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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.“
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).
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.