Belfast Battalion available as ebook from today…

You can now read the newly published book on the Belfast IRA (1922-1969).

Ahead of schedule, I know, but the ebook/Kindle edition of Belfast Battalion has already gone live on Amazon at the link below (where you can also get a preview).

Anyone who doesn’t use Kindle or ebooks can read a sample chapter below. The plan is to have the printed book available by 1st November (you can still add your email to get updates here). By the way – if you’re kind enough to get the ebook version – don’t forget to give it some stars or a review.

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book teaser…

Coming very soon, Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast I.R.A. 1922-69. Likely see ebook launched in October, print copies will be available for delivery/distribution in November.

Watch this space…

You can add your email below for updates on when the book is available.

Time must pass as years roll by:

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.

One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously). Corr wrote it in his cell in A wing after Williams’ execution.

It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to Corr. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is also uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below. Corr undoubtedly wrote other songs for also which he appears not to have received any credit.

In that sense, the sentiment of the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” is very much real.

The extent to which songs and ballads communicated political messages is probably worthy of more attention. A striking emotional theme and a catchy melody was surely the most effective of propaganda tools and, as we all know, once a tune is stuck inside your head, it’s hard to get it out of there.

Tom Williams

by Arthur Corr

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

[This is the updated version of a previous post]

“a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships”: the abuses that prompted the Civil Rights campaign

Much of the recent commentary has focused on debating the origins and ‘ownership’ of the civil rights campaign. What has been missing from the discussion has been a timely reminder of the actual abuses that prompted the campaign.

At heart, the civil rights campaign was addressing a fundamental democratic deficit created by Unionists limiting the right to vote. This is starkly visible in comparisons of the registered electorate for Westminster elections at which Unionism had no facility to curtail voting rights, and, Stormont and local government elections at which the qualification to vote could be manipulated and controlled. Taking the 1970 Westminster elections and 1969 Stormont elections into account, the former had a total electorate of 1,017,303 while the latter, only one year earlier, was 784,242. This is a difference of 233,061 votes, or almost 22.9% of the electorate. Qualification for the franchise was rooted in eligibility to pay rates and other restrictions that had long been lifted elsewhere. And economic status was the key to eligibility.

Unionism viewed this issue as explicitly rooted in religious identities. But in the United Kingdom, overt religious discrimination was, and is, only formally permitted at the highest levels (in terms of its monarchy and, technically, political offices such as Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor). So this could not be done in public. Instead, Unionism had to curate and exploit economic barriers to acquiring the right to vote, like employment, access to education and training (Catholic schools only received equality of resource allocation in the 1990s) and housing rights. Irish language rights were entirely suppressed. Conveniently for Unionism, the UK as happens elsewhere, happily tolerates overt income-based discrimination while prohibiting other forms of discriminatory practice.

Unionism wasn’t particularly shy in articulating the relationship between economic status, religion and politics. In 1933, writing in the Northern Whig, the Unionist Party’s Sir Joseph Davison neatly links votes, religion and employment: “…it is time Protestant employers of Northern Ireland realised that whenever a Roman Catholic is brought into their employment it means one Protestant vote less… I suggest the slogan should be ‘Protestants employ Protestants'”. Unionist boasts of ‘a Protestant Government for a Protestant People’ were usually in the context of demanding the employment of Protestants over Catholics (who were described as 99% disloyal) to ensure continuation of that same government.

And Unionist language on the issue could be brutal, with little fear of public rebuke. “The Nationalist majority in the county, i.e., Fermanagh … stands at 3,684. We must ultimately reduce and liquidate that majority. This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone [the Nationalist majority] around our necks.”, this was said by the Unionist MP for Enniskillen, Erne Ferguson, in 1948. Ferguson later resigned as an MP to take up the role of Crown Solicitor for Fermanagh.

When the British government appointed Sir John Cameron, a Scottish judge, to look at the violence that had been used against the early civil rights campaign, he stated (in his 1969 report, Disturbances in Northern Ireland) that: “We are satisfied that all these Unionist controlled councils have used and use their power to make appointments in a way which benefited Protestants. In the figures available for October 1968 only thirty per cent of Londonderry Corporations administrative, clerical and technical employees were Catholics. Out of the ten best-paid posts only one was held by a Catholic. In Dungannon Urban District none of the Council’s administrative, clerical and technical employees was a Catholic. In County Fermanagh no senior council posts (and relatively few others) were held by Catholics: this was rationalised by reference to ‘proven loyalty’ as a necessary test for local authority appointments. In that County, among about seventy-five drivers of school buses, at most seven were Catholics. This would appear to be a very clear case of sectarian and political discrimination. Armagh Urban District employed very few Catholics in its salaried posts, but did not appear to discriminate at lower levels. Omagh Urban District showed no clear-cut pattern of discrimination, though we have seen what would appear to be undoubted evidence of employment discrimination by Tyrone County Council.”
As well as the economic measures, the civil rights campaign also addressed inequities and inequalities in the administration of justice. Back in April 1922, the Unionists had enacted supposedly temporary measures in the Civil Authorities (Special Powers Act) which was intended to ‘restore order’. But the Act was continually renewed until it was just made permanent. It contained provisions to intern individuals without a charge, a trial or a release date. Hundreds were interned from 1922-24, 1938-45 and 1956-62 with smaller groups interned on other, lesser known, occasions (such as 1925 and 1951). Sentencing policy varied relative to your political background. An identical firearms offence attracting a £2-£5 fine for a Protestant would become a ten year penal servitude sentence (possibly including 10 strokes of the whip) for a republican. Habeus Corpus could be suspended, meaning, among other things, that it was possible to take and hold prisoners and refuse to admit they were being held prisoner.

Other measures were continually used to suppress opposition political activity. Public meetings and assemblies could be, and were repeatedly, banned. Individuals could be expelled from the north if they refused to abide by a restriction making them live in either Limavady if they were a republican or Clogher if they were a communist [Ed – No, I’ve no idea why Limavady and Clogher]. Publications including posters could be banned. Anything the Unionists’ deemed seditious, including concerts, memorials, publications, emblems and flags could be banned, seized and the owner prosecuted. In practice, under the Special Powers Act, individuals were detained and held for up to 7-8 weeks without charges or any form of hearing. The RUC could even deny holding them. Nor was there any form of redress once released if they weren’t charged or interned.

After the first ten years of operation of the Act, there were a series of unemployment protests in Britain, culminating in the hunger marches and rally in Hyde Park which was broken up by the police, injuring 75 people. This coincided with the Outdoor Relief riots in Belfast. The long term impact of the hunger marches was the formation of the British National Council for Civil Liberties in 1934. It’s focus was on abuses by the state including the suppression of political opposition, the use of police, and the promotion of democratic norms. After thousands of Catholics were attacked and forced from their homes and jobs in Belfast in the summer of 1935, the Council for Civil Liberties created a commission to report on the use of emergency powers and draconian legislation by the Unionists. It delivered its report on 23rd May 1936 and the main conclusions were:—

  • Firstly, that through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of Government.
  • Secondly, that through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is at the arbitrary disposition of the Executive. This abrogation of the rule of law has been so practised as to bring the freedom of the subject into contempt.
  • Thirdly, that the Northern Irish Government has used special powers towards securing the domination of one particular political faction and, at the same time, towards curtailing the lawful activities of its opponents.
  • Fourthly, that the Northern Irish Government, despite its assurances that special powers are intended for use only against law-breakers, has frequently employed them against innocent and law-abiding people, often in humble circumstances, whose injuries, inflicted without cause or justification, have gone unrecompensed and disregarded.

It believed that the Unionists were “…in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”.

With no sense of irony, the Belfast Newsletter (25 May 1936) dismissed the report as ‘bitter attacks on Ulster’. It then followed the Commission’s conclusions with a response from the County Grand Master of Belfast Orangemen, Sir Joseph Davison (same as above), who stated that “…to the best of his knowledge responsible members of the Protestant community did not give evidence at the inquiry which could, therefore, scarcely be impartial. ‘I have not made a careful study of the report of the Commission,’ he said, ‘but it is clearly very one-sided.’”

The British National Council for Civil Liberties report was regularly cited for the next twenty years in reference to the failures of Unionism to administer justice. None of the political groupings in the north initially embraced any form of rights-based campaign. Certainly individual issues were cited by the likes of the Nationalists and various Labour political factions. Republicans, politically disengaged from the structures of the northern state, highlighted the nature of the administration of justice. As republican meetings, commemorations and publications were regularly banned and led to arrests, the mere act of protest often was restricted by the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act. This included campaigning for political status for prisoners and the release of internees and political prisoners. Campaigns to release internees and sentenced prisoners took place from around 1944 to 1950 and again from 1957 to 1962. The end of the latter campaign saw republicans co-operate with the British National Council for Civil Liberties to highlight the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act.

In 1950, Geoffrey Bing, a Belfast born Labour MP for Hornchurch who was associated with the Council for Civil Liberties, published a 24 page pamphlet called John Bull’s OtherIrelandhighlighting what he saw as the abuses the Tories enabled Unionism to perpetrate.  He wrote that “The outward and visible manifestation of Tory policy in Northern Ireland is sectarianism. The Catholics are, like the Jews under Hitler, to blame for everything. A politician has only to wave the Orange flag and there is no need for him to concern himself with tiresome questions of national welfare.” Several million copies of Bings’ pamphlet were sold. He concluded that “…the creation of Northern Ireland was the greatest of all gerrymanders.” and that the British government and parliament, ultimately, was enabling the Unionists to carry on in this way and needed to take the lead in forcing change to take place.

Later, in the 1960s, at the preliminary meeting in Belfast that agreed on the need to found the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a Dublin-based lawyer, Ciaran McAnally, identified the range of civil rights that should be upheld by society (as reported in the Irish Democrat, January 1967):

  1. The right to personal liberty and freedom of movement. This should only be forfeited following conviction in a fair trial on known charges;
  2. The right to freedom of expression in speech, writing or publication subjects to the norms of truth and justice. In other words, this right should not be used to the (legal) injury of others;
  3. The right to freedom of conscience to hold and change religious beliefs, and the right to proselytise;
  4. The right to assembly. This right is implicit in the right to free expression and personal liberty;
  5. The right to form associations that not harmful to society. This follows from the right of assembly;
  6. The right of access to courts of law to obtain the enforcement of the aforesaid rights. This entailed the provision of legal aid to people who otherwise would be prevented from having access to the courts;
  7. The right to protection against discrimination in public employment and fair and impartial access to the public services, housing, social security and the other facilities provided today by central and local government authorities.
  8. The right to freedom from conscription for conscientious objectors.

The initial press releases from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association concentrated mainly on the administration of justice, rather than the socio-economic issues. These were: to defend the basic freedom of all citizens; to protest the rights of the individual; to highlight all possible abuses of power; to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association; to inform the public of their lawful rights.

But as the civil rights campaign developed, the socioeconomic issues began to be equally stressed drawing together what was to form the two most recognizable strands of the civil rights campaign.

The earlier prehistory of the civil rights campaign: more IRA than NICRA?

Far from dismissing the involvement of the IRA and Sinn Féin in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967, is it time to acknowledge, instead, that it drew its roots and methods more from prisoner release organisations of 1960-62 than any of the individuals and organisation that subsequently coalesced with them to form NICRA itself. Ironically, is it time to admit that the NICRA owed even more to the IRA than is generally accepted.

The issue of the background to the civil rights movements in the north still appears to be the focus of some debate. While Bob Purdie’s Politics in the Streets (published in 1990) is quite explicit in tracing some roots of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association back into the Wolfe Tone Society and the IRA, earlier accounts, such as that of Fred Heatley (published in Fortnight in March 1974) pretty much cover the same ground. Neither makes an attempt to conceal the involvement of republicans. However, most accounts of the emerging civil rights campaign start in either 1962 or 1963, bookended by the formal declaration that the IRA’s border campaign was over in 1962. This means they don’t explore any synergies between the post-1967 NICRA and events less than five years beforehand, but probably reflect the history starting from when groups like the trade unions and some on the left became involved.

A useful reference point, and perspective, on the emergence and evolution of the civil rights campaign is given here by Niall Ó Dochartaigh which looks at its transition from protest through violence by considering the NICRA as a social movement (if you don’t read anything else below – do click on the article and read it).

As Ó Dochartaigh points out, methodologically, the NICRA, which people generally associate with marches and protests, didn’t really engage in those kind of tactics until August 1968 (it had been founded in January 1967). The Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) had been involved in street protests earlier in 1968, while the first protests (at Caledon) and NICRA march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, included the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) and others.

The founders and early membership of the NICRA aren’t really disputed by anyone. It included groups and individuals like the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) which had been formed in January 1964 building on the Dungannon-based Homeless Citizens League (HCL) that had been founded in 1963. The McCluskey’s and others involved in CSJ had mainly followed a reformist route to pressure the authorities into the desired changes through campaigns such as letter writing to senior British politicians. The likes of DHAC coalesced, at least in part, with the NICRA.

A major component of NICRA was the Wolfe Tone Society (WTS), founded in 1963. By the time the NICRA was formed in 1967, the Wolfe Tone Society was into its second incarnation. Its early members were a patchwork of former IRA leaders, current IRA and Sinn Féin activists, trade unionists, arts and Irish language people and socialists. By April 1964, the secretary was Roy Johnston, who had spent 1960-63 in England where he had been active in the Connolly Association as was another WTS figure, Anthony Coughlan. Rightly or wrongly, the Connolly Association was then regarded as a creature of the Stalinist CPGB, the Communist Party of Great Britain (by the CPGB). Johnston had helped found the current Irish communist party (the Irish Workers League) in 1948 and been a member of CPGB while in England. Prominent British communist Desmond Greaves was also heavily involved in both and believed himself to be influential in Irish politics too. Collectively they like to see their arrival on the political scene in 1963 and the dissemination of Greaves analysis (particularly by Johnston) as the point of origin of NICRA.

In terms of their impact on any sentimental appeal of communism in Ireland, a watershed moment for the Irish Workers League, the Communist Party of Great Britain and others had been the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which had been defended by contemporary Stalinist organisations (including Greaves) and was still fresh in the mind in the early 1960s. This made it difficult to cross-pollinate their ideas with Irish nationalist and republican sensibilities.

The Wolfe Tone Society had been formed by amalgamating the local Wolfe Tone Societies that had been created in 1962 to co-ordinate commemorations, in 1963, of the bicentenary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. This was part of the IRA’s post-border campaign horizon-scanning under Cathal Goulding. The local branches had been organised under a directorate and membership had been sought from the trade unions and cultural organisations. The language was careful, stressing the shared heritage of the United Irishmen. But the events were unapologetic in their cultural reference points with participation by the likes of the GAA and Gaelic League.

The early Belfast delegates to the Wolfe Tone Society represented a range of socialist and republican opinion, like former IRA Adjutant General Liam Burke, communist Jack Bennett, trade unionist Fred Heatley and Sean Caughey, the leader of Sinn Féin in Belfast. The influence of Greaves on Johnston and Coughlan would have emphasised some of the reformist aspects of their Connolly Association background. In Britain, by 1964, the Connolly Association believed that Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave Westminster the power to end the discriminatory and repressive measures used by the northern government. With that in mind, the association helped form the ‘Campaign for Democracy in Ulster’ with support from (mainly Labour) backbench MPs and others in January 1965.

The likes of Sean Caughey provides a direct link back into earlier, albeit smaller scale, social movements. It also takes the roots of NICRA further back beyond the histories written by the likes of Heatley or Purdie, or the involvement of Johnston and Coughlan. While they all acknowledge republican involvement, they don’t trace the roots of NICRA further back into the prisoner release organisations of the IRA’s border campaign that ended in 1962 (while Purdie does, he mistakenly dates their formation to 1962). While Caughey was one of those centrally involved in the Wolfe Tone Society, he left Sinn Féin in 1965 and formed the Irish Union, one of a number of small, short-lived, parties that emerged in the mid-1960s.

[Photo’s from Joe Baker’s Belfast in the 1960s. Thanks to Feargal Caughey for reminding me about it!]

The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties (BCCL) had been formed back in January 1960, involving republican figures like Leo Wilson, who was secretary in 1960. The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties mounted a campaign to have internees and political prisoners of the Unionist government freed. Wilson outlined the ethos of the BCCL: “This Council is not concerned with political or sectarian issues. Its aims are the protection of fundamental human rights, as set out in the United Nations Charter. We regard interment or arbitrary arrest as a denial of these rights, and we are opposed to unjust or undemocratic practices, no matter from what source they may originate.

The BCCL wasn’t exactly a novel concept. In the late 1940s there had been two, co-existent organisations, the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA) and the Republican Prisoners’ Release Association (RPRA). Both were simply the latest incarnation of two distinct missions, one of which (IRPWA) supported prisoners and their dependents, the other (RPRA) mounted publicity campaigns and lobbied to secure their release. The release of the last prisoners from Crumlin Road Jail in 1950 saw, of necessity, the winding down of both organisations which were reformed on an ad hoc basis as circumstances required throughout the 1950s.

By the summer of 1960 BCCL was being referred to as the ‘Northern Ireland’ Council for Civil Liberties. It continued to campaign for the release of prisoners and highlighted human rights abuses, stating that should be brought to the United Nations. By 1962, Caughey was NICCL secretary. The NICCL continually flagged prisoner issues and the suppression of public protests. It was present at pickets and public attempts to challenge the banning of marches and public meetings. The profile of activity of NICCL more closely resembles the NICRA than any of the intervening organisations.

The NICCL agenda seems to be well reflected in the objectives of the NICRA at the time of its formation: (1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens. (2) To protect the rights of the individual. (3) To highlight all possible abuses of power. (4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association. (5) To inform the public of their lawful rights (see Bob Purdie, Politics on the Streets, 1990, p.133). Issues raised by NICRA such as ‘one man, one vote’ and housing, while implicit in its objectives in 1967, came more clearly to prominence in 1968 and later.

Suffrage issues like ‘one man, one vote’ had been raised by the Nationalist Party back in the 1930s and 1940s and Northern Ireland Labour Party by the 1940s and sporadically through the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965, at a Belfast meeting to plan for the 1966 Easter Rising anniversary, Tomas MacGiolla had signalled that it was to be a social issue that Sinn Féin would take up. Yet it wasn’t explicitly listed as an initial objective of the NICRA.

The NICRA demand for freedom of speech, assembly and association had equally deep roots and resonated with long-term conflicts between republicans, (occasionally) socialists, and, the Unionist government over repression and political control since the 1920s. Arguably, with Belfast’s long history of sectarian violence, the deep history of repression and political control, as evidenced by recurrent street violence, went back much further than issues of suffrage. The NICCL also links the NICRA back into a longer continuum of social movements protesting the detention or internment of political prisoners and engaging in the type of street protests that were to become a feature of the NICRA campaigns by late 1968.

The repression and political control was experience by republicans during 1964 (including those in WTS) when it protested the RUC’s removal of a tricolour from its Divis Street election headquarters and in the subsequent violence and protests, and, again in 1966 when it was in conflict with Unionists over the 1916 commemorations. The 1964 electoral campaign, riots and attempts at repression drew both a violent response in 1965 (by a breakaway group calling itself the Irish Freedom Fighters) and then a much more violent Unionist response in 1966.

Ó Dochartaigh asserts that, reading the history of the civil rights campaign and the interplay between peaceful protest and violence “…the concept of continuum emphasizes the links between these different phases, a more systematic exploration of the continuities in goals and aims that run through these different phases of contention might enrich our understanding of this process of change. In the course of the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland demands relating to discrimination and the restricted suffrage were superseded by the issues of repression and unionist political control. But these latter two issues had provided the deep underlying motivation for many of the movement’s founders, before the dramatic confrontations that brought them to the centre of debate.

The problem with a ‘concept of continuum’, in any context, is determining what to accept as the appropriate starting point. Clearly, cycles of violence were present in the period leading up to the foundation of the NICRA, such as 1964-66. However, the roots of the NICRA clearly extended back past that cycle, in the form of the early Wolfe Tone Societies and earlier, in BCCL/NICCL with continuity provided by the involvement of members of the republican movement. Unlike the later participants in the NICRA or IWL/CPGB and trade unionists that began to join the embryonic campaign from 1962-63 onwards, the republicans brought a deep background in organising street protests and marches and having to confront the open, and often violent, repression of the Unionist government.

There maybe lies one fallacy in minimising republican involvement in NICRA. The polices and practices NICRA sought to address hadn’t somehow emerged, fully formed, in the late 1960s. Instead, they had been central to the methodologies of Unionist governance. The fact that, from around 1963, other organisations took a greater interest in attempting to promote change, shouldn’t obscure the much deeper history of the injustices and resistance to them that NICRA sought to address.

Belfast IRA commandants from 1916 to 1969

Previously, I’d published a chronology of the Belfast IRA commandants from 1924 to 1969, including some revisions and a look at gaps in the list. As more files, mainly pension applications, have been released by the Military Archives in Dublin, it has been possible to put together a picture from the Easter Rising in 1916 through to 1969.

I’ve arranged this into a table following a rough chronology based on the main organisational unit. Since the scale varies from a Battalion to a Brigade to a Division, I’ve tried to retain the relevant information for battalion commandants after Belfast was structured into a Brigade, and I’ve added both brigade and battalion commandants when it was formed into the 3rd Northern Division.

The officer commanding each particular formation has mainly been taken from the 3rd Northern Division files, supplemented by individual pension files and witness statements. The most recent release of pension files includes a number of later applications made by republicans who had, up to that stage, refused to engage with what they saw as a Free State administration with no legitimacy. These make it possible to clarify a number of points.

Firstly, the command of the 3rd Northern Division itself is disputed after Joe McKelvey left for Dublin in March 1922. Pat Thornbury is recorded as Divisional O/C in the Belfast records reconstructed in the 1930s by the Pensions Committees (these records are indicated as representing the ‘Executive Forces’, meaning the IRA who opposed the 1922 treaty). According to his own pension applications and the accounts of other former Belfast IRA officers who had supported the treaty, Seamus Woods was the Divisional O/C. But Woods own applications show that he had already taken a commission as a Colonel in the Free State Army from 1st February 1922 and was mainly based in Dublin after that date. That the command structures in the Division were contested was publicly flagged as early as April 1922 (in an edition of An tOglach). Many of the Belfast IRA staff who supported the treaty remained in Dublin with the former GHQ staff of the IRA while holding what (to some extent) became nominal command roles in Belfast where actual command (such as existed) was exercised by IRA officers, loyal to the IRA Executive, who opposed the treaty.

The withdrawal of IRA volunteers from some Belfast units to the Curragh at the end of the summer in 1922, for a period of rest and training prior to a return to action in the north, saw the formation of a separate 3rd Northern Division Reserve, under the command of Roger McCorley and other Belfast IRA officers who had remained in Dublin with GHQ. This unit in the Curragh was disbanded in November 1922 and the Belfast IRA volunteers who wished to stay and join the Free State forces were formed into the 17th Battalion of the Free State Army. To those who had gone with the Free State side, they take this date in November as the time at which they formally relinquished their IRA commands, although even then there appear to be competing claims as to various roles (eg, both Sean O’Neill and Thomas Fitzpatrick appear to have recognised service as Belfast Brigade O/C to this date).

Obviously some of the lists of commandants in the 1916 to 1923 table below, just as for those from 1923 to 1969, are incomplete and some are surely incorrect. For instance, I have taken Thomas Fitzpatrick’s claim to recognition as the pro-Treaty Brigade O/C over Sean O’Neill’s as O’Neill’s own pension application isn’t actually clear on this point (perhaps he is simply being accorded the rank, for pay/pension purposes, rather than the formal command). There was also genuine confusion over the status of the various Battalions after March 1922, typified by the Brigade pension files that state that the 3rd and 4th Battalions were disbanded before 30th June 1922, but list Battalion staff’s (and include pension applications and witness statements) that run to November 1922. There is also a depth of animosity evident across the records, both in comments in individual witness statements (just to take one example – here is Seamus McKenna doing a hatchet job on Joe McKelvey, Jim McDermott and others) and the treatment of applications for pensions and awards from former opponents of the treaty (for instance check Patrick Thornbury’s two files here and here). This has also surely clouded some people’s memory.

After the table for 1916 to 1923, I’ve added the list of commandants from that date up to the split in the IRA in 1969 (you can find further information here on various individuals included the list).

As ever, any suggestions to fill in gaps, pointers for additional source material or corrections are most welcome.

Overall organisation and commandants of Belfast republican forces from 1916 to 1923.

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell?

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

1926-27 Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

1936-38 Sean McArdle

1938-40 Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

December 1940 to May 1941 Liam Rice

May to July 1941 Pearse Kelly

July 1941-42 Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

February to May 1943 Jimmy Steele

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

1949-50 Frank McKearney

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

1956 Paddy Doyle

1956-57 Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1960-63 Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Hugh McAteer centenary

This year is the centenary of the birth of the former IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer. To mark it, I’ve put together various pieces about McAteer, including a lengthy memoir he published in instalments in The Sunday Independent in 1951.

You can read it here: https://issuu.com/jjconeill/docs/hugh_mcateer_the_escape