SEVERAL major drug dealers have sent word to armed ex-Provisional IRA members that they had nothing to do with the murder attempt on veteran republican Pat Fitzpatrick.
The criminals fear that they could be targeted in revenge attacks by republicans for the gangland-style shooting of the 58-year-old, who only survived because he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
Fitzpatrick has told friends that he wants no retaliation for the attempt on his life last weekend in the Short Strand district of east Belfast.
But senior ex-Provos are determined to lay down a marker to the gang which targeted him. The same group of republicans murdered Kevin McGuigan Snr in 2015 after accusing him of carrying out the killing of former Belfast IRA boss Jock Davison.
The following year they seriously wounded criminal Scott McHugh, who had gone public to deny being involved in the Davison execution.
This heavily armed gang - who put on a show of strength at the funeral last spring of Provo bomber Peter 'Pepe' Rooney - are understood to be planning to avenge the shooting of Pat Fitzpatrick despite his pleas for peace.
'Pat Fitzy', as he is known in republican circles, was a close confidant of Davison and was wounded outside the home of a relative of the slain IRA chief.
"Several drug dealers have contacted senior republicans through go-betweens to deny any involvement in the Pat Fitzy murder bid," a source told Sunday Life.
"Some of them have even provided alibis, they are really worried."
A violent drug addict with connections to the Market area has been named as the gunman, however republicans are at this stage hesitant to believe these rumours.
"The name of the shooter will come out in the end, just like it did in Jock's case," added our source.
"Pat Fitzy has said he does not want any retaliation, but that's not in his hands. Republicans cannot allow attacks from criminals to go unpunished. If we did it would be open season on every ex-IRA member in Belfast."
Fitzpatrick, who is originally from the Market district of south Belfast, is close to Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, and has worked on several of her election campaigns. She is known to be horrified at the murder bid on her friend and former neighbour.
Last weekend's shooting has also shocked republicans, as Fitzpatrick has always been a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and opposed dissident groups. A second senior republican told Sunday Life; "Pat Fitzy was an easy target, that's the only reason why he was shot."
What saved Fitzpatrick was a tattered bulletproof vest that he has been wearing regularly since the murder of his pal Jock Davison in 2015. It absorbed most of the power of the bullet to his back, leaving a huge red welt on the skin. This is the second time that Fitzpatrick has been the target of a murder bid - in 1988 he lost an eye in a UVF gun attack in south Belfast.
The shooting occurred one week before his good friend Brendan 'Ruby' Davison, a leading IRA man and the uncle of Jock Davison, was murdered by the same loyalist gang.
Fitzpatrick was famously pictured at the top Provo's wake with bandages around his eye and arm. Since then he has been on strong pain medication.
When Fitzpatrick was arrested by police at his home with a stolen PSNI Glock pistol in 2015 his medical condition was referenced.
He ended up pleading guilty to possessing the firearm and six bullets with intent, and having the weapon without a certificate.
Fitzpatrick's lawyer told the court that his client had obtained the gun to "protect his family", and that "he was only going to be using this in a defensive way". This was over fears the republican harboured of being murdered like his close friend Jock Davison.
At an earlier court hearing a detective claimed Fitzpatrick was "a suspect in the murder of Kevin McGuigan", but that has now been discounted by police.
Republicans remain suspicious though that associates of McGuigan were behind last weekend's Short Strand murder attempt. One told us: "They are the only people with a motive for shooting Pat Fitzy."