The path to the IRA Split: September 1969

September 1969 witnessed more milestones in the journey towards the split in the IRA. From a Belfast perspective, key events happened over the course of 22-24 September when the Battalion informed Cathal Goulding’s Dublin-based IRA leadership that it no longer recognised it’s authority. This had its roots in multiple different historical issues. The most immediate was the failure of the Dublin leadership to prepare for the violent attacks in the north that summer. But other factors were at play too, such as long term tensions between Belfast and Dublin over IRA strategy. The split (and moves to not prevent it happening) can also be seen in the context of contemporary guerrilla theory. You can read more background to the IRA split here, here and here.
The release of the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, from internment in mid-September required a meeting of the Belfast Battalion Council to formalise his reinstatement as OC, since, under the IRA’s own rules, individuals had to relinquish their commands on imprisonment. While O/C’s were often nominated by the IRA’s leadership, they still had to be formally approved by a vote of confidence from the local staff. But the Belfast IRA had changed significantly since McMillen’s arrest on 15 August. Large numbers of IRA veterans had returned to active duty with the organisation and there had been an influx of new recruits. As an organisation, the IRA operated to a constitution and standing orders at least nominally, if not always in practice. As such, leaders were elected at conventions organised for that purpose. The Belfast IRA of 22 September 1969 was much larger than that of 15 August 1969 both in terms of membership and in the strength and distribution of its units. According to Joe Cahill, “Immediately after events of 15 August, everybody who had been in the IRA and had been dismissed or resigned or whatever, reported back to the Belfast staff.” (Anderson, Joe Cahill; A Life in the IRA, p176). Given that the Belfast Battalion of the IRA and other republican organisations such as Cumann na mBan had a strength of around 1,000 in the early 1940s, and 200-300 even in the 1950s, there was a sizeable pool of former members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan and their families from which to increase its size.
There is a dramatic contrast in the condition of the Belfast IRA on 14-15 August and mid-September 1969. In August it was effectively unarmed, much of its leadership arrested and unable to really influence events when violence erupted. By mid-September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the Central Citizen’s Defence Committee (and acting as Belfast O/C in McMillen’s absence) was meeting Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north. Not only were the British Army and Belfast IRA talking directly about how to guard barricades and manage security, they were apparently doing so over the heads of the Unionist government. This, however, flew in the face of the commentary coming from the IRA leadership in Dublin, via the likes of the United Irishman newspaper in September and October. The British army was presented as being there to maintain sectarian divisions and foment a civil war (so it could intervene and present itself as a saviour). This was claimed to be part of a wider British strategy to regain control of all of Ireland in a London-led federation, hidden within the moves by London and Dublin to join the European Economic Community (eg see United Irishman, October 1969). Goulding’s analysis – which, in a mirror image of the inaction of Lynch’s government, had been exposed as so flawed in mid-August – seemed to be oblivious to any role or agency unionists might have in actively fomenting violence.
The IRA leadership’s response in the aftermath of August 1969 was minimal. A meeting in Leitrim on 17 August had failed to persuade IRA O/Cs that the leadership was capable of responding to any new outbreak of violence. In September a further meeting in Lurgan saw Daithi O Conaill appointed as a military advisor to the northern defence committees. In reality, IRA GHQ in Dublin appears to have been more focused on pushing through changes to IRA policy on abstentionism and political activity such as the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ (in that respect there were elements within the IRA and Sinn Féin that opposed Gouldings policies for a variety of reasons).
The events of mid-September 1969, that saw the formalisation of a ‘peace-line’ and further violence from unionists following the publication of the Cameron Report. This was the immediate backdrop to McMillen’s release. Famously, the Battalion Council meeting to approve his return as O/C was attended by representatives of the newly expanded units of the Belfast Battalion, some of whom were armed (having travelled across Belfast in September 1969 that seems hardly surprising). Billy McKee, who had preceded McMillen as Belfast O/C, outlined what many of those present believed Belfast Battalion strategy should now be: demand changes in the IRA leadership in Dublin with Sean Garland replacing Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff, increase the Belfast Battalion staff to include a number of named individuals, Goulding release monies raised for arms in the north for the purchase of weapons. McMillen recounts some of his own views of the meeting in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees. The Belfast IRA agreed to break with Dublin for three months until the necessary changes were made. This was communicated to Dublin but it was quickly claimed that McMillen had reinstated communication with Dublin and agreed with Goulding to string his opponents along for the time being. The repercussion from this then played out as the split in the IRA widened over that autumn. At the time, though, there is nothing in the likes of United Irishman to suggest that the events of September were particularly seismic.
Goulding, through the United Irishman, began to claim that a faction within Fianna Fáil was trying to take control of the IRA in the north naming individuals like Hugh Kennedy (who was a press officer of the Citizens Defence Committees) and the likes of Seamus Brady formerly of the Irish Press. Paradoxically, that October, Goulding himself was actually meeting with the likes of Haughey and in discussion with him and others over the channelling of money to the IRA (he also later claimed that it was Fianna Fáil that was trying to have him ousted as IRA Chief of Staff). By November, though, the Fianna Fáil contacts had clearly soured as the United Irishman carried a critical expose of the contacts with Haughey, Blaney and Boland (in a 1971 pamphlet, Fianna Fáil – the IRA Connection, Goulding again sought to blame Fianna Fáil for the IRA split). Matt Treacy (in The IRA, 1956-69) makes it clear that Lynch’s government had heavily infiltrated Gouldings Army Council long before August 1969 and believed itself to be well-informed in July 1969 when it considered ‘taking steps’ to deal with the IRA in an apparent response to the bombing campaign in the north (which was actually the work of the UVF).
Tensions between Belfast and Dublin were hardly new and had been a long term feature of internal republican politics. It had dogged relations between units in the north and IRA GHQ in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in the Belfast IRA taking over GHQ during the ‘Hayes Affair’ and then relocating GHQ to Belfast for a period of time in the 1940s. Co-operation was no less problematic in the lead up to the 1956 IRA campaign and wasn’t helped by the fact that the weight of internment in the north fell mainly on the Belfast IRA.
The changed circumstances of August-September 1969 brought about a shift in the balance of power within the IRA in Belfast that wasn’t immediately recognised. Historically, the lower Falls had been the seat of the Belfast IRA leadership. IRA units around the city had generally taken a lead from the area as the IRA had a high concentration of supporters there, with more access to safe houses and freedom of movement. Maintaining hegemony in the lower Falls then meant controlling the Belfast IRA. When the IRA rapidly expanded in numbers in 1969, though, its membership had a much wider geographic spread across the city and less of an inclination to take an uncritical lead from the lower Falls. In the short term, McMillen (and by extension Goulding) appears to have felt secure in his own position as he could rely on his support in that area, not realising that the powerbase of the IRA in Belfast had shifted.
A last point to bear in mind when looking at internal tensions within the IRA in 1969 is to briefly look at contemporary perceptions of what a revolutionary movement constituted. Cathal Goulding had intended to announce the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ with a number of other groups during 1969. This largely mirrored Vietnam with the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (typically referred to by the press as the Viet Cong) incorporated into a wider National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF name had been used in previous successful anti-colonial wars, such as in Algeria and by the Greek resistance to the German occupation during the second world war. The IRA under Goulding had already been issuing statements under a variety of shifting identities during the 1960s, including ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’ and ‘Irish Resistance Forces’.
In theory at least, Goulding already recognised the need for encouraging the participation of a diversity of groupings to achieve success. Where other organisations had operated in competition with the IRA, such as the short-lived Irish Freedom Fighters in Belfast in the mid-1960s, the IRA had shut it down. That Goulding wasn’t quick to move against opponents once a split started opening in the IRA in 1969 may, at some level, been rooted in a National Liberation Front concept that could have absorbed a split as long as it remained under the same general umbrella. In some ways this explains what appears to be complacency about a split on Goulding’s part. A split may also have had a useful purpose. An anti-colonial movement that was often noted in republican publications in the 1950s and 1960s was in Palestine where Irgun and Haganah had performed differing offensive/defensive roles. Consciously or subconsciously, there may even have been a sense that there would be roles for a variety of republican groupings by 1969. That division in roles is pertinent to the later emergence of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. In that regard, it is possible that a future split in the IRA could have been imagined as an opportunity as much as a threat in 1969.
There is more on the split and related events in the various links throughout the text above and the Belfast Battalion book.

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