John McQuillan’s name doesn’t feature in any republican roll of honour yet the eighteen year old appears to have been in the I.R.A. when he was shot dead by the R.U.C. in January 1942.
That month there were significant tensions as the I.R.A. in A wing of Crumlin Road staged a week long mass hunger strike in protest at conditions within the prisons and the refusal to grant them political status. On 27th January, the day after the hunger strike ended, John McQuillan and John Crean entered a shop on the Ravenhill Road and tied up the owner apparently intent on robbing the shop. The R.U.C. (led by District-Inspector Geelan of C.I.D.), though, were lying in wait in a back room of the shop and emerged, killing McQuillan with a single shot to the heart while Crean was arrested. McQuillan was eighteen years old. His older brother, Kevin Barry McQuillan, had been arrested with two automatic pistols the previous year and was in A wing of Crumlin Road with the sentenced I.R.A. prisoners.
John McQuillan is not usually listed anywhere as an I.R.A. volunteer. Nor does his death seem to merit even a footnote in conventional histories of either the I.R.A. or the era.
A memo to the Adjutant of the I.R.A.’s Northern Command from the Army Council on 6th February 1942, clearly on foot of an earlier report to the Army Council, does mention his death though. It states “The McQuillan shooting was very unfortunate. Let me have a report of the court of inquiry later.”
This reference seems to imply that McQuillan was indeed an I.R.A. volunteer although the proposed ‘court of inquiry’ suggests he wasn’t acting in an official capacity. Geelan’s presence also appears to indicate that the R.U.C. believed it to be political. It subsequently transpired that McQuillan had visited the shop the previous night and said he would be back the next night. McQuillan was found to have been carrying a Spanish Webley revolver, a weapon the I.R.A. was known to possess based on later arms finds.
Spanish (Eibar) Webley
At John Crean’s trial at the end of February, the court was told by the R.U.C. that Crean was in the I.R.A. and he didn’t dispute the claim. Crean eventually only received a twelve month sentence for the robbery. The I.R.A. has never officially acknowledged McQuillan as a member.
Crean’s wasn’t the only death. On Friday 6th February, a prison officer, Thomas Walker, was cycling along Durham Street on his way over to work in Crumlin Road. A number of men got out of a waiting car and fired a burst from a Thompson gun at Walker, hitting him twice in the chest. It turned out that the I.R.A. killed Walker in mistake for another warder.
Further reactions to McQuillan’s death can be recognised in susequent I.R.A. actions. In February and March, motions passed by the I.R.A. Belfast Battalion Convention were approved by a Northern Command Convention and Extraordinary Army Convention included:  “That the political squad of the C.I.D. be executed”; and  “That enemy raiding parties should be attacked”.
Motion 5 looks like a response to John McQuillan’s death in January (indeed within days of the Convention approving the motion the Belfast I.R.A. tried to kill Sergeant William Fannin of C.I.D.). One outcome of motion 12 being passed was to be the confrontation in Cawnpore Street that Easter.
A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.
Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).
Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.
On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.
This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.
The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.
To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times. Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment. There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C. His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.
“Accusations of discrimination against Catholics by the unionist Stormont regime of 1921-72 have been a staple of nationalist politics, underlying the Good Friday Agreement and the aspiration for Irish unity. The allegations are widely believed, even by unionists, but are hugely exaggerated.” So claims Graham Gudgin, David Trimble’s former adviser, in one of the, now routine, pieces of counter-factual nonsense run by the Belfast Newsletter.
As a defence of the old Stormont regime, Gudgin’s article fails miserably in trying cherrypick facts to support the premise that the civil rights abuses by the Unionist governments were negligible and unimportant. Unintentionally, Gudgin provides a useful illustration insight into how little is changed in the Unionist mindset. At one point he lovingly cites the following excerpt from the 1969 Cameron Commission, “It is in a sense understandable that, given the political history of Northern Ireland, in certain areas in particular, local unionist groups should seek to preserve themselves in power by ensuring that local authority housing is developed and allocated in ways which will not disturb their electoral supremacy.”
Basically, civil rights abuses were fine because they kept Unionists in power. This more or less summarises his thinking. And it seems to be representative of a significant strand of political unionism today as chimes with pretty much every DUP intervention into the Brexit process.
At the time of the publication of the Cameron Commission’s report in 1969, Stormont minister Brian Faulkner was ridiculed for claiming the report showed that Catholics had few genuine grievances. You can read the contents of the Cameron Commission’s report here yourself. The report’s conclusions are a world away from the interpretation given to them by Faulkner in 1969 or Gudgin today. It contains sixteen points, covering discrimination in housing, jobs allocation, gerrymandering, policing, due process, the repressive use of the Special Powers Act and very specifically puts the responsibility for the emerging violence on various unionist groups. I’ve quoted these at the end of this post. All of the report’s conclusions reflect the claims made by the civil rights movement and others in the decades before 1960.
Even Dr Gudgin understanding of the context of the statistics he uses is demonstrably flawed. As part of his dismissal of the significance and impact of gerrymandering, he claims that, “The abuses only concerned local authority elections, but even so the Stormont regime was wrong in not acting to stop them much earlier.” This is manifestly untrue. The restricted electoral franchise also applied to elections to the parliament at Stormont (while, paradoxically, they did not apply in Westminster elections). Thus one impact can be very simply measured by the variation in the total electorate for an election to Stormont and an election to Westminster. To take the electorate for the 1970 Westminster election and the 1969 Stormont election as an example, the electorate for Westminster in 1970 was 1,017,303 while the electorate for Stormont in 1969 was 784,242. So 22.9% of the electorate was disenfranchised for Stormont and local authority elections. Not only were they disenfranchised as individuals, others were able to vote multiple times due to property ownership rights. This means that even this 22.9% reduction in votes masks a larger reduction in the number of individuals eligible to vote. As economic status was the key to electoral eligibility, the Unionist government’s tactic was to utilise poverty to disenfranchise it’s political opponents. There are many lasting monuments to this tactic, including the dearth of physical infrastructure west of the Bann.
If unionism and the likes of the Belfast Newsletter are going to repeatedly insist that others are trying to rewrite history, they might first ensure that their understanding of that history is better informed.
(1) A rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, in particular in Londonderry and Dungannon, in respect of (i) inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities (ii) unfair methods of allocation of houses built and let by such authorities, in particular; refusals and omissions to adopt a ‘points’ system in determining priorities and making allocations (iii) misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control of the local authority (paragraphs 128-131 and 139).
(2) Complaints, now well documented in fact, of discrimination in the making of local government appointments, at all levels but especially in senior posts, to the prejudice of non-Unionists and especially Catholic members of the community, in some Unionist controlled authorities (paragraphs 128 and 138).
(3) Complaints, again well documented, in some cases of deliberate manipulation of local government electoral boundaries and in others a refusal to apply for their necessary extension, in order to achieve and maintain Unionist control of local authorities and so to deny to Catholics influence in local government proportionate to their numbers (paragraphs 133-137).
(4) A growing and powerful sense of resentment and frustration among the Catholic population at failure to achieve either acceptance on the part of the Government of any need to investigate these complaints or to provide and enforce a remedy for them (paragraphs 126-147).
(5) Resentment, particularly among Catholics, as to the existence of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the ‘B’ Specials) as a partisan and paramilitary force recruited exclusively from Protestants (paragraph 145).
(6) Widespread resentment among Catholics in particular at the continuance in force of regulations made under the Special Powers Act, and of the continued presence in the statute book of the Act itself (paragraph 144).
(7) Fears and apprehensions among Protestants of a threat to Unionist domination and control of Government by increase of Catholic population and powers, inflamed in particular by the activities of the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, provoked strong hostile reaction to civil rights claims as asserted by the Civil Rights Association and later by the People’s Democracy which was readily translated into physical violence against Civil Rights demonstrators (paragraphs 148-150and 216-226). (b) Particular
(8) There was a strong reaction of popular resentment to the Minister’s ban on the route of the proposed Civil Rights march in Londonderry or 5th October 1968 which swelled very considerably the number of persons who ultimately took part in the march. Without this ban the numbers taking part would in all probability have been small and the situation safely handled by available police forces (paragraphs 157-165).
(9) The leadership, organisation and control of the demonstrations in Londonderry on 5th October 1968, and in Newry on 11th January 1969 was ineffective and insufficient to prevent violent or disorderly conduct among certain elements present on these occasions (paragraphs 54 and 118)
(10) There was early infiltration of the Civil Rights Association both centrally and locally by subversive left wing and revolutionary elements which were prepared to use the Civil Rights movement to further their own purposes, and were ready to exploit grievances in order to provoke and foment, and did provoke and foment, disorder and violence in the guise of supporting a non-violent movement (paragraphs 187-189 and 193).
(11) This infiltration was assisted by the declared insistence of the Civil Rights Association that it was non-sectarian and non-political, and its consequent refusal to reject support from whatever quarter it came provided that support was given and limited to the published aims of the Association (paragraph 187).
(12) What was originally a Belfast students’ protest against police action in Londonderry on 5th October and support for the Civil Right movement was transformed into the People’s Democracy – itself an unnecessary adjunct to the already existing and operative Civil Rights Association. People’s Democracy provided a means by which politically extreme and militant elements could and did invite and incite civil disorder, with the consequence of polarising and hardening opposition to Civil Rights claims (paragraphs 194-204).
(13) On the other side the deliberate and organised interventions by followers of Major Bunting and the Rev. Dr. Paisley, especially in Armagh, Burntollet and Londonderry, substantially increased the risk of violent disorder on occasions when Civil Rights demonstrations or marches were to take place, were a material contributory cause of the outbreaks ( violence which occurred after 5th October, and seriously hampered the police in their task of maintaining law and order, and of protecting members of the public in the exercise of their undoubted legal rights and upon their lawful occasions (paragraphs 222-224).
(14) The police handling of the demonstration in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 was in certain material respects ill co-ordinated and inept. There was use of unnecessary and ill controlled force in the dispersal of the demonstrators, only a minority of whom acted in a disorderly and violent manner. The wide publicity given by press, radio and television to particular episodes inflamed and exacerbated feelings of resentment against the police which had been already aroused by their enforcement of the ministerial ban (paragraphs l68 – l7 1).
(15) Available police forces did not provide adequate protection to People’s Democracy marchers at Burntollet Bridge and in or near Irish Street, Londonderry on 4th January 1969. There were instances of police indiscipline and violence towards persons unassociated with rioting or disorder on 4th/ 5th January in Londonderry and these provoked serious hostility to the police, particularly among the Catholic population of Londonderry, and an increasing disbelief in their impartiality towards non-Unionists (paragraphs 97-101 and 177).
(16) Numerical insufficiency of available police force especially in Armagh on 30th November 1968 and in Londonderry on 4th/ 5th January 1969 and later on l9th/20th April prevented early and complete control and, where necessary, arrest of disorderly and riotous elements (paragraphs 87, 101 and 182).
Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.
Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.
The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).
As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.
1922-23 Hugh Corvin
Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.
1923-24 Jim O’Donnell
O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.
1924-26 Hugh Corvin
When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.
1925-1926 Jim Johnston
When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.
1926 Hugh Corvin
Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.
He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.
1926-7 Dan Turley
In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).
1927-33 Davy Matthews
From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.
1933-34 Jack McNally
From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.
1934-36 Tony Lavery
From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.
Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.
1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?
While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).
1938 Sean McArdle
On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.
1938-39 Charlie McGlade
Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).
1940 Jimmy Steele
A Fianna and IRAveteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.
Jimmy Steele in 1940
1941 Liam Rice
Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.
1941 Pearse Kelly
When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.
1941-42 Hugh Matthews
During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).
1942 John Graham
Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.
1942-43 Rory Maguire
Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.
1943 Jimmy Steele
Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.
1943-44 Seamus Burns
Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns
1944 Harry White?
In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.
1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?
By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.
1945 Johnny Murphy?
When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.
1945 Seamus Twomey?
In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.
194?-49 Seamus McCallum
Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.
1949-50 Frank McKearney
By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.
1950-56 Jimmy Steele
On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).
1956 Paddy Doyle
Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.
1956-57 Joe Cahill
Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.
1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.
1961-63 Billy McKee
On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.
1963-69 Billy McMillen
Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.
1969 Jim Sullivan
When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.
1969 Billy McMillen
As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.
Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.
When I was a kid, I used to wake up every night thinking the house was on fire. I would go and check, check to make sure my parents were still alive then squeeze in beside one of my wee sisters, squashing us both and guaranteeing a sweaty and restless sleep for both of us. I was afraid of death, afraid of fire. I was suffering from anxiety and didn’t know.
As I grew to a teenager, the sleepless nights continued. My brain was making sure I was disaster ready, so constantly gave me thoughts of horrific death scenarios. A base instinct was making sure I would survive, but also tormenting me with gruesome imagery. I was afraid of ghosts, afraid of the dark, afraid of a fire. There was less room in our wee single beds, but I still squeezed in with my sisters. My Daidí used to go…
On 5th October, 1968, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (N.I.C.R.A.) staged the first of the civil rights marches in Derry demanding an end to discrimination in housing allocation, gerrymandering and restrictions in the right to vote.
You can read some more on the background to N.I.C.R.A. here. By the October 1968 march, it had developed the tactics which were to characterise the civil rights movement of the next few years. One of the initial objectives of N.I.C.R.A. when it was founded was to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, association and to protest the rights of the individual. The restrictions on political opposition had been a long-standing, if not central, feature of Unionist rule. The activity of N.I.C.R.A. in 1967 had focussed on education and organisation but there were few early public protests, other than events in Newry and an Easter commemoration in Armagh in April 1968. It was only on the election of N.I.C.R.A.’s second executive committee that tactics began to take greater notice of the success of Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches in highlighting abuses (this is largely paraphrasing Fred Heatley).
By the summer of 1968, N.I.C.R.A. had replicated Martin Luther King’s success in the publicity achieved through the Caledon and Coalisland-Dungannon civil rights protests. Apparently prompted by the Derry Housing Action Committee (D.H.A.C.), N.I.C.R.A. then proposed a civil rights march in Derry. The James Connolly Republican Club, Derry Nationalist Party and Londonderry Labour Party were all involved in the local organisation of the march while the promotion and wider publicity was managed by N.I.C.R.A.. The Unionist government believed that those involved were the D.H.A.C., the ‘Republican Party’ (which it describes as ‘members of the IRA and Sinn Fein’) and the Young Socialists. About a week before the proposed march, Eddie McAteer, the Nationalist Party leader, informed N.I.C.R.A. that it was pulling out of the event. After meeting with three of the N.I.C.R.A. executive, Betty Sinclair, Fred Heatley and John McAnerney, the Nationalists agreed to stay involved.
In the days leading up to the Derry march, Andrew Boyd wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Press quoting Frank Gallagher’s book, The Indivisible Island, about civil rights abuses including: “…a report from the Northern Whig, January 11th, 1946, which alleged that a Major L. E. Curran; who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, said that ” the best way to prevent the overthrow of the government by people who had no stake in the country and not the welfare of the people of Ulster at heart was to disenfranchise them.” Major Curran and his colleagues could not, of course, take the vote away from everyone whose loyalty was doubtful but they did, in an act passed by Stormont in 1946, restrict the franchise in local government elections to ratepayers. This is still the law. It denies the municipal franchise to about one-third of the North’s adult citizens, but, consistent with Major Curran’s “stake in the country” principle, allows as many as six votes to the owners of business promises on the basis of one vote for every £10 valuation. Until last year businessmen also had extra votes in the Stormont parliamentary franchise…”.
On the Thursday, William Craig, the Unionist Home Affairs Minister, banned the civil rights march and the ban was communicated to the Chief Marshall, John McAnerney (of N.I.C.R.A.). Publicly, the reason given for the ban was that it clashed with an Apprentice Boys parade at the same time and place, although Home Affairs documents indicate that that concern was secondary. Craig also indicated to journalists that the success N.I.C.R.A. had in peacefully holding the 1916 commemoration in Armagh in April 1968 wasn’t going to be allowed to happen again. His ban was immediately compounded, on the same evening, by Dr Abernethy, the governor of the Apprentice Boys. Abernethy stated that he knew of no parade or march planned by the organisation for the Saturday (it was claimed that the clash was actually with Apprentice Boys from Liverpool who would be visiting Derry that day). As it was, the wording of the ban meant that no parades or public processions could take part in the areas of the city covered by the ban.
The N.I.C.R.A. executive met on the Thursday evening then met up with the various groups involved in Derry the next day. After a three hour debate it was unanimously agreed to defy Craig’s ban and proceed with the march. When McAteer rang Craig to protest the ban he was advised by Craig that the protest was banned as it was a Nationalist/Republican parade. Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labour MP, called on people to defy the ban. Similarly, the British Labour party and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster both sent members to Derry for the march.
On the eve of the march, even the unionist Belfast Telegraph noted that “…in some ways it is the Civil Right’s Movement’s misfortune that it is so closely associated with such strident personalities as Gerry Fitt, who can be accused of exploiting the situation to his own political ends. But that it is founded in sincere held grievance is undeniable. Derry’s housing record is one that no city could be proud of.”
After the agreement to proceed with the march on the Friday evening, a spokesperson advised the press that “Come hell, high water or Herr William Craig, we will meet at the Waterside Railway Station at 3:30 pm“.
You can see some footage of what happened at the march itself here: