Gerard “Jock” Davison, 47, who was investigated for a killing that rocked the Northern Ireland peace process, was gunned down close to Belfast city centre yesterday morning.
He was hit a number of times while walking along Welsh Street in the staunchly republican Markets area, around 9am.
Detective chief inspector Justyn Galloway, leading the murder hunt, said: “I do not believe it is sectarian. I do not believe dissident republicans have been involved. However, we will keep an open mind as information comes into the inquiry.”
Mr Davison was allegedly involved in the fight that led to the death of Belfast man Robert McCartney in January 2005 and was among three IRA members expelled following an internal investigation in the wake of the death. He was questioned by police but released without charge.
It is understood the father-of-three, also a grandfather, had been making his way to a community centre where he worked when the attack occurred.
Police have declined to disclose the number of gunmen involved in the shooting, whether they were masked or how they fled the scene.
They have also refused to confirm if Mr Davison was known to have been under death threat.
Insp Galloway added: “Many people in Northern Ireland have a past but that is in the past and there is no justification for the gunning down of this community worker.
“We are working to establish a motive. It would be remiss of me at this stage to speculate on what the motive may be. But we are not ruling anything in or out in relation to why Mr Davison was attacked.”
As the IRA officer commanding in Belfast, Mr Davison was one of the best known republican figures in the city. He backed Sinn Féin’s peace process strategy following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and was employed with the Markets Development Association as a community worker.
Sinn Féin South Belfast Stormont assembly member Alex Maskey said: “What we have here is a very brutal killing of a local man. He is a very well-known person in this area.
“His family are well-known and he is very well-regarded in this area as a long-standing republican,” he said.
There was a heavy police presence in the Markets for most of the day. A large cordon was put up around the scene and a police forensic tent was erected over the body.
At the police lines, small groups of local people and a number of high-profile Belfast republicans huddled together in driving rain looking on at scenes-of-crime officers in white forensic suits carrying out detailed examinations.
Mr Davison’s remains were removed in a hearse at about 2.30pm.
Robert McCartney’s sisters, who were forced to move out of the Markets, led a long-running battle for justice for the killing of their brother, following a bar argument which took them to the White House.
Mr Davison’s uncle, Terence Davison, was later acquitted of Mr McCartney’s killing.
David Ford, justice minister at Stormont, condemned the killing.
“There can be no excuse, explanation or rational reason why another family should be made to suffer through the taking of a life.
“Those who carried out this heinous crime have no place in our community,” he said.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams described the murder as a “brutal act” and said it would be condemned by “all sensible people”.
Bad sceal of fatal shooting in Bfast. Condemned by all sensible people. No place 4 such acts in Ireland.— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) May 5, 2015
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: “This is a horrendous crime and those responsible have shown no regard for anyone that could have been caught in the middle of it during the school rush hour. Witnesses have described how the man was shot in the street.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the individual’s family at this traumatic time.
“People here want to move on from the violence of the past. This community will reject those who bring murder and mayhem to our streets.
“I would appeal to anyone with any information to bring it forward as soon as possible,” he said.
Gerry Adams condemns shooting in the Markets http://t.co/AHC5F26fiz he extends his condolences to the family of the victim— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) May 5, 2015
The PSNI has set up an incident room at Musgrave Street police station and is appealing for witnesses to come forward.