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.


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