as troublesome or unacceptable? Or is the RIRA/NIRA so enmeshed in criminality that waging an armed resistance against the colonial occupation of the north-eastern part of our island nation – even if I disagree with its need at this present moment in time – comes a poor third place to generating profit for its own members and their families and associates?
To borrow some rhetorical inspiration from American politics and Democratic Party vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, dismissing his Republican Party opposite number Dan Quayle in a famous 1988 debate, I can say of those claiming to be the real, new or continuity Irish Republican Army that:
We knew the IRA. The IRA were friends of ours. You’re no IRA.