The name ‘Irish Freedom Fighters‘ had been used by a group of young republicans who were active in Belfast in 1965-66. The name was to reappear in the 1970s and 1980s in claims of responsibility for a number of shootings and bomb attacks.
On the 20th August 1975, a statement was issued by ‘the Newry Division of the IrishFreedom Fighters’, saying the group would take military action against those ‘guilty of crimes against the working class’. The group said their “…long inactive division, has been revived and reorganised and that very shortly the people of Newry would be able to judge our actions.” The group claimed it was small but well organised and armed and fully capable of military action. It went on to say “We have no connection with another military organisation either Provisional or Official IRA, IRSP or PLA, who have failed to deal with the problems of the people of this area.” It was signed by ‘Captain Green, Newry Division of the IFF’ (notably, a prominent IRA volunteer, John Green, had been shot dead earlier that year by a gang which reputedly included members of the security forces).
The same week, the UVF issued its own updated list of the ‘Enemies of Ulster’ which included the Official IRA and Official Sinn Fein; Provisional IRA and Provisional Sinn Fein; the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Irish Communist Party; the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist Leninist); the Irish Republican Socialist Party; People’s Liberation Army; People’s Democracy and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It also now included the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’.
The group also claimed to have carried out a number of attacks including burning a lorry at a customs post near Newry on 27th August 1975 that it claimed was involved in breaking a strike in County Kildare. It also claimed to have fired shots into the home of SDLP Councillor Sean Hollywood in Newry on 14th September for his ‘collaborationist activities’ and stating that one of his relations was ‘on the run’ from the ‘Provisional’ IRA. Again the statement was signed with the name ‘Capt. Green’. The IRA came out an contradicted the claim about the Hollywood family (while noting that the organisation was “in no way endorsing the stand taken by Mr. Hollywood or any of his SDLP cohorts“).
The name ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ then resurfaced in March 1976, when a leading UDA member, Mr Sammy Smyth, was shot dead in Alliance Avenue on 10th March. Claims were made by both the ‘Ulster Freedom Fighters’ (the name used by the UDA) and the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ although neither claim used a recognised code word. The UDA itself immediately dismissed the U.F.F. claim and insisted the ‘Provisional’ IRA had been responsible (to this day it is unclear if that is who shot Smyth although it is usually ascribed to the IRA).
The ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ name then re-appeared in 1978, in claims of responsibility for a bomb attack on a small aircraft company working out of Eglinton airfield in Derry on 22nd September. It then claimed responsibility for shooting dead a civilian worker, Brian Russell, who was walking with two RUC men in Derry city centre. The ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ took responsibility for the shooting, but said that his murder was a mistake, claiming “He was not the intended victim. It was the troops who were with him.” It went to say that the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ were “…going to step up their action against the ‘British war machine’… they were dissatisfied with the Provo leadership’s ‘soft approach’ and they were now going to take their own military action.“
The group then claimed that it had planted bombs on the Dublin-Belfast train on 12th October (1978), phoning in a warning to the Samaritans in Portadown and saying ten bombs had been planted on the train that was then en route between Portadown and Belfast. The train halted just abruptly at a signal just before Botanic station when one bomb detonated. Another two detonated a minute later. A woman from Dublin, Letitia McCrory, was killed and a number of other people were badly injured. Downtown radio received a call which used a recognised code-word and claimed that the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ had carried out the bombing. The press reports about the attack said that “The I.F.F. is a little-known organisation but is believed to be made up of breakaway Provisional I.R.A. men or is simply a hard-line Republican group. … The I.F.F. has in the past claimed responsibility for other acts of violence, but no one really knows what the I.F.F. is and what it stands for.“
On 25th October, William Smyth, the chairman of a Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Club in the Bone, was shot dead with a single shot to the head outside his home. The ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ reputedly claimed to have killed him. A few days later, local people exposed a house being used by undercover soldiers and eye witnesses claimed to have saw clothes worn by the gunman who killed Smyth while the unit were being extracted by the security forces (recounted in Martin Dillon’s The Dirty War).
The ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ were also being blamed for a bomb attack on the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association club in the Short Strand by the press in November 1978 (see Sunday independent 5th November 1978). It claimed that “Leading republican sources in Belfast said yesterday that they have discovered a ‘hit list’ of 12 top Republicans who are to be assassinated by a counterterror gang they claim has been set up by the British army“. It also believed that William Smyth had been killed when he was mistaken for a senior IRA volunteer in the area.
A couple of weeks later on 16th November, a firebomb attack on the Ulster Brewery on the Glen Road had led to the death of a fireman, Wesley Orr. The IRA’s Belfast Brigade denied any responsibility and put the blame for the attack on the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ which it described as a ‘counter gang’ which had been “…set up either by the British army or the loyalists to discredit the republican movement in the North.” The press, though, claimed that the RUC and British Army regarded the name as a flag of convenience used by the IRA.
There were no further claims made by the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ until 29th April 1984 when an Armagh business man, Thomas McGeary, was killed by a bomb planted under his car. A caller to a Belfast newspaper office claimed to be from the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ but didn’t use a recognised codeword. The caller claim that they had killed Thomas McGeary “…because our intelligence reports over a period of years assessed him to be a collaborator of the highest degree — an informer in the Armagh area.” He then added: “Let this be a warning to all informers and collaborators.” The allegation was strenuously denied by his family. At the time the press noted that his life had previously been threatened by unionist paramilitaries but that it was generally believed the I.F.F. was a cover name used by the IRA or INLA. Within a week newspapers were describing the I.F.F. as a ‘breakaway provo faction’.
The group then returned to the headlines in September 1986 when, after a statement from the loyalist paramilitary group Tara stating that all republicans living in loyalist areas were now legitimate targets. The ‘Irish Freedom Fights’ contacted Downtown Radio in Belfast, using a recognised code word, and threatened Protestant workers in Catholic areas, such as at Mackies’ engineering works on the Springfield Road. Sinn Féin publicly condemned the statement by the I.F.F., while Tara responded by claiming it was now going to war with the Irish Republic and that it now also regarded the I.F.F. as legitimate targets. Neither Tara nor the I.F.F. acted on their threats and neither was heard from again.
It isn’t clear if there was ever a single grouping making the claims under the name ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’. The locations, Newry in 1975, Belfast in 1976, Derry, Portadown and Belfast in 1978, Armagh in 1984 and then Belfast again in 1986, don’t have the look of any homogenous entity. The claims about the killing of William Smyth and the name being used by a counter-gang are probably as credible as any other given what is known about security force tactics. Nor does anyone appear to have been convicted or charged for any incident claimed by the I.F.F. How far the name ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ was being used as a flag of convenience for different people and for different motives may now never be known. Journalists who were briefed by the security forces that it was a cover name used by the IRA haven’t subsequently reflected on the role they played in disseminating those type of claims and how they were given to them. The incidents noted above may not even be all the only actions claimed by the ‘Irish Freedom Fighters’ as others may have been claimed but not reported in the print media. In reality, the I.F.F. is likely to have been an entirely fictional entity.