On Easter Sunday, 25th April 1943, the IRA’s Chief of Staff and Adjutant-General led a public Easter commemoration at the Broadway cinema in Belfast. The resonances with 1916 were obvious: visible armed resistance in wartime, in a district saturated with armoured cars and the heavily armed British forces. The previous year’s commemoration had also triggered a calamitous sequence of events that had expended much of the IRA’s remaining capacity and saw Tom Williams hung in Crumlin Road prison. In the circumstances, there was significant pressure on the remaining IRA leadership to give some hope to their supporters and imprisoned comrades.
The 1943 commemoration also intentionally signalled a formal shift in the IRA’s centre from Dublin to Belfast, and in focusing on ending partition rather than challenging the legitimacy of government from Leinster House (a continuous ambition of the Belfast IRA since the 1930s and arguably a continuing complication in republican strategy). Similarly, the venue, built on the site of the Willow Bank huts from where the Belfast Volunteers had mobilised in 1916 also suggested a heavily coded challenge to the various competing groups in Belfast such as the Pre-Truce IRA organisation claiming primacy as the authentic inheritors of the Republic declared in 1916 (ownership of the Easter Rising commemorations were to see similar political battles in the 1950s when formal parades were permitted). Few enough may have understood the reference to 1916 and the ‘Old’ IRA association, although those that did were the intended audience. Symbolically, Easter 1943 marks the formal shift in the emphasis of IRA strategy to the north.
The IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, writing in 1951 in the Sunday Independent, clearly saw the parallels between 1916 and 1943. By mid-April 1943, he writes that he was acknowledging internally that the possibility of the IRA succeeding was out of the question for the moment. Recognising the propaganda value of his own escape in January that year and the mass Derry escape in March, the IRA leadership realised that the pattern of their work was clear. Their immediate object was now to ‘preserve the spirit of the movement’ and that was to guide how they would plan and execute their next actions.
In 1943 then, the commemoration was to be particularly significant. The leadership of Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele (who had taken over as Adjutant-General on Liam Burke’s capture earlier that April) developed the idea of staging a public Easter Rising commemoration. Harry White (in his biography, Harry, written with Uinseann MacEoin) recounts how the idea evolved from a throwaway suggestion from two young IRA Volunteers to an operation involving sixteen Volunteers taking over the Broadway cinema to stage a commemoration. According to Harry White, it was Joe Doyle and Dan Diffin who came up with the idea of using armed volunteers to take over either a cinema or a dance hall and then staging a public Easter commemoration. The idea was dismissed as impractical on security grounds.
In reality, McAteer and Steele were very enthusiastic about the idea and only dismissed it to Doyle and Diffin as they wanted to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Initially, according to White, the plan had been to simply flash up a slide on screen that said “Join The IRA”, but the concept expanded until it became a full dress commemoration. White had been staying at the house of a projectionist in the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, Willie Mohan, whose brother Jerry was an internée. Mohan’s uncle, Frank, was also the manager of the cinema. Typically, the projection box was kept locked, but normally the projectionist went for a smoke between films which gave the IRA a short window in which to go and take control of it.
The plan that developed was relatively simple but was loaded with symbolism. The parallels of a public reading of the 1916 proclamation in 1943 in Belfast during a general world war and the reading of the original proclamation in Dublin in 1916, during an earlier war, were no doubt clear. McAteer and Steele had huge sums on their heads following their escape in January 1943 and a public appearance and obvious support would signal the loyalty of their supporters to the unionist government (i.e. that they weren’t going to be paid to betray their leaders).
The RUC were expecting some form of commemoration to take place over the Easter weekend. According to the Irish News, they had turned the Falls Road into an armed camp with hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police, with armoured cars, whippet cars, patrol cars and cage cars patrolling the district. Still, sixteen armed IRA volunteers accompanied McAteer and Steele to Broadway cinema where they staged the commemoration. Three volunteers went into the projector box and handed over a slide which was flashed up on screen.
Jimmy Steele, in full dress uniform, appeared on stage and was introduced by McAteer. Steele read the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, then McAteer read a statement from Army Council on IRA policy, the resonances with 1916 are clear. While the “cause had not yet triumphed” he told them, “Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity.” McAteer finished to applause (according to Fr Kevin McMullan, who was only seven at the time but had by chance been at that screening of Don Bosco, the response was positive and enthusiastic). McAteer then called for two minutes’ silence to commemorate those who had died for Ireland.
In Dublin, The Irish Times even reported that no commemoration took place. In Belfast, though, The Irish News enthusiastically reported on proceedings which were recounted in news bulletins as far away as Germany. The northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, who was already under pressure and perceived as a moderate, resigned on the Friday after Easter.