Having escaped from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, the northern government had offered a £3,000 reward for any information that might lead to the arrest of Jimmy Steele (or the other three escapees). Having remained at large, as IRA Adjutant General and O/C Belfast despite involvement in a number of high profile incidents, at the end of May 1943 his luck ran out and he was recaptured by the RUC. During this time Jimmy is known to have used various safe houses, such as Trainor’s Yard in Lancaster Street, Mrs McLoughlin’s in McCleery Street, Mrs Loughran’s in Amcomri Street, with a family called Thompson in a house off the Shankill Road and his brother Bill’s house (which had a hide in the roof) in Artillery Street. Despite the size of the reward and the levels of deprivation and poverty in the areas in which Steele usually hid, the money was never claimed.
On the night of 28th May, the RUC had cordoned off a number of houses at the top of Amcomri Street. The embarrassment felt by the northern government at the IRA, with Steele and Hugh McAteer in attendance, holding a public Easter Rising commemoration in Broadway cinema at the end of April had prompted intensive raids along the Falls Road. There were further reports of big raids on the Falls Road on Tuesday 4th May. Harry White also records Amcomri Street being sealed off during other raids around the same time (in his biography Harry). So there was nothing unusual about the raid on 28th May.
Number 98, Mrs Loughran’s house, was regularly used as a billet by senior IRA figures. Harry White includes a photograph taken inside the house in Harry, and recounts an episode that suggests that security there was fairly lax. On one occasion, Mrs Loughran’s grandson found a revolver in White’s coat pocket. White managed to convince the child that it was a prop like a popular film star, Tom Mix, would use. A few days later the child called out to him in the street asking for a lend of his ‘Tom Mix gun’. White also was advised by an RUC contact that a raid on Beechmount was imminent on Sunday 23rd May. He, Jimmy Steele and Tommy Trainor were using the house at the time. Suddenly, there was the noise of RUC tenders coming up the street and they realised the RUC had the street sealed off. Mrs Loughran left house with her grandson and locked the door. White, Steele and Trainor, all armed, took up positions to make a fight for it. The RUC arrived at the top of the street then descended on a house opposite, where a British soldier lived. They searched the house then left. Afterwards Trainor and White moved to a different location. Jimmy Steele stayed where he was.
At the time he looked different to the photo circulated at the time of his escape. He now had a moustache and had dyed both it and his hair, and wore glasses. He was also using the name James Lockhart and had papers saying he worked in the ARP fire service. At 11.30 pm on the 28th, 70 armed RUC men under Head Constable Robert Winder sealed off the top end of Amcomri Street. They began a house-to-house search. When the search reached number 98, the door wasn’t opened to them immediately. By the time it was opened, Jimmy had slipped out of house and into the backyard. The area was swamped with heavily armed RUC men, so there was no way of knowing who or what was waiting on the other side of the back wall. As there was an outside toilet, Jimmy took his chances and went inside. He left the door open and squeezed behind. He hoped it was far enough open that a cursory search would suggest the toilet was empty. He was armed with a fully loaded mark 5 Webley .455 revolver and six extra rounds of ammunition.
Torchlight showed that the RUC were now searching the backyard. Jimmy stayed squeezed behind the toilet door. Tentatively someone pushed the door forcing it to come to rest against Jimmy.
From in the backyard a voice shouted, “Come out with your hands up”.
Jimmy made no response. He had no idea how many RUC men were in the yard or, if he shot his way through them, what was waiting for him in house, out in the street or over the back wall. He laid the Webley in the corner beside the door and opted to try and talk his way out.
The same RUC man shouted again, “Come out or I will shoot.”
Jimmy then stepped out from behind the door and stood in the doorway of the toilet with his hands partly raised. RUC Constable James Newell was in the backyard with a gun trained on him. Two more RUC Constables, Brennan and Diamond, burst out of the house into the backyard as Jimmy came out the door. In their accounts of the arrest, Newell and Brennan tried to paint Jimmy as nervous and frightened. Newell made a statement in which he said Jimmy was “…pale and nervous and was apparently too afraid to show fight”. In their accounts, Diamond grabbed Jimmy by the lapels while Brennan grabbed Jimmy’s left arm. They asked him his name which he gave as McCann.
When they asked for his identity card, Jimmy replied that he did not have it. The RUC men brought him into the kitchen where Mrs Loughran’s son was standing. Jimmy told the RUC Constables, “This man has nothing to do with it. I came over the yard wall.” He sounded remarkably collected for someone who was supposed to be ‘pale’, ‘nervous’ and ‘shaking’.
In the light of the kitchen, despite the disguise, RUC Constable Brennan recognised him and the game was up. Brennan gave Jimmy a quick search then took him from Amcomri Street to Springfield Road Barracks. After he had gone, Newell discovered the Webley revolver in the toilet. In Springfield Road Barracks, Brennan gave Jimmy a more thorough search. He found six spare rounds of .455 ammunition and a number of documents. This included a National Registration Identity Card and a Fireman’s Warrant both in the name of James Lockhart, a copy of the Óglaigh na hÉireann Manual of Infantry Training and Training of Recruits and a hand-drawn map of the Cawnpore Street ambush in 1942 (after which RUC Constable Murphy had been killed in an exchange of gunfire, for which Tom Williams was eventually hung).
Newell had brought the revolver from Amcomri Street to Head Constable Winder in Springfield Road Barracks. At 12.45 am on the Saturday 29th May Winder showed Jimmy the revolver and told him where he had found it. About 10 am on the Saturday morning Head Constable Winder had Jimmy brought to the Police Office and proffered charges of illegal possession of the revolver and escaping from the prison.
Jimmy replied: “Nothing to say but I accept responsibility for the revolver and ammunition.”
When he was brought into the court to have the charges put to him, the RUC asked for him to be remanded until the 15th June. At the hearing, the dock was guarded by 9 RUC men, two armed with sub-machine guns. The press reported that during the proceedings Jimmy stood smartly in the dock with folded arms. Jimmy refused to recognise the court.
Before the remand hearing on 15th June, Jimmy had pre-prepared questions taken from him by the prison authorities. His suspicions that the authorities were seeking to imprison his reputation as well as himself appeared well founded when he heard the evidence given by Newell, Brennan and Diamond trying to paint him as being cowardly when arrested. It seemed the January escape, the mass Derry escape and the Easter commemoration had gotten under the skin of the northern government.
At his trial, on 29th June, Jimmy decided to have his say. He made the following statement in the court: “As a soldier of the Irish Republic I do not recognise the right of this British court to try me. Circumstances have however arisen which necessitate my having to question witnesses here today. In the official public statement the suggestion of cowardice on my part has been made that one man failed to offer any resistance to over 70 armed men strategically placed. Every effort has been made to make it appear that I was nervous and frightened. I have an answer to that. On June 15th I had a list of questions. These questions were confiscated by the prison authorities and brought back after a time and it is quite easy now to see the use that has been made of them.”
Jimmy was sentenced to twelve years and was to remain in prison in Crumlin Road until 1950.