How Paul Stewart got caught up in a war between paramilitaries and drugs gangs.
Late Real IRA leader Alan Ryan's funeral
On the 4th 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.
“Why didn’t the gardai (police) give him an official death threat? After Alan was killed, there was no helicopter sent up, the cops didn’t arrive on the scene for ten minutes in an area with a heavy garda presence.”
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 day I met Paul, Ireland’s Justice Minister had announced that the police would no longer be going out of their way to keep organised criminals alive by providing round-the-clock protection after they'd received death threats.
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. In a move to clear their name, the group had blown up the home of a Dublin criminal alleged to have been using their name to intimidate and extort money. Bombing a house in an attempt to gain morality points may seem perverse to you, but I guess that’s the code these guys operate under.
Ryan was first jailed aged 19 for attending a Real IRA training camp. Even The Guardian described him as a “racketeer who extorted cash from drug dealers and businessmen” after his death, but some of his neighbours clearly thought differently.
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.
I grew up down the street from the estate where Alan Ryan lived all his life. We were of similar age and I was always aware of the local IRA presence. I was once told how Alan stuck a gun in the mouth of a young burglar targeting homes in the area but, keeping mostly to myself, I never felt I had anything to fear from the Ryans.
Alan Ryan was given a traditional republican funeral. Masked IRA volunteers fired a volley of shots over his coffin outside the family home, and the incident later led to 17 arrests, among those detained including Alan’s brother.
Paul claimed that the funeral enraged the Irish establishment. “Despite all the police, media and politicians saying this man is a thug, a gangster, you had 2,000 people attend his funeral and the IRA marched – that really got to them.”
Predictably, Ryan’s murder has not made things any less tense in the area. A resident told me how, the night before the ceremony, there were republicans stationed on the streets, blocking access to laneways and even stopping cars to question drivers.
Days before I arrived back in Ireland, two men were gunned down in front of their children in the city. It was claimed that the deaths were part of one of several other ongoing drugs feuds in the city, but word was out that it could be the start of the Real IRA’s plan to kill every man involved in Ryan’s death.
Paul explained that criminality and involvement with drugs is forbidden in the Republican movement, he even refuses to use the word "junkie" when talking about the return of Dublin’s heroin problem.
“Alan told me to stop saying 'junkies', he explained these drug addicts are the victims.
“The IRA in Dublin has publicly stated that working class communities have to mobilise. The IRA are aware they're not the solution, that they're just a blunt instrument that can only address the by-products of a deeper social problem – i.e. the worst of the drug dealers.”
A RIRA statement from 2010 clarified how they were making their money and promised to execute anyone using their name: “The IRA have never taken money from criminals and then allowed them to continue to operate," they stated. "We have in fact relieved them of their finances and weaponry then closed down their operations.
“Those who wish to take on the republican movement should realise this. These parasites are members of a gang – the IRA are members of a disciplined army, with experience of war.”
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.
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