John McQuillan’s name doesn’t feature in any republican roll of honour yet the eighteen year old appears to have been in the I.R.A. when he was shot dead by the R.U.C. in January 1942.
That month there were significant tensions as the I.R.A. in A wing of Crumlin Road staged a week long mass hunger strike in protest at conditions within the prisons and the refusal to grant them political status. On 27th January, the day after the hunger strike ended, John McQuillan and John Crean entered a shop on the Ravenhill Road and tied up the owner apparently intent on robbing the shop. The R.U.C. (led by District-Inspector Geelan of C.I.D.), though, were lying in wait in a back room of the shop and emerged, killing McQuillan with a single shot to the heart while Crean was arrested. McQuillan was eighteen years old. His older brother, Kevin Barry McQuillan, had been arrested with two automatic pistols the previous year and was in A wing of Crumlin Road with the sentenced I.R.A. prisoners.
John McQuillan is not usually listed anywhere as an I.R.A. volunteer. Nor does his death seem to merit even a footnote in conventional histories of either the I.R.A. or the era.
A memo to the Adjutant of the I.R.A.’s Northern Command from the Army Council on 6th February 1942, clearly on foot of an earlier report to the Army Council, does mention his death though. It states “The McQuillan shooting was very unfortunate. Let me have a report of the court of inquiry later.”
This reference seems to imply that McQuillan was indeed an I.R.A. volunteer although the proposed ‘court of inquiry’ suggests he wasn’t acting in an official capacity. Geelan’s presence also appears to indicate that the R.U.C. believed it to be political. It subsequently transpired that McQuillan had visited the shop the previous night and said he would be back the next night. McQuillan was found to have been carrying a Spanish Webley revolver, a weapon the I.R.A. was known to possess based on later arms finds.
At John Crean’s trial at the end of February, the court was told by the R.U.C. that Crean was in the I.R.A. and he didn’t dispute the claim. Crean eventually only received a twelve month sentence for the robbery. The I.R.A. has never officially acknowledged McQuillan as a member.
Crean’s wasn’t the only death. On Friday 6th February, a prison officer, Thomas Walker, was cycling along Durham Street on his way over to work in Crumlin Road. A number of men got out of a waiting car and fired a burst from a Thompson gun at Walker, hitting him twice in the chest. It turned out that the I.R.A. killed Walker in mistake for another warder.
Further reactions to McQuillan’s death can be recognised in susequent I.R.A. actions. In February and March, motions passed by the I.R.A. Belfast Battalion Convention were approved by a Northern Command Convention and Extraordinary Army Convention included:  “That the political squad of the C.I.D. be executed”; and  “That enemy raiding parties should be attacked”.
Motion 5 looks like a response to John McQuillan’s death in January (indeed within days of the Convention approving the motion the Belfast I.R.A. tried to kill Sergeant William Fannin of C.I.D.). One outcome of motion 12 being passed was to be the confrontation in Cawnpore Street that Easter.
You can read more about all these in the new Belfast Battalion book.