Belfast IRA attempt to assassinate King George V, 22nd June, 1921

On the 22nd June, the IRA attempted to assassinate King George V of England at the first opening of the northern parliament in Belfast, the opening that formally denoted the beginning of partition. This operation isn’t particularly well known, but was related by some participants to their children decades later.

It’s not clear if the assassination attempt was an official operation, though. Certainly it’s not openly listed among the Belfast Brigade operations when they were documented during the 1930s. The plan for the attempt appears to have involved members of C Company, 1st Battalion (from Carrickhill) and D Company, 2nd Battalion (from North Queen Street).

The high level of security around King George V and the parliament opening meant the IRA unit didn’t get close enough to carry through the operation. Newspaper reports, such as in the Freeman’s Journal claim there were 11,000 troops and policemen on duty for the King’s visit, along with 300 Scotland Yard detectives (the Irish Independent noted the fear that something untoward would happen). The visit itself only lasted for four hours and thirty-five minutes.

The landing stage, at Donegall Quay, was guarded by detachments of cavalry and infantry, both with fixed bayonets. Between the quay, on the fifteen minute journey along High Street, Castle Place and Donegall Square, a crowd of 20,000 loyalists eagerly cheered the Kings arrival to City Hall where the northern parliament was to sit. Outside, rows of troops with fixed bayonets controlled access and, inside, the Irish Guards provided security. After lunch in the City Hall, the King travelled across to the Ulster Hall to deliver a second speech, again amid high security. The whole party returned by the same route to the quays for departure at 4.05 pm, having arrived at 11.30 am.

The plan may have been to try and get close to the King disguised as RIC men. During an RUC search of the yard behind a shop on the New Lodge Road in 1923, a barrel containing a small arms dump was found. It held a Webley revolver and over 100 rounds of assorted ammunition, cleaning rods and other items (see RUC record of the search below). It also included a pair of policeman’s trousers. The dump belonged to Bill Steele, who was part of the unit that was to assassinate King George V. As Steele wasn’t there, the RUC arrested two of his brothers instead. Neither was charged with the possession of the dump and both were set free within three weeks.

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