Revisiting 1969: the deployment of the British Army, April 1969

This is another article revisiting 1969, this time looking at the initial deployment of the British Army.

In 1969, violence led to the deployment of the British Army in the north. Historically people usually associate this event with the aftermath of serious disorder in Derry and Belfast in the middle of August. However, the British Army was actually deployed in April 1969 following a bombing campaign by the UVF.

A British soldier on guard duty, April 1969 (Getty Images)

An explosion on 30th March at an electricity station in Castlereagh caused £500,000 in damage (equivalent of £8.5m today). The bombing came on the eve of an internal Unionist Party meeting that was to focus on the leadership of Terence O’Neill who was under pressure for trying to move the party towards accepting the introduction of universal suffrage in local elections. There was no claim of responsibility but the next day (31st March) the Belfast Telegraph reported both that the Republican movement had denied any responsibility and claims from an un-named ‘republican source’ that it was the work of ‘nationalist-minded people living in the Six Counties’ and another claim from un-named ‘republican source’ that attributed responsibility to ‘Saor Uladh’. The latter claim looked particularly spurious since Saor Uladh had been defunct for almost ten years. Various figures attributed the explosion to an un-named ‘subversive organisation’. 
The Unionist government’s immediate response was to call up a further 1,000 B Specials to full-time service. Given the widespread public criticism of the performance and behaviour of the 400 B Specials that had already been called up, the likes of Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie publicly questioned the wisdom of the move. Further explosions followed with a bomb attack at Dunadry on the Belfast water supply from Lough Neagh on 4th April (again on the eve an internal Unionist Party meeting about O’Neill’s leadership).
On the 19th April, amidst further intense rioting in Derry, the Home Office at Stormont asked for advice on “…what the attitude of the British Government would be towards the use of troops for law and order enforcement if the Government of Northern Ireland were to announce their acceptance in principle of universal adult suffrage for local government elections.” This was only minuted by Stormont’s Ministry of Home Affairs on 7th May, when it noted the response stated that “…It is not possible for Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to give any secret pledges of military assistance…” (implying the Unionist government had requested a secret pledge). It goes on to state that “…At common law it is the duty of the military, at the request of the civil power, to take whatever steps the military judge necessary to maintain order, it being clearly understood that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” The British government claim that common law dictates that the degree of force is solely at the discretion of the responsible military commander is significant in light of later events involving the British army.

The night after that request was sent, there were further bomb attacks at Silent Valley reservoir and an electricity pylon in Kilmore in Armagh on 20th April. The Unionist government then made its request for the deployment of the army that day with Deputy Prime Minister John Andrews thanking the British government for permission to use the troops in the next day’s Belfast Telegraph (21/4/1969). The Press Association noted that contingency plans to deploy troops had been in place for some time. Initially, troops already based in the north were to be used but a number of additional detachments were transported from Britain over the next couple of days.

The photographs above and below are British troops being deployed, 22nd April 1969 (Getty Images)

That night the IRA, under pressure to draw some of the B Specials away from Derry, carried out a series of petrol bomb attacks on Post Offices in Belfast. The next day Belfast Telegraph had Brian Faulkner intimating that all the bombings were the work of the IRA and hinted at the use of internment. However, a leading member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, Vincent McDowell, made a public statement explicitly blaming the bombings on the UVF. Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack’s book UVF – The Endgame recounts that, in the first months of 1969, there had been widespread graffiti threatening violence from the UVF against Catholics’ businesses and homes, both in flashpoint areas and in districts where Catholics were in a distinct minority. This was no idle threat, obviously, as the UVF had carried out a number of killings in 1966. McDonald and Cusack also state that some of those publicly blaming the IRA actually knew the bombings were the work of the UVF.

The deployment of the British Army did not deter further bombings, with attacks at the Lough Neagh water pipe on 24th April and one at the water pipe at Annalong on the next night. The British government decided to send further British troops by air to Aldergrove the following day (25th April) including The Prince Wales Own Regiment and a detachment of Royal Engineers. The bombings also followed in the wake of the Unionist Party’s narrow vote on 23rd April in favour of universal adult suffrage for local elections (the ‘one man, one vote’ demand of the civil rights campaigns). It didn’t save O’Neill’s premiership, though, as he finally resigned on 28th April and was replaced by Chichester-Clarke, who had resigned as Minister of Agriculture when universal adult suffrage had been passed. With O’Neill’s resignation, this phase of the UVF bombing campaign ended.

British troops awaiting deployment, Belfast Telegraph 26/4/1969
After arrival at Aldergrove, Sunday Independent, 27/4/1969

The 1969 bombing campaign is revealing on a number of levels. Since the 1930s, if the IRA had carried out a bomb attack, the RUC immediately responded with a wave of searches and arrests. A key (and revealing) signature of past unionist bombings was the clear absence of an RUC response. The 1969 bombings were little different, suggesting the RUC (and Unionist government) were aware from the very start that the bombings were being carried out by the UVF. By the end of April 1969, the UVF campaign had led to the British army being deployed to the north. The further deployment in mid-August is the one that subsequent histories have tended to stress and so the introduction of British soldiers is often associated with the later violence of mid-August. This overlooks the start of the British Army deployment and, by doing so, underplays the significance of the UVF bombing campaign and its purpose. That campaign had intended to stop Terence O’Neill initiating basic reforms such as introducing universal adult suffrage (if you need reminding of the range of civil rights abuses, you can read the Campaign for Social Justice’s The Plain Truth report published in mid-June 1969 here).

It is also worth noting that security and intelligence apparatus began to be put in place in April 1969 as part of the initial deployment (for more on that see here). And in advance of that initial deployment it is maybe worth pointing out it is possible that overall thinking around the use of troops and the degree of force permitted had already received the following guidance from the British government, “…that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” That kind of thinking clearly has had a long term influence.

Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

I have a few posts on events in 1969 taking a fresh look at some key events. This will include the deployment of the British Army, the introduction of internment and the split in the Belfast IRA in September 1969. But they are for another day. Firstly, I’m going to wrap up the previous post on the speeches given at a major IRA event in Mullingar in July 1969 (you can read them here and see some more here).

So, was Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar really the first sign of the 1969 split in the IRA, or was the treatment of Steele simply an example of methods and attitudes of the IRA leadership at the time? Steele, a former IRA Adjutant General, had been President of the Directory of Republican Clubs in the north as recently as 1967-68. The excerpt from his speech quoted by Peter Taylor (in Provos) is used in most accounts of the 1969 IRA split to support an argument that the split reflected broad left/right divisions within the republican movement. The surviving audio of his speech neither corresponds to the text quoted by Taylor nor provides much evidence that left/right ideological issues were really the major factor in the later IRA split.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

That the speech prompted internal ructions within the IRA isn’t at doubt. The day after it was given, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding, had Steele removed from Sinn Féin’s official panel of speakers for republican events. Steele had been involved with Fianna Éireann and the IRA since 1920, spent numerous periods in prison or interned and edited a variety of republican newspapers and pamphlets. According to Belfast IRA veteran Billy McKee, on the Wednesday evening he was in Steele’s house when Malachy McGurran (an IRA Army Council member) and Jim Sullivan (the Belfast IRA Adjutant) arrived. McKee, who had not been active in the IRA since the early 1960s, was asked to leave as Sullivan and McGurran told him they had IRA business to discuss with Steele. When McKee met Steele again a couple of days later, Steele told him that McGurran and Sullivan had been sent by Goulding to inform him of his immediate expulsion from the IRA. Any reference to Steele’s speech was omitted from the subsequent coverage of the event in the subsequent issue of the main republican newspaper, The United Irishman.

Steele’s speech had been delivered in front of crowd of 10,000 at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormick. Barnes and McCormick had been hung in England in 1940 after a 1939 IRA bombing in Coventry in which five people died. A repatriation committee had campaigned for the return of their remains since 1949 and Steele spoke at the reburial on its behalf. Various other people spoke from the platform including Sinn Féin President Tomás MacGiolla (who had chaired the repatriation committee). The main speech on behalf of the IRA was by Cork man Jim O’Regan, an International Brigade veteran who had also been active during the 1939 English campaign and imprisoned along with Barnes.

 

Peter Taylor’s text

Taylor published the following text as a quote from the speech: “Our two martyred comrades who we honour today … went forth to carry the fight to the enemy, into enemy territory, using the only methods that will ever succeed, not the method of the politicians, nor the constitutionalists, but the method of soldiers, the method of armed force. The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed, one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots. [At this point there is applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear’ on the tape.]

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. May we hope that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit … a spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task that our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

Subsequent references to the speech all seem to be solely quoting Taylor. This includes the likes of Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72 (which specifically cites Taylor’s quote as a transcription). Almost all use it to support an analysis of the ideological split within the IRA over opposition to a ‘leftward’ drift under Goulding.

Taylor gives his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by McKee. The recording had been made in Mullingar by another Belfast IRA veteran Leo Martin who later donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death. The surviving recording includes the speeches by O’Regan and Steele. Despite the dreadful weather the audio quality is still remarkably good although the very start of Steele’s ten minute speech is missing.

 

Steele’s speech

The extant audio (you can read the transcript here) starts with Steele criticising People’s Democracy’s Michael Farrell and the Derry Labour Party’s Eamon McCann for refusing to march behind a tricolour at a recent James Connolly commemoration in Belfast. Here Steele chimes exactly, in tone and language, with coverage of the same issue in the June and July 1969 issues of United Irishman, and with recent statements by people close to Goulding like Tomás MacGiolla and Derry Kelleher, all  of whom emphasised James Connolly’s combination of socialism and republicanism.

The excerpt below, following his criticism of Farrell and McCann, illustrates Steele’s theme of Connolly’s vision of left-wing Irish republicanism. “Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

The reference to “the teachings of Chairman Mao” then appears in a different context in the audio than that implied by Taylor’s account: “A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.

Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.

There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.” [Text in bold is the quote given by Taylor].

Despite Taylor’s annotations, there is no interruption in the audio for applause or shouts of ‘hear, hear’. Some of the text Taylor quoted could come from the start of the speech that is missing on the audio held in the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. That, however, doesn’t explain other discrepancies with the text and annotations here.

 

A Raw Nerve

The final section of Steele’s speech also varies from the text given by Taylor (the text missing from Taylor’s quote is marked in bold): “From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

The missing reference to the “…social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly…” again continues that James Connolly zeitgeist that ran through Steele’s speech, MacGiolla’s Bodenstown address and recent United Irishman articles. Clearly, though, given the speed of his dismissal from the IRA, Steele hit a very raw nerve. But what raw nerve did he hit? Politicisation? Left wing policies?

A longer term view suggests neither of the latter was much of a problem for the Belfast IRA (and the likes of Steele who had been active republicans for much of the previous fifty years). Steele had stood as a candidate and acted as an election agent in previous decades, and the IRA had ran candidates in Belfast in the 1960s. The Belfast IRA had also engaged with a series of political projects since the 1920s which usually included collaborating with the left although that relationship was often fraught. Tarlach Ó hUid, in his 1960 memoir Ar Thóir mo Shealbha, recounts how the IRA and various left wing groups formed an anti-imperialist republican club in Belfast in the late 1930s, only for it to fracture in 1941 when communist members withdrew support on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war as an ally of Britain. Publications like Irish Freedom and statements by leading communists like Billy McCullough show a shift in tone in 1942 away from ‘anti-imperialism’ (which included colonial powers like Britain and France) to ‘anti-fascism’ (i.e. Nazi Germany, Italy etc). Betty Sinclair later claimed Belfast communists were accused of passing the RUC information on former allies in the IRA leading to arrests and arms finds. That fallout in 1942 coloured the Belfast IRA’s perceptions of the Communist Party as an entity rather than left wing politics itself (and, based on that experience, Sinclair’s own prominence in the Civil Rights Movement was viewed with suspicion). This attitude was reinforced by the role local communists played in defending the Soviet Union’s suppression of national movements like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

Those present at Steele’s speech like Joe Cahill, Sean Dunne, Roy Johnston and John Kelly all show they clearly understood the references to control and strategy as direct criticisms of Cathal Goulding. Goulding himself, in an interview with Seán Ó hÉalaithe published in Comhar in 1973, claimed that despite regularly meeting Steele, Steele had never raised any concerns with him over politicisation or left-wing IRA policies. Although there is evidence of Steele previously criticising the direction Goulding was promoting within the IRA policy. Steele had been the main speaker at the Manchester Martyrs centenary in Manchester in November 1967. His speech had carried criticisms of the ‘New Departure’ of Davitt and Devoy, a deal between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and constitutional nationalists over attendance at Westminster. This was obviously allegorical and cut across Cathal Goulding’s own push to end abstentionism, but this clearly wasn’t that raw a nerve since Goulding took no action against Steele after the 1967 Manchester speech. Notably, though, Goulding had pushed through an expansion of the IRA’s Army Council, from seven to twenty members in September 1968 which enabled him to co-opt supporters of his politicisation strategy and force through reforms of the IRA. Goulding’s methods here may have been one focus of Steele’s criticisms.

The Mullingar speech also took place in the shadow of loyalist bombings in April, May and June 1969 and increasing concerns in Belfast at Goulding’s refusal to relax his control over access to IRA arms. In May and then again in July, Goulding told meetings of IRA GHQ staff that there were plans in place to defend northern nationalists in the event of unionist violence. However, he told a meeting of local IRA O/Cs that, in a crisis, it would be the British government who would have to step in and disband the B Specials and bring in reforms. In May the northern O/Cs had met and had a request for weapons approved but they never got them. Matt Treacy, in The I.R.A. 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic, records that Roy Johnston, then on the Army Council, claims Goulding intended to leave Belfast undefended as he hoped that a backlash to any sustained violence against Catholics would lead to the disbanding of the B Specials. Goulding himself admits that G.H.Q. had arms but they withheld them from the north as they had not believed what they had been told about the threat of violence (Goulding as quoted in Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict). I am a little dubious about this last point though, as on 16th August 1969, when the IRA demanded Goulding issue weapons, it seems clear that there no longer were any significant dumps of IRA weapons for Goulding to release.

Cathal Goudling (centre) being spoken to by Jim Sullivan (with armband) while Tomas MacGiolla stands behind him.

While Goulding’s plans to end abstentionism were a clear focus of Steele’s speech, I think the atmosphere around the Mullingar event was created by Goulding’s policy on weapons. The Belfast IRA had collected its existing stocks of weapons prior to the 1956 border campaign and then transported outside Belfast to be redistributed to units involved in the border areas during that campaign. Afterwards, throughout the 1960s, the Belfast Battalion only had access to a handful of weapons. Steele and others may have been conscious that Goulding’s intention was to leave Belfast undefended (as claimed by Johnston). The Belfast IRA was acutely aware of how its lack of weaponry made it unable to respond to the kind of crises that occurred in 1920-22 and 1935 and which its older members had directly experienced.

Whether over constitutionalism or weapons for the Belfast Battalion, Steele’s quote “unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives” intentionally insinuated that Goulding was now acting in the interests of someone other than the IRA (clearly meaning the Communist Party). All of this obviously hit a raw nerve. Despite his speech never referencing the weapons issues in Belfast, those present seem to have understood Steele’s point (and it seems unlikely that a long time IRA veteran like Steele would breach IRA protocols by openly discussing IRA business at a public event). What perhaps made matters worse was the fact that there were almost always longstanding enmities between Belfast and Dublin over control of IRA strategy. While rarely discussed openly, this clearly had been a recurring problem for the IRA and had been central to previous crises, such as in 1922 and the Stephen Hayes affair of 1940-41. Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees actually quotes Steele as saying he would “Get his own back on Dublin” after his expulsion.

So arguably, the real tensions within the IRA were over access to the weapons that everyone believed Goulding had securely under his own control. On 16th August 1969 when violence began to consume the north, Goulding was besieged by IRA units demanding he open up all the dumps. Only then did it became clear that the IRA’s stocks of arms and ammunition, that were central to that crisis in the IRA that summer, did not really exist.

While Mullingar clearly represented an event in the journey towards the split in the IRA later in 1969, I suspect it was actually less significant than is claimed. It was later to suit those on both sides of the subsequent split in the IRA to reach back before the events of August 1969 for the split’s origin. As far as the Official IRA was concerned, this served two purposes. It allowed it to claim that the basis of the split in the IRA was one between what it could present as ‘progressive’ versus ‘militant’ republicanism. The second purpose was that this neatly deflected from the criticism of Goulding and the IRA’s failure to respond to unionist violence during mid-August 1969. More so, in extremis, the likes of Roy Johnston have even sought to actively implicate those who were on the Provisional IRA side of the split as intentionally complicit in fomenting the violence of mid-August 1969 and cite Steele’s speech in Mullingar as evidence. As far as those on the Provisional IRA side of the split were concerned, though, Steele’s speech evidence of internal resistance within the IRA to the policies that led to the IRA’s own failures in mid-August 1969. Thus the Provisional IRA could also disassociate itself from Goulding and the events of that August by placing the roots of the schism before that August.

It that regard, it is hard to see beyond the IRA’s failure to prepare to counteract the extreme violence of mid-August 1969 as the real basis for the IRA split later that year but I’ll cover that another day.

 

You can read a full transcript and hear some audio of Steele’s and O’Regan’s speech here. Notes on 1969 meetings of Sinn Féin’s Coiste Seasta are available on Roy Johnston’s website (see www.rjtechne.org). The account of Steele’s dismissal from the IRA is based on information from Billy McKee.

There is more on the context of the Mullingar speech in Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

IRA split, July 1969

This is fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 IRA split. Here is some footage and audio of Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar in July that year, regarded as a key event in the split.

Both Steele’s speech and that of Jim O’Regan (the official speaker for the IRA on the day) are transcribed here. You can decide for yourself whether the content suggests the IRA split on left/right lines or not (I’m not convinced).

I’ve posted some audio from O’Regan’s speech here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1scJPUheft8ndRtIUb00laeWJFiI6OT3N/view?usp=drivesdk

IRA split 1969: unpublished speeches

Here are two unpublished speeches given in July 1969 at an event that later portrayed as central to the split in the IRA later that year 1969. I’ve posted about it previously, so rather than add more to that, I’ll just post the speeches (this is taken from the audio mentioned in those links). The two keynote speeches were given in the order below, the first by Belfast IRA veteran Jimmy Steele on behalf of the committee involved and then, as the official speaker for the republican movement, Cork IRA (and Spanish Civil War veteran) Jim O’Regan.

Jimmy Steele spoke on behalf of the repatriation committee which was chaired by Tomas MacGiolla. His introduction is not included in audio, similarly the very start of his speech is missing. It ends with applause.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

Jimmy Steele:

“…who refused recently to march behind the national flag in the Connolly parade has said “The working class of Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, have nothing to gain from a United Ireland. Partition is quite unimportant.” Of course the British socialists adopted the very same attitude to James Connolly, before 1916, when they told him that Irish freedom was not a cause with which he, as a worker, should concern himself. To which Connolly replied that Irish independence must be won before Irish workers could be masters in their own land. And that without political independence, the way to social and economic progress would never be clear. And away back in 1914 when Redmond and Devlin had agreed to partition, Connolly wrote that to it, Labour should give the bitterest opposition. Against it, Labour and Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us. And just a few hours before his death he said to his daughter, Nora, ‘The socialist will never understand why I am here. They all forget that I am an Irishman.” Others too, wearing the tag republican by advocating attendance at Stormont and Leinster House have come to accept the two state situation, thus helping to perpetuate partition.
Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”
Yes, my friends, just as Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs and Kevin Barry died, so did Barnes and McCormick, in the same cause, in the same way and by the order of the same hangman, the hangman of the western world, England.
I’m sorry to say there has been a strange, if not deliberate silence, among republicans about that period when Barnes and McCormick were active. A period known as the forties. Let there be no glossing over what is, in reality, a glorious page in Ireland’s struggle for freedom. For these republican soldiers kept the idea of a separatist Ireland to the forefront against tremendous odds. Fighting anti-Republican and enemy forces on three fronts, on English soil and in the six and twenty-six counties. These men were not concerned with a man’s creed, whether he was Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. They knew of only two classes of people in Ireland. Those who wished to maintain the British connection, and those who were determined to break that connection. Those who gave their allegiance to the invader, England, and those who gave their undivided allegiance to the free republican nation proclaimed in arms in 1916, and ratified by the votes of the people of all Ireland in 1918 and 1921.
Their primary aim was the same as Connolly’s. When he marched into the GPO on that Easter Monday to fight. And in his very last testimony of republican faith he bore his martyrdom to emphasise at his court martial why he fought. “We went out,“ he said, “to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and establish and Irish republic.” How can anyone possibly overlook the courage and the suffering of a small dedicated band, many of whom are here today.
A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.
Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.
There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.
A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly. Unity was a word used as a means of propagating acceptance of the Treaty of 1921. It was also used by Fianna Fáil as a means of gaining power and control in 1932. To become participants in this unity drive, republicans were urged to vote Fianna Fáil into power in Leinster House. They were expected to compromise just a little as a means to an end. They were expected to tolerate for the time being, political leaders and organisations who had already deserted or betrayed the republic.
Let us take heed of this, before it is too late, because history has a habit of repeating itself. And the Green Tans of 22 and 24, and, 36 to 46, could easily become the Red Tans or the Blue Tans of the future but the victims would still be our Fenian dead, our republican dead, out martyred dead. From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished. That is how Barnes and McCormick can best be honoured. That is how they would wish to be honoured because that is why they lie in a martyrs grave today.”

Jim O’Regan was then announced as official speaker for the republican movement.

Jim O’Regan, while serving with International Brigade in Spain (see https://internationalbrigadesinspain.weebly.com/irish-volunteers.html)

Jim O’Regan:

“A chairde on the morning of the 7th of February, in the dark year 1940, two gallant soldiers of the Irish Republic, James McCormick from Mullingar and Peter Barnes of Banagher, stood on the gallows in Winston Green jail in Birmingham. They were about to die at the hands of their enemies, surrounded by their enemies, in the gloomy atmosphere of an English prison. It is easy to visualise the thoughts that must have been going through their mind in those last hard moments of their lives. They knew now that never again would they see their native land. They knew now that never again would they see all those who were dear to them. They knew now that never would again would they meet their comrades in the fight for freedom. And now a generation has passed and twenty-nine years later, we stand at the grave of Peter Barnes and Joseph McCormack [sic], who at last have been laid to rest in the land that they loved and served so well. On behalf the republican movement, and indeed of the entire Irish people, I thank the committee who have been responsible for this wonderful achievement. They worked hard and long. They met with many disappointments. They overcame many obstacles. At times they must have almost despaired. But perseverance was their motto and in the end they succeeded. I know they do not want their names mentioned but I feel that what they did they did for Ireland and they did it well. But I think that one name should be mentioned and that is Caitlin Ni Muimhneachain, who has been a driving force behind this campaign in the last few years and who has [speech drowned out by applause]…that campaign.
I have spoken of the obstacles they overcome, overcame. I will mention only one. That of finance. A very large sum of money was needed for the repatriation. They could only appeal privately to members of the republican movement, with our sympathisers and supporters. In the republican movement, the members have never been known for their worldly wealth. For the vast majority of their lives they had struggles for existence and they have many burdens on them. And in addition, the veil of silence drawn by the organs of publicity and the establishment over the sacrifice by the men whom we honour today will no doubt give them the impression that the youth of Ireland had forgotten those heroic men and that alas their memory perhaps too had faded in the minds of the older people. But then the money came. From the north, the east, the west and the south. From our exiles abroad. Not alone sufficient to cover expenses. But to cover them five and six times over. It came from the hidden Ireland. The Ireland of Barnes and McCormick. That unconquered Ireland that has handed on the torch of freedom down through the generations and has never surrendered and never will surrender.
I thank all those who subscribed. I know that once again the many hard working sub-committees that do not want any thanks or do not want their names mentioned. But I think that one outstanding area will have to be mentioned and that is Belfast. Not alone did they set themselves a very high target but they exceeded it. Perhaps it is because they are face-to-face with the imperialism that murdered Barnes and McCormick and so, better than most of us, know the evils these men died fighting.
Peter Barnes and James McCormick grew up in the Ireland of the late 20s and early 30s. It was a difficult time. A time of world recession. Unemployment was widespread and those who were lucky enough to have work were exploited by long hours and low wages. But yet, at that time, there was hope in the land because immigration, our greatest evil, has ended and the youth were filled with a revolutionary fervour. But alas, by this situation, led to great developments in other countries. But in Ireland this revolutionary fervour was absorbed by other parties for their own personal advancement. Peter and James saw through this and they in the ranks of the republican movement worked hard and quietly for the achievement of our republican ideals. It is common today to give writes up in our newspapers to people who are well known in public affairs. But let us remember that these people are paid and paid well for every hour of service they give anywhere, whereas the men we honour, received no payment, never asked for any payment, risked their lives, risked their liberty, lost their jobs and in the end made the supreme sacrifice for the cause they believed in.
I have known men who knew James McCormick in those days. Both men and women have told me that he always impressed them with his neat and tidy appearance. The fine way he kept himself despite long spells of unemployment and lack of money to buy clothes. He was a person of pride arising from his idealism. Both volunteered for the campaign in England. I have known many volunteers who operated with James in the midlands at that time. They were all deeply impressed by him. They called him an outstanding volunteer, extremely reliable and very efficient.
Peter, who was older, had joined the Fianna in 1921 and was a mere youth a few years later when he joined the Irish Republican Army. He was a very careful operator. In actual fact his presence in England was completely unknown to the police. But alas he was betrayed by an informer, an Irish one at that. He was searched, his lodging searched and nothing whatever was found on him but they knew they had their man as a result of an informers information. And they found shampoo powder in his room and they said that that was an explosive substance and they held him on that charge.
The following morning three of my comrades and myself were betrayed by the same informer and brought to Brixton prison. Again, on numerous occasions during the following weeks both Peter and the four of us were brought to court and remanded. I had many opportunities of having conversations with him. It was I who told him of the informer. On a number of occasions when we were going to the police courts, the police informed us that one of us would be hanged for the explosion at Coventry. I discussed this with Peter and pointed out that though it would be more than difficult for them to prove because all five of us were in James’ [indistinct] two hundred miles from Coventry. But Peter said…[indistinct]….
And one night…came the tramp of many feet coming up the iron staircase in Brixton where we were, it was a large wing and they had cleared it out of ordinary prisoners to keep about a dozen of us who were there. We were closely watched and there was a large number of unoccupied cells, on each one of the ones we occupied. But yet we knew the actual situation of each of the cells of our comrades. And one night we heard the stamp of heavy feet coming up the iron staircase of police and warders coming up the stairs and then I knew they were going in the direction of Peters cell. I heard the door open, a few minutes passed and then they moved on. I knew Peter….. Their time began at the end of that year and on the 14th December they were sentenced to death.
Peter said, “As I am condemned to death and going before my God. I must say I am innocent. Later, I am sure, it will come out that I had neither hand nor act nor part in it.” On being asked the same question, James McCormick replied (and this is from the same pamphlet), “Before you pass sentence, I wish to thank sincerely the gentlemen who have defended me during my trial. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I am not afraid to die, for I am dying in a just cause. God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
The death sentences and their brave stand in a hostile court amidst the enemies country caused a great upsurge in national feeling in Ireland. As we hope their burial will cause a similar surge. Widespread protests were held. Mass meetings attended by tens of thousands people. At that time, coercion reigned against republicans and it took moral courage from people in public life to come forward, to stand on a platform and ally themselves with Barnes and McCormick. But they did so and I am glad to see many of them here today and we thank them for their efforts.
But alas, all efforts failed. Barnes, Peter Barnes, 32 years of age, and James McCormick at 29 years of age, laid down their lives for the people of our land. On the night before he died Peter wrote his last letter. And here it is, exactly as he wrote it to his brother. “If some news does not come in the next few hours, all is over. The priest is not long gone out, so I am reconciled to what God thinks best. There will be mass for each of us that morning before we go to our death. Thank God I have nothing to be afraid of, I am an innocent man. And as I said before, it will be known yet that I am. The only thing that worries me now is the thought of my poor father and mother. But I know God will comfort them. I will write my last few lines to mother tomorrow, Tuesday, I will know by then. Say a prayer for me. God be with you all.”
On the same night, James McCormick wrote his last letter to his sister in Mullingar. “This is my farewell letter as I have just been told that we have to die in the morning. I know that I will have to die so news did not come as a great shock to me. But thank God I am prepared and I know that I am dying in a just cause. I shall walk out in the morning smiling as I shall be thinking of my God and the good men who went before me in the same cause.”
And the next morning, in an English prison, surrounded by hundreds of armed soldiers and police, they marched proudly out to die. And their names will forever be linked with Allen, Larkin, O’Brien, Barrett, Casement, O’Sullivan and Dunne. In every generation, our noblest sons and daughters have laid down their lives for the freedom and independence of our country. It is calculated in the year of 1798, over sixty thousand Irishmen made the supreme sacrifice on the field of battle, before the firing squad and on the gallows. In 1803, Emmett and twenty-eight of lieutenants died on the scaffold. In the War of Independence from 1916 to 1921 over seven hundred Irishmen laid down their lives. And in the war in defence of the republic in the following two years, 1922 and 23, hundreds more died.
The number of those who died in the time of Barnes and McCormick was not very large. But each and every one of them was an equal in every way of the heroes who went before them. Shortly before Barnes and McCormick died, Jimmy Joe Reynolds and comrades Kelly and McCafferty died on the border, Peter McCarthy was shot in Dublin, Christy Bird died in Dublin, Sean Glynn of Limerick died in Arbour Hill Prison on hunger strike as a result of attempting to go to Bodenstown commemoration. Within two months of Peter and James death, those two gallant heroes from the west, Tony Darcy from Galway and Jack McNeela of Mayo died on hunger strike. And in September that year, Paddy McGrath of Dublin, an outstanding hero of the Tan War, Civil War, 1916 died with his comrade Tommy Harte of Armagh, who had been in England with Barnes and McCormick. They died before a firing squad. In 1942 the hangman who executed Peter and James returned to Ireland, to Belfast to execute young Tommy Williams. In 1944, two years later, he came to Mountjoy to execute Charlie Kerins of Kerry. Others died too. Rocky Burns with short arms in a Belfast street. Jackie Griffith in a Dublin street, Sean Kavanagh in Cork, Sean McDermott* in Cavan [here O’Regan corrects himself] Sean Dermody* in Cavan. And in the Curragh concentration camp, Barney Casey was shot down. And Jackie O’Callaghan* was shot in Antrim. And there were others. Sean McCaughey who died on hunger strike. Terence Perry of Belfast and Tom Malone* of Belfast who died in Parkhurst Prison when we were there. Bob Clancy of Waterford who died in the Curragh, John Hinchy of Louth who died in Mountjoy. And that great hero of the Tan and Civil Wars, George Plant of Tipperary, who’d been active in the English campaign and who died before a firing squad in that infamous prison not so far from here. So too died before a firing squad, Maurice O’Neill of Kerry and Dick Goss of Louth.
It will be said they were a minority. But Pearse and Clarke and Connolly when they marched in the streets of Dublin in 1916 were a minority. And as Sean McDermot a great leader and patriot had said when told a majority of the people are against you, “We represent the unconquered soul of Ireland.”
One will say today, “What did Peter and James and their comrades die for?” They were members of the rank and file of the republican movement. I served with them and I am a rank-and-file member of the republican movement too, so I can answer on their behalf. They died so that the Irish people could become complete masters of their destiny in their own country. They died for the complete liberation of our land, for the abolition of the accursed border and rule by a foreign government and laws. They died to end all the evils that afflict our race. Alone of all the nations of the world our population has been declining for over one hundred and twenty years. And this is caused mainly by the fact that during that whole long period we have had the greatest immigration rate of the entire world. We have the world’s, Europe’s highest unemployment rate. We are the only nation whose finances are controlled by another. To abolish this unnatural state of affairs, to give the Irish people the right to live in their own land, that is what Peter and James died for.
We leave these honoured graves to the care and to the protection of the people of Offaly and Westmeath. Let them come here every year, on the day of national commemoration. Not alone to honour their two noblest sons but to grow from their lives and their sacrifices, inspirations to continue their fight for freedom. The republican movement is determined to win and to win in this generation. McSwiney said “It is not with those who inflict the most but with those who suffer the most that the ultimate victory lies.” And God knows the republican movement has suffered enough. So let us swear by these martyrs graves that will end the fight in our lifetime. And when that day comes, the day of victory, let us return here to honour the men who made that victory possible. For here lie the real architects of Irish freedom. And by their graves promise to build a state worthy of their noble sacrifice. Welcome home Peter. Welcome Home James. May God give eternal rest to your most gallant souls.”

[Note: these names should be Paddy Dermody, Gerry O’Callaghan and Joe Malone, I listened to the audio a few times to be sure and these are the versions of the names O’Regan gives.]

This is then followed by instructions to those who wished to come forward to lay wreaths and for the colour party.

You can watch some video and hear some audio from the speeches here:

 

You can read more on the background to the 1969 split in the Belfast Battalion book.

Security policy and history writing (some questions and answers).

I did an interview recently with Christopher Owens which was published a few days ago on Anthony McIntyre’s The Pensive Quill platform. Christopher picked up on some interesting points (these largely follow on from his review of Belfast Battalion). Here’s a sample from it that, by accident, covers a key point with a strong contemporary resonance about the long term distorting effect the counter insurgency strategy ‘Information Policy’ has had on writing history here (you can read the full interview here).

Christopher Owens: What is it about the post Civil War-pre 1970 period of Belfast/IRA history that you find much more compelling in comparison to the recent conflict?

John Ó Néill: A number of reasons – originally, I’d been preparing material for a biography of Jimmy Steele and, bar Sean O Coinn’s A Rebel Voice, there wasn’t anything of any detail to provide a Belfast IRA context for his IRA activity after 1922. I’d noticed minor discrepancies in dates and events between the main histories of the IRA (like those by Tim Pat Coogan’s and John Bowyer-Bell) that I felt needed corrected and had accumulated various source materials for the Belfast IRA in that period that suggested there was scope for a book. The start point (the Civil War) and end point (September 1969) seemed obvious and, as far as possible, I tried to pace the book so that whole periods of years weren’t skipped or glossed over. I had partly chosen the end date because I wanted to try and concentrate on the chronology of events in Belfast up September 1969 without writing it as if everything that subsequently happened was pre-ordained.

I also avoided dealing with the post-1969 period for another reason. The application of Information Policy (British Army’s counter insurgency theory) and it’s pervasive outworking into media, academia, commentary and a conscious attempt to control the narrative of events has made writing actual histories of the post-1969 period incredibly problematic. A review of the literature on the role of the media (the likes of Bill Rolston and David Miller’s War on Words: A Northern Ireland Media Reader) makes it clear that a key aim of Information Policy was distorting perceptions so that, now, it is difficult to disentangle fiction from reality. Many people have become (through their own experiences) so heavily invested in a particular narrative it is hard to see how they could step back and engage with different perspectives. So, I didn’t want to get bogged down in that.

A reminder that you can read the full interview here.

 

Sean O Coinn tribute to Billy McKee

BILLY MC KEE“A Soldier of the Republic and a man of the people and for the people”

A TRIBUTE

When we look at Irish history and the figures that adorn the annals of our history, it can often be the case of events having a bearing on the commitment or role of the individual, which when combined, produces the historical figure.

Our history through its struggle for freedom has produced its fairshare of such figures that have fallen into the categories of “Historical Icons”. Men such as Larkin, Connolly and Collins stand out in modern times as prime examples, because they forged that place in history through strong personality, driving commitment and tactical know-how.

History easily recognises those figures whether it is Michael Collins in 1921, or Gerry Adams in 1994, who are to the fore in formulating a strategy that brings us from military stalemate to a settlement of peace. Bringing any armed struggle through a process of change and delivering that change, is no envied task for any individual [s] to embark on and warrants deserving credit.

However there was another breed of men not versed in the murky world of political endgame, yet just as important as the “image maker”. These were the traditionalists in the mould of the old IRA of Sean Treacy and Dan Breen. They were men shaped by the experience of being a republican in the forties when a Unionist dominated state held the upper hand and played it in a heavy manner and support came from a closely net band of sympathisers.

Within this breed was Billy Mc Kee. For him and other’s of his generation there was one principle- REPUBLICANISM- twinned with one strategy– Defence of your people where and when possible, And- Be offensive against the enemy, where and when possible.

It may not have had the makings of a political building-board, but in the early 1970’s, “it was exact in its execution”. Men such as Billy Mc Kee were to shape the modern IRA in its infancy at a time when history really was in the making.

They struck a blow of defiance through the northern state that shook its very foundations and one to which it would never recover.

Following the Unionist pogroms against the Catholic community of August 1969 Billy Mc Kee and others of his generation, driven by principle and commitment, stepped forward to raise a battered population off its knees. They gave leadership and instilled confidence, not as politicians, but as a new and invigorated IRA who’s first principle was the protection of its communities. For them, politics no matter how sound in principle they may appear to be, would take second place to the defence of the Nationalist people of Belfast and the six-counties.

As scores of Catholic homes still bore the scorch marks of burning, a derelict legacy of discrimination, the Provisional IRA came into being, with Billy Mc Kee as O/C Belfast Brigade.

Young men who simply just “wanted to have a go” back at the state, were shaped into a military structure of sorts to be prepared to defend the Nationalist people and if the situation allowed, to strike back. There was a heart-beat put back into the Belfast IRA, not felt since 1921 and the cast was set; they did not have long to wait !

This book is that story and a tribute to Billy Mc Kee and those men of the early Provisional IRA.

Billy for some today may not fit the perception of what “a modern day republican” should be, but he had a total grasp of republican principles and history. Republicanism to him was a driving belief, a life-long struggle not to be soiled with personal ambition or the comfortable outcome of a career. He dedicated his life to the republican cause and like many of his elk; he suffered personally for that struggle.

His beliefs steered him through-“A belief in God and his faith” and-“A belief in Ireland’s right to self-determination”.

He drew inspiration from those of the past who shaped Ireland’s history of struggle, just as many republicans of today have and can draw inspiration from his life; from a man of strong conviction, of strong principles, who stepped forward and led from the front when his country and people were in most need.

SEAN O COINN

 

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019