Today, 22nd June 2021 is the centenary of King George V of England opening the northern parliament in Belfast, one of the occasions taken to mark the beginning of partition. This particular centenary and Anglo-Irish relations may have been significantly different, though, as on 22nd June 1921 the IRA, or at least Belfast IRA members, set out to assassinate King George V.
During research for the Belfast Battalion book (on the post-1922 history of the IRA in Belfast) as you’d expect when trying to piece together the history of a clandestine or underground organisation, many of the stories survive in the archival margins. Documents seized by the authorities. Testimony given in court and reported via an unsympathetic press. Later memoirs. Songs. Stories. All offered something useful – either documenting the past or giving insights into how it was being chosen to be presented or remembered.
Some of the material was acquired from relatives around Belfast making the sources a little easier to assess. So in the case of the attempt to assassinate George V, the story was told by my grandfather’s brother (Bill Steele) to some of his children. As he wasn’t noted for talking about events in the 1920s, it seems to lend some credibility to it. The story was pretty simple. When George V was in Belfast on 22 June 1921 local IRA members set out to assassinate him but they couldn’t get close enough to him to do so.
The next day’s newspaper reports of George V’s time in Belfast, such as in the Freeman’s Journal, claim there were 11,000 troops and policemen on duty for the visit, along with 300 Scotland Yard detectives (and the Irish Independent noted the fear that something untoward would happen). The visit itself only lasted for four hours and thirty-five minutes.
The landing stage, at Donegall Quay, was guarded by detachments of cavalry and infantry, both with fixed bayonets. Between the quay, on the fifteen minute journey along High Street, Castle Place and Donegall Square, a crowd of 20,000 loyalists eagerly cheered the Kings arrival to City Hall where the northern parliament was to sit. Outside, rows of troops with fixed bayonets controlled access and, inside, the Irish Guards provided security. After lunch in the City Hall, the King travelled across to the Ulster Hall to deliver a second speech, again amid high security. The whole party returned by the same route to the quays for departure at 4.05 pm, having arrived at 11.30 am.
Bill Steele was a member of the 2nd Battalion’s D Company, based in North Queen Street. When membership rolls for D Company were collected by Dublin-based officials in the 1930s (as a part of Military Pension scheme), few members of D Company appear to have engaged with the Free State government officials. Hence, information about the Company’s activities is relatively poor (check out www.militaryarchives.ie). So it is not clear if what was planned was an operation sanctioned by the IRA (at any level).
There is a hint of what the plan may have been. During an RUC search of the yard behind a shop on the New Lodge Road in September 1923, a barrel containing a small arms dump was found. It held a Webley revolver and over 100 rounds of assorted ammunition, cleaning rods and other items (see RUC record of the search below). It also included a pair of old policeman’s trousers. The yard was behind the shop belonging to Mary Steele, Bill’s grandmother.
The dump had been put there by Bill. As he wasn’t there, the RUC arrested two of his brothers (Charlie and Jimmy) instead. Neither was charged with the possession of the dump and both were set free within three weeks (Charlie was home from New York and swiftly left again and wanted Bill and Jimmy to join him). The old policeman’s trousers may be the hint to the IRA’s plan – to have attempted to get close to George V disguised as RIC men.
The assassination attempt is not listed among the Belfast Brigade operations when they were documented during the 1930s although it may be that, somewhere in a pension file or elsewhere, some reference to the attempted assassination may be found. The various personal memoirs in the Military Archives (especially the Bureau of Military History witness statements) document operations in Belfast which no-one was willing to undertake, such as throwing bombs onto trams. Ironically, the volume of information available now means that, of all the main groups that participated during the war of independence, the IRA is perhaps the easiest to research thanks to the information collected in the 1930s. At the same time, there are other operations which no-one in the 1930s later cared to remember, such as the five coopers shot dead in Little Patrick Street (likely by 2nd Battalions D Company) or the Altnaveigh massacre of 1922.
Thanks to Seamus Steele for passing me on the story.