List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C 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 GAA 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.


Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot 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 courtmartialled 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).


Dan Turley

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.

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Davy Matthews

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.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

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 courtmartialled 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.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained 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).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran 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

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.

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

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.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

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).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews 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. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

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.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of 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 like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

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. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

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.

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Billy McKee

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. 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. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

Bridging the 1916 and 1867 anniversaries: #HomeSweetHome and #ApolloHouse

Next year brings yet another anniversary, the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of an Irish Republic by a provisional government of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians. It seems somewhat appropriate given the failure to deliver on the aspirations of their 1867 proclamation, or that of 1916, that the two anniversaries are bridged by citizens occupying a state owned building in the cause of providing basic shelter and food for those less well off, while the state itself seeks to evict its own citizens and force them out to sleep in the open in December.

Three quotes from the 1867 proclamation are worth reflecting on:

We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers. Our mildest remonstrance’s were met with sneers and contempt.

…and (apologies for the gendered language)…

All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.

…and finally:

Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.

Our mildest remonstrance’s were met with sneers and contempt.” The irony of this phrase is that those sneers and contempt were from the British Empire of 1867, not an ‘Irish’ government and establishment in 2016. 

You can read the full proclamation here:
Irish Republic Proclamation

The Irish People to the World
We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home, while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers. Our mildest remonstrance’s were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful.

Today, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom.

All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.

We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.

The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.

We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.

We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justness of our cause. History bears testimony to the integrity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England – our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs.

Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.

Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.


Irish Freedom Fighters (1975-86)

Joe McCann: A People’s Tribute

Joe McCann featured in the story of Irish Freedom Fighters a few days ago. He is now back in the news after two of the British soldiers that shot him while unarmed in Joy Street in the Markets are to face prosecution.

Here is a cartoon from Republican News published on 16th April 1972, the day after his death.

And the front and back covers from the following issue (23rd April 1972).

‘Fourth Force’: The Catholic ex-Servicemen’s Association

In the early 1970s, the Catholic ex-Servicemen’s Association (CESA) played a significant political role. In 1972, it reportedly had 20,000 members and was described by one of its leading members as the ‘Fourth Force’ (after the RUC, British Army and UDR). Stewarding civil rights marches, staffing barricades and performing other duties, the CESA had at least a dozen members killed in the 1970s.

CESA march in Belfast, December 1972

CESA march in Belfast, December 1972 (still from Associated Press television report)

In January 1969, ex-servicemen in Derry had proposed to take part in a Civil Rights march where they would carry a Union Jack to counter allegations that the Civil Rights marches were a republican or communist front. A unionist proposal for a commission of inquiry into events in Derry meant they cancelled the plan. Historically, lack of employment had driven many Catholics into the armed forces. Discrimination in employment and failure of the British Legion to support them had reinforced the Catholic ex-servicemen’s distinct identity.

When the UDR was formed after the B Specials were disbanded, it was hoped to recruit some Catholic ex-servicemen to displace some of the former B Specials in the new force. General Ian Freeland remarked in November 1969 that “We know of a number of ex-servicemen who are Roman Catholics who are quite reliable men. We shall be trying to find some of these in the hope they will join.” Of the initial 7,262 applications to join the UDR by the end of October 1970, 1,530 were from Catholics while 1,898 were from ex-servicemen (its not clear how many of those were Catholic). A total of 3,015 applications were from former B Specials. It was projected that 1,200 of the 4,800 UDR members would be Catholics.

Against the backdrop of sustained street violence and confrontations, ex-servicemen in mainly Catholic districts began to monitor and critique the role played by British soldiers. In March 1971, reflecting the disquiet of ex-servicemen at the army’s behaviour, a separate association was formed in Ardoyne (chaired by Jimmy Lynch). This was at a time when unionists were calling for armed civilians to be mobilised into a ‘third force’ to support the British Army and RUC. Lynch said that 214 of the 340 members had signed a document calling for the formation of a gun club, as one of the means of “…getting together socially.” The same week, John Hume had asked a parliamentary question of Minister of Home Affairs, John Taylor, in Stormont about gun ownership. Taylor said that there 108 rifle, pistol or air rifle clubs, 33 in Belfast, 17 in Antrim, 6 in Armagh, 14 in Tyrone, 17 in Down and 2 in Fermanagh. Thirty of the clubs had been formed in the previous 18 months. A total of 73,000 firearm certificates had been issued (on in seven guns, for every man over the age of twenty). The Ardoyne application received no response from Stormont and later in the year (in mid-August 1971) it was announced that no further licenses for gun clubs would be issued.

Jimmy Lynch

Jimmy Lynch, Irish Press

In Derry, in July 1971, ex-servicemen protested against British Army behaviour after the shooting of Seamus Cusack and William Beattie. Some 200 ex-servicemen marched from the Creggan to the army post in Bligh’s Lane where they burnt their medals and discharge papers before marching back, in formation, to the Creggan. However at the end of that July, unionist ex-servicemen were calling for marches to converge on home of the Army GOC, Harry Tuzo, in support of demands for internment to be used against republicans. In August 1971 after the wave of arrests and internments on the 9th, the chair of the Derry ex-servicemen, Ronnie Moore, said they were having to carry out round the clock patrols in the Creggan and other districts due to the “brutal conduct” of the British Army.

At a public meeting in Dublin on 11th August following the violence of the previous days, Charlie McGlade of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle and a senior IRA figure in the 1930s and 1940s, openly called for ex-servicemen to assist the IRA. Over the next week 31 representatives of the Catholics in the UDR (many ex-servicemen), met in St Marys Hall in Belfast and called for all Catholics to leave the UDR in protest at its conduct. By then Catholics were 13% of the 4,000 strong UDR. Around 600 members were reportedly absent from duty in mid-August and it isn’t immediately clear if the 800 drop from 4,800 also represented Catholic resignations.

One hundred representatives of Catholic ex-servicemen groups then met in St Marys Hall at the end of August with the intention of forming a new organisation under Phillip Curran. Austin Currie of the SDLP was present at the meeting and there were calls to form a Catholic ex-Servicemen’s Association ‘in every parish’. Jimmy Lynch called it the ‘Fourth Force’ and stated that they hoped to expand to 10,000 members. Curran said they “…would exist solely to give leadership to people in different areas and help with community projects…they had no intention of taking up arms, but if another organisation planned to do so they might have no other option to defend their homes and families.” Curran denied they had arms but that they had “…been promised arms and would not have to pay for them…If we have to protect Catholic areas from attack we will be supplied with arms.” They also proposed to be able to rehouse refugees, run bus services and possibly even supply some battalions to the UDR and assist the British Army in its duties.

Philip Curran (left) and Christy O'Brien (right)

Philip Curran (left) and Christy O’Brien (right), Irish Press

Some branches, such as Derry, merely involved an existing group like the Derry Ex-Servicemen’s Association merely changed its name to the Catholic Ex-Serviceman’s Association. An IRA statement, of 1st September said that people with military experience should join one of the existing organisations, not start a new one. Around the same time a USC Association, representing former B Specials, was being formed in the public eye, with many of its members already in possession of firearms and firearm certificates.

Both the CESA and the USC Association then requested meetings with Army GOC Harry Tuzo at the start of September (1971). The CESA publicly stated at a press conference in Holy Cross School that they wanted to be sworn in as British Army reserve forces to protect Catholic areas from “…frontal assault”. The CESA  then dismissed the capabilities of the IRA repeating Tuzo’s claim that 30 to 40 IRA volunteers have been killed in August (in fact three had been killed) and that over 70% of the IRA had been interned. Tuzo, though, claimed he didn’t have time to meet the CESA, but, embarrassingly for CESA, he did then go ahead and meet the USC Association.

Within a fortnight there were fifteen CESA branches in Belfast and others in Newry and Derry. Its membership was claimed to be around 5,000. An example of another new CESA branch was described The Sunday Independent on 12th September 1971: in Coalisland, fifty veterans organised themselves into two platoons and offered to protect Catholics in the town. It reported they held a minutes silence in memory of former comrades who had lost their lives “…fighting for small nations” although they also stated that they agreed there had not been much point in that while their own small nation was still being held in chains. Around the same time, Phil Curran was in Dublin lobbying other ex-Servicemen there for support as the CESA began to have a relatively high profile.

In early October, the Ardoyne branch was criticising how armed unionist vigilante groups operating patrols and checkpoints was being tolerated by the British Army and RUC. By mid-October, a founding member of CESA, Joe Parker, wrote a public letter of protest to Brian Faulkner, over those detained in Crumlin Road or Long Kesh. In mid-November, the Derry branch publicly discussed how they thought 8,000 Catholics might have to be evacuated from Belfast to Derry in the event of further violence. Veterans of the British Army in Dublin then met in Liberty Hall on the 9th October and agreed to march to foreign embassies the next Saturday, to support the CESA, and hand in letters of protest against internment in the North (seventeen CESA members were interned). The CESA then marched in Dublin on 16th October carrying a tricolour and Red Hand of Ulster flag and visited various embassies in Dublin protesting at internment. They also proposed marching again to coincide with Remembrance Sunday which was objected to by the British Legion in Dublin, who reputedly offered them £5,000 if they didn’t march (the British Legion later denied this was the case).

Then, on the 4th November, a CESA member, Christopher Quinn, was shot dead by the British Army while he tried to disperse a crowd from a barricade guarding the entrance to Unity Flats in Carrickhill. The army claimed they had come under fire which was denied by the residents who said there had been no shots fired beforehand. The same weekend, it was revealed that, for their membership of CESA, some Catholics had been forced from state jobs.

Christopher Quinn

Christopher Quinn (Irish News)

By now, Philip Curran was regularly issuing statements and being asked for comment on current events. There were also some high profile detentions of CESA leaders, such as Eddie Cassidy from Andersonstown on 19th January 1972.

The reaction of the CESA to Bloody Sunday was given by Philip Curran, who said that “This is a dastardly act on the part of the army. It was a prearranged thing that they had set up deliberately. Every statement they made for the last two days showed they were quite prepared to massacre people… This action today was designed to intimidate the Catholic people and to prevent them holding any form of protest against injustice.” He then went on to warn that the shooting was a “…preliminary to civil war“. Asked what kind of action CESA would take, Curran replied: “It is bound to be punitive action. There seems to be no other way to set redress f or the grievances that we have.

The day after Bloody Sunday, Ciaran McKeown described the role of CESA in The Irish Press: ‘There was a different kind of resistance to the army in the Catholic areas. This was neither hysterical defence nor revenge because of a single act of internment, or indeed because of the Derry massacre. There was instead a cold clinical preparedness, to die if necessary but more hopefully to inflict maximum damage on the British army. Perhaps it was an act of God that the weather intervened.  Another significant factor last night was the presence of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, whose disciplined peacekeeping efforts have been obvious for the last six months, but who now seem, after so many of their own members have been harassed, tortured and interned, prepared to take up a much more vital role. At the time of writing, one is conscious of men in various parts of Belfast ready to assist and with vehicles standing by for use as barricades. One knows for certain that these people, including, most significantly, the women, are prepared for anything that this week or the coming months may bring. It is this factor that is the most important in the critical situation, the one which must be reckoned with by all those now frantically searching for a solution to the crisis that Derry’s massacre made so dramatically clear.

In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the CESA also participated in the broad-based campaign to oppose internment that was to include a major day of actions on ‘D Day’, 9th February 1972, which would mark six months since the wave of arrests on 9th August 1971. Groups and organisations involved or who sent observers included: Gaelic League; university chaplains and clerics from the four main churches; university lecturers; Assembly of the People of Northern Ireland; Dail Uladh; Society of Friends; People’s Assembly, Ardoyne; ITGWU.; Foresters; Humanists: Hibernians; Women’s Action Committees; Minority Rights Association; Medical Profession; Alliance Party; New Ulster Movement; Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association; CCDC: NICRA.; Andersonstown Civil Rights Committee; ICTU; Association for Legal Justice; People’s Democracy; Communist Party; Nationalist Party; Republican Labour Party; United Nations Organisation (Belfast); Derry Central Citizens’ Committee; INTO; NI Liberal Party: Armagh Resistance Committee and the Voluntary Community Service Group, An invitation had been extended to Rev. Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, but this was not accepted.

The CESA also managed to persuade the Dublin leadership of Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen to call on its members to join civil rights protests in the north on the 9th February. By now the CESA were acting as stewards to Civil Rights and Anti-Internment marches. They also continued manning barricades in areas where it was believed Catholics were under threat. Another member, Bernard Rice, had been killed in a drive-by shooting in Ardoyne on 8th February. The army followed up with raids in Ardoyne. In March, shots were fired at an Ex-Servicemen’s Club on the Falls Road. By April, the CESA were claiming 20,000 members.

Bernard Rice

Bernard Rice

On Friday the 12th May, the CESA’s Patrick McVeigh was shot dead and four other members wounded by a Military Reaction Force gunman in a drive-by shooting at a barricade. Phil Curran had no doubt that the CESA men were “…deliberately set up for the gunmen, and army and police stayed clear of the area until the murder had been accomplished.

Patrick McVeigh

Patrick McVeigh (Belfast Telegraph)

A pattern appeared to be emerging and in late May 1972, the Irish Press stated that: “A case can certainly be made for defensive action by Republican elements against those who would invade an area in fast cars to murder unarmed vigilantes — usually, incidentally, members of the Catholic ex-Servicemen’s Association.” Despite this, the southern government began to turn its attention to the CESA. In mid-May eleven CESA members were arrested and questioned by Gardai in Tipperary (it turned out they were travelling to play a charity football match against the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen). During the next week, the secretary of the CESA Dublin branch, Christy O’Brien returned from holiday to find that lists of members had been stolen from his home and a quantity of drugs planted there. This coincided with a series of raids targeting the homes of CESA leaders in the north.

Then, on 20th June, Tuzo consented to a meeting with Phil Curran who was proposing that the IRA and CESA be permitted to police districts in which the RUC and British Army were unacceptable. He claimed that Tuzo thought the idea would get a sympathetic hearing. Subsequently, the press was claiming that the CESA (which it now claimed had 10,000 members) was considered to be the likely recruiting ground for a new local policing force, although unionists publicly opposed such an idea. Over the next few days, a hunger strike by republican prisoners in Crumlin Road ended as their political status was recognised.

There was now also growing concern that the CESA were being specifically targeted as a member, Daniel Hayes, was taken to waste ground in the Shankill, beaten and shot dead on 1st July. Republican News, on 4th August 1972, also names Gerald McCrea and James Howell as CESA members. They were friends of Daniel Hayes. McCrea’s mutilated body was thrown from a car in the Forth River Road area on 2nd July, while Howell’s body was found the same night in McCrea’s car. He had been tortured and shot.

At the start of July, the CESA and the ‘Provisional’ IRA were strengthening barricades around no-go areas in Belfast and it was reported that both organisations were working together to patrol areas around the clock. Then, on the day before 12th July, Chris Ryder and Louis Kelly wrote in the press that the CESA had been secretly training and arming and it had now had 20,000 members on full alert and ready to spring into action. Another CESA member, Anthony Davidson was shot dead at his front door on the 20th July. Just over a week later, another member, Phil Maguire was shot dead and then robbed of a payroll he was carrying (he was the seventh CESA member to be killed).

Daniel Hayes

Daniel Hayes

On the 31st July, the British Army moved in en masse to try and reduce the no-go areas, occupying schools and other buildings as army posts. Phil Curran issued a statement saying that the British Army’s actions were to protect Catholic districts from the UDR and that it was being done to keep the UDA happy (the CESA had become increasingly vocal in objecting to the contrast in treatment of the UDA and CESA by the authorities).

In August, statements from Phil Curran became slightly more erratic and the establishment press in Dublin also began to pressurise him. All of this was against a backdrop where CESA were clearly being targeted and it was now evident that someone on the unionist side was carrying out sadistic killings in an area of North Belfast (a public reward of £50,000 was already being offered for the killers). Despite the British Army move into Catholic districts on 31st July, the CESA was threatening to put up checkpoints again to prevent infiltrations of those killers into vulnerable districts. At the start of the month Curran had called for the formation of a ‘Catholic party’ in the north (the CESA was by now publishing its own paper, ‘The Veteran’). By the middle of the month, he was having to defend the CESA to the likes of the Evening Herald in Dublin, which was claiming that the CESA was merely a front for the ‘Provisional’ IRA. The claims were based on documents supplied by the British military to the press. Curran was at pains to stress that CESA “…policies are entirely independent of the IRA and our aims and objects differ vastly. It was never our intention to take up arms, except in the defence of the Catholic areas should they come under attack from Protestant extremists. We did, however, do an enormous amount of policing in the free areas during the time they were under the control of the Provisional and Official IRA, we do quite a lot of social work and we have a number of highly skilled first aid units, so you can see the roles of the organisations are entirely different.” The document coincided with further raids on the homes of CESA members.

Attacks on CESA members also continued. At the end of August, Patrick Devenny, from the Ormeau Road, was abducted, shot dead and his body left in a sack on Rugby Road in Belfast. The organisation was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of investigation of killings of its members, including those shot by the army, which it contrasted with the inquiry being promised to Ian Paisley to look at the shooting of Protestants by the army. Similarly, it continued to demand to be allowed the same right to patrol, guard barricades and wear hoods and uniforms, as was being given to the UDA. The CESA even wrote an open letter to Cardinal Conway in November seeking his support for a ‘Catholic Defence Association’ along the lines of the UDA. Paradoxically, the Alliance party condemned the proposal was sectarian.

Within a couple of weeks and a series of clashes in Lenadoon, the CESA announced it had formed a paramilitary force to defend the area. Phil Curran also warned that “…in the event of a civil war there the association would become a Catholic defence corps.” The new group wore combat jackets with a CESA badge but remained unarmed. Curran told the press: “We are on the brink of civil war. In the event of this the British Army will withdraw their troops to barracks and leave Catholics in minority areas undefended. We do not intend to leave them undefended. In such a situation our association will become a Catholic defence corps which will be fully armed and equipped and ready to fight to the bitter end. In such circumstances it will be impossible for the Republic of Ireland to stay out of a civil war. So far the Republic has steered clear of the troubles because of the line taken by Mr. Lynch, but if there is a civil war the Irish Army will be forced to intervene.

A spokesman for the British Army said the formation of the CESA wing was being given ‘careful consideration.’ This now gave the British a pretext to use the CESA to equivocate on proscription of the UDA despite the continued evidence of its involvement in violence. By the end of that month, the CESA was being used to parallel the UDA for ‘presentational purposes’ in security statements. Around the same time, the leader of the Ardoyne branch, Jimmy Lynch was arrested by British soldiers and taken into custody.

At the start of December, in a very public show of strength, the CESA organised for 2,000 members to march in uniform in Belfast. In mirroring the behaviour of the UDA, the CESA was now playing into the hands of the security chiefs. The next day there was an unsuccessful attempt to bomb the CESA club in Andersonstown. In the new year, a CESA call to workers to down tools in protest at sectarian murders was largely ignored. The pressure continued to tell on Phil Curran who, in one interview, claimed that the 158 stab wounds inflicted on Thomas Madden the previous summer were each delivered by an individual member of the unionist gang that had killed him. Curran left for a two week tour of the US at the end of the first week of January. The calls by the likes of William Craig to draw up a liquidation list were also highlighted.

In early February (1973), it emerged that elements of the UDA had wanted to make contact with the CESA the previous summer. Both organisations then signalled support for a one day anti-internment strike despite the fact that another CESA member, Patrick Brady had been found shot dead in abandoned car on the 2nd of the month.

Despite its loose agreement with the UDA, the CESA still co-operated with the likes of both wings of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, PDs, NICRA and other bodies in political actions. At the same time, newspapers in England were claiming that the CESA was trying to procure weapons. Given the Alliance claims of sectarianism on the part of the CESA, it issued a response at the end of February, stating that: “Firstly CESA is not just a vigilante group. Members engage in various forms of social work and our aims are to help people to help themselves. Vigilante patrols have only been undertaken recently at the request of the people of Catholic areas to whom the RUC, as at present constituted, will never be acceptable. There is increasing evidence to link members of the UDA, with or without the knowledge of their organisation, with shootings and bombings. In spite of our previous statements to the contrary, the Alliance Party has seen fit to insinuate that CESA is merely a front for the IRA. Since similar allegations have recently been made in certain pro-Unionist circles, we cannot help wondering if there is an organised campaign to have CESA declared illegal at the same time in order to placate Protestant opinion.”

At the start of April, a raid on Philip Curran’s home uncovered explosives, a revolver and ammunition in a shed to the rear and he and his son, Rossa, were arrested. Rossa had been stopped by an army patrol and found to be carrying detonators, prior to the search of the house. Philip was bailed while Rossa was remanded into custody. Within days Curran had announced he was leaving CESA and would run in the upcoming Assembly election on a Republican Labour ticket (in the end he didn’t run).

Curran’s departure marked the beginning of the demise of the CESA. By the summer, to counter the claims of sectarianism, it had renamed itself the League of ex-Servicemen Association with Jimmy Lynch acting as its main spokesperson. Only some branches appear to have gone along with the name change as branches in the likes of Lurgan and Coalisland continued as the CESA until 1977 and 1978. At an anti-internment rally in Dunville Park that August (1973), LESA stewards had tried to place themselves between youths and the British Army, which included soldiers wearing Paratroop Regiment headgear. The LESA ended up being stoned by the youths to get them out of the way. Attempts by the LESA to liaise with the British Army elsewhere ended in similar chaos, as they were pressured into breaking contact with the British army in Derry over the behaviour of British soldiers in the city.

When Curran was eventually found not guilty over the explosives found in his home, he formed a Catholic Anti-Discrimination Association and began to hold public meetings in early 1974. More members of the LESA were to be killed in 1974. John Crawford was badly beaten and then shot dead close to his shop in Milltown. A caller to the press claiming to be from the ‘Official’ IRA said they had killed him but his death was subsequently blamed on the UVF. Another LESA member, Christopher Daly, was killed in Ardoyne a few days later in January, on this occasion by the ‘Official’ IRA. Weapons, claimed to have belonged to the ‘Provisional’ IRA were then found in a search of Daly’s home in Newington.

While the LESA was dwindling away, Phil Curran continued making calls for a ‘secret army’ to rise up in response to unionist calls for the formation of a ‘Home Guard’. But by now, he was attracting only 30-40 people to meetings. On 19th September 1974 a bomb exploded outside his home on the Cliftonville Road in Belfast, while it damaged the house there were no injuries. From then Phil Curran slowly disappeared from the political stage. While the LESA rapidly declined after 1974, it did survive, in one form or other until the mid-1980s, with the likes of the St Matthews branch maintaining a social club until that date. Unionists continued to carry out attacks on CESA/LESA clubs and bars in 1975 and 1976. One of the last recorded killings of CESA/LESA members was of William Smyth, who was killed walking home from the LESA club in the Bone in October 1978 (it is believed he was killed by undercover soldiers). Smyth was chairman of the LESA branch at the time and other LESA clubs had been attacked the same year.


Thanks to Eddie Whyte for prompting me to write this.


Irish Freedom Fighters (1965-66)

In 1965 and 1966 a group called the Irish Freedom Fighters carried out a number of operations in Belfast. Made up of young republicans, many IRA volunteers, it was active at a time when the “…rest of the country was striving towards reality, Belfast dragged its feet. The Belfast Battalion Staff impressed on Headquarters the necessity for a happy blend of political agitation and military activity.

That quote was written a few years later by Billy McMillen, the Belfast IRA O/C (in Rosita Sweetman’s On Our Knees, published in 1972). McMillen is understating the extent to which IRA structures outside of Belfast also resisted the increasing primacy given to political activity by the IRA command. To give one example, the Quartermaster General, Mick Ryan, resigned in October 1965 over the continued failure to procure and replenish weapon stocks. Conversely, violent IRA actions in Belfast in the mid-1960s were very rare. One of the few operations that took place occurred in October 1965, when a party of ten IRA volunteers disrupted a British Army event in St Gabriel’s Secondary School on the Crumlin Road, destroying a projector, recruiting film and injuring the projectionist and an army liaison officer.

The next month, five men aged between seventeen and nineteen were arrested in a parked car in Belfast and charged with possession of bayonets and documents detailing RUC movements. They got twelve months in jail each. The five comprised Joe McCann, Seany Watson, Harry O’Neill, Michael Kieran and Sean Murphy. When they were first charged, three were wearing combat gear. While some, like McCann, were IRA volunteers, it isn’t clear if all were. It appears, from the accounts given by RUC officers at the scene, and reports of their subsequent trial, that the group was led by McCann.

Ciaran Donnelly's iconic image of Joe McCann from 10th August 1971.

Ciaran Donnelly’s iconic image of Joe McCann from 10th August 1971.

But all five were part of a group of younger republicans operating under the name Irish Freedom Fighters. The arrest of McCann and the others didn’t deter the Irish Freedom Fighters from participating in further operations. In February 1966 an RUC vehicle and Unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb thrown at the RUC landrover happened in Comedagh Drive in Andersonstown on the night of 10th February. A number of those arrested in November had addresses in Comedagh Drive (all were still in prison at the time). Similarly, a petrol bomb thrown at Unionist party HQ on the 18th February was believed to have been carried out by the same group. Some of the press even were able to report that this was the work of a republican splinter group.

The next night, 19th February, there were a number of attacks on Catholic Church properties. St Gerard’s on the Antrim Road was vandalised, a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school, while St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents in the previous week or so and issued a denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February. On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. By now the Belfast Battalion had had enough of the Irish Freedom Fighters. Senior IRA members visited the homes of some of those involved, including one who ended up being beaten with a brush handle. While some more were to be arrested over Easter, there appear to have been no further attacks by the group.

However, not long after the release of McCann and the others, the Belfast Battalion appeared to be under pressure again to participate in more militant activity. Significantly, later narratives on this period portray a militant element among Belfast republicans as being older veterans of the 1930s and 1940s who were no longer active in the IRA. Pressure from younger republicans within the IRA is rarely (if ever) mentioned or acknowledged. Yet smoothing the re-integration of the Irish Freedom Fighters into the Belfast IRA structures seemingly necessitated greater militancy on the part of the Belfast Battalion leadership.

This is evident in two bomb attacks carried out on the night of the 24th May in 1967. One was at the Territorial Army Centre at Firmount on the Antrim Road and the other was at another Territorial Army Hall at Wallace Avenue, Lisburn. At Firmount, there was substantial damage down to the ground and lower floors. The IRA unit involved had broken in and used gelignite to set petrol alight inside the building. There was only slight damage done at the hall in Wallace Avenue. The IRA claimed the attacks in statements as the ‘Republican Movement’ and (somewhat bizarrely) ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’These were merely names being used by the IRA and don’t seem to have denoted anything particular (although the two statements do seem to reflect a lack of co-ordination and possibly hint at being caught off-guard). At other times in the 1960s, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’, ‘Irish Resistance Forces’ and other names were appended to IRA statements. The psychology and ideological purpose of a continuous shift in IRA nomenclature while Cathal Goulding was Chief of Staff is probably worth a closer look (‘National Liberation Front’ being another that was to appear). The Irish Freedom Fighters was not a name used by the IRA, though.