The murder of Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison is the single biggest blow to the IRA stranglehold over Catholic working class areas of the North.
While the perception still exists that the Provisional IRA “controls” areas like west Belfast, the reality has changed almost totally since the days when the IRA could execute or kneecap any suspected drug dealers or “hoods”, the generic term for criminal elements in the city.
The IRA retreated, either into full-time political life with Sinn Féin or into illicit money-making ventures to pay for the increasingly affluent lifestyles of its members. The core of its terrorist operations, once the most lethal and technologically advanced on Earth, has disappeared.
Former Provo bosses are enjoying their new lives away from the narrow backstreets of the lower Falls and the Markets where Davison was shot on Tuesday.
The Provos’ grip on West Belfast effectively ended in March 2008 when a young man, Thomas Valliday, battered the local Provo boss, Frank ‘Bap’ McGreevy, to death in his home in the lower Falls area. McGreevy was one of the few Provos who chose to stay living in the area and died as a result. He had previously been in charge of the local punishment squad.
Valliday’s family felt the full brunt of the IRA’s power in the early 1990s when 70 members of the extended family (Thomas Valliday’s grandparents had 22 children) were forced out of their homes in a mass purge and forced to flee to England.
One of the family, Charlie, then aged 17, was shot 10 times in the legs and arms in December 1988 in one of the worst IRA “punishment” attacks on record in the city.
Thomas Valliday was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009. By coincidence, he escaped from custody last week while on a visit to hospital and was only re-captured on Monday, the day before Davison was shot.
In the two decades before they finally ended the practice in 2004, the IRA “kneecapped” more than 1,000 young men in nationalist areas of the north, the majority in west Belfast. The beatings, which began to replace the shootings, caused even worse damage to victims whose limbs were pulverised and unable to be saved by surgery.
In the aftermath of the murder of the innocent father-of-two Robert McCartney in January 2004, this all stopped. The McCartney sisters’ campaign and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s personal disgust at the murder and continuing acts of terrible violence towards young men deemed ‘anti-social’ elements brought the punishments and murders to an end.
The exception to the rule of this process of using organised violence to force ‘republican’ social order on their local societies was in south Armagh, where the Provos continued the practice up to October 2007, when the local IRA racketeers beat Paul Quinn to death in October 2007.
As the IRA’s grip on Catholic areas has slipped, the same areas have gone into a form of social freefall, with west Belfast registering the highest levels of deprivation and welfare dependency in the UK.
In a statistical profile of the constituency published in April 2013, a higher proportion of people aged 16 and over living in Belfast West claimed at least one benefit when compared to the NI average (50.7pc compared to 39.8pc).
It has the lowest proportion of students in third-level education; the highest levels of teenage pregnancy; lowest life expectancy; highest levels of respiratory and circulatory disease; and rates of violent crime, burglary, theft and criminal damage are high.
The median age of those living in Belfast West in 2011 was 33, lower than the North’s average of 37.
In other words, west Belfast and, like it, other Catholic working class areas now have the same social profile of the most deprived areas of Dublin and, like those areas, the highest levels of illicit drug taking and associated problems.
The Falls Road, an area which is still difficult for the PSNI to police because of the recurrent threat of dissident republican violence, is said to be the main distribution centre for heroin in Belfast.
The drug is freely available in certain clubs and pubs in nationalist areas, an unimaginable scenario two decades ago.
And the gangs which control the supply of drugs – like their counterparts in Dublin – no longer fear the Provisionals, although none has yet had the audacity to take on the remnants of the Provos head-on. The murder of Jock Davison might have changed that.
While there was relatively little outcry over the murder of the much lesser known Bap McCreevy, Davison – the man who gave the signal to his gang to murder Robert McCartney – was a far more substantial figure in the IRA, close to its top leaders and to Gerry Adams.
Davison’s murder is a watershed moment for the Provisionals, republican sources in Belfast said yesterday. The Provos now face the quandary of how to react: sit back and let the legitimate police force take responsibility, or strike back and reassert their power and influence.
This latter course sets it in direct conflict with both the drugs gangs, who have ready access to their own firepower, and the PSNI.
Critically, sources say the greater Republican Movement, now dominated by its legitimate political wing Sinn Féin, must bear in mind the negative impact a bloody outbreak of IRA violence in Belfast might have on its softer political family in the Republic.