The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.
Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.
After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.
There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.
The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).
The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.
On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).
McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.
In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.
The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.
McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.
You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T