A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

This is a short history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the end of the civil war through to the 1960s. Obviously, anyone with information that enhances the story or adds further details is more than welcome to share it in the comments section.

Jack McNally (in his 1989 autobiography, Morally Good, But Politically Bad) names those prominent in Cumann na mBan towards the end of the civil war and into the mid-1920s and later. He includes Mary Donnelly, Sally Griffen, Kitty Hennessy, Kitty Kellet, Maggie Kelly (née Magennis), May Laverty, Margaret McGrath, Sally McGurk (née Ward), Miss McKeever, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Muldoon, Bridie O’Farrell, Cassie O’Hara, May O’Neill (née Dempsey), Mary Rafferty, Susan Rafferty and Mrs (Annie) Ward. Annie Ward had succeeded Norah Connolly as head of the Belfast Battalion of Cumann na mBan and led the organisation through into the 1920s.

Cumann na mBan in Belfast, as elsewhere, largely staffed the web that linked the various republican organisations together, collecting and moving intelligence and clandestine communications between IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna units and officers, assisting in moving weapons and establishing networks of dumps and safe houses. While Cumann na mBan also fundraised to support prisoner’s dependents and distributed republican newspapers, that was not the limit of its activities. The likes of May Laverty and Mary Donnelly are both known to have participated in IRA operations, such as helping move and plant explosive devices.

As one of the key republican organisations Cumann na mBan attended meetings and participated in restructuring alongside the Belfast IRA and Fianna Éireann in the late 1920s. Generally, as with Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan was organised in two units, one covering the Falls and surrounding districts and one covering north Belfast, the Markets and Ballymacarrett. In 1926 a batch of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBan was intercepted in the post. It contained 110 copies which suggests that this was the membership around this time (by the late 1930s the RUC believed membership to be around 60). By the early 1930s, May Laverty and Mary Donnelly were still prominent Cumann na mBan leaders in Belfast. Another was Cassie O’Hara, who had been engaged to Joe McKelvey and her continued support, like that of the likes of Bridie O’Farrell, maintained the Belfast unit’s sense of continuity and legitimacy.

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A reunion of 1920s and 1930s, and later, Belfast Cumann na mBan volunteers (taken in 1971 and reproduced in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice)


Cumann na mBan also prominently supported left wing initiatives (particularly stressed by the likes of May Laverty). In 1932, it held a flag day all over Ireland in October to raise funds to support those involved in the Outdoor Relief Riots in Belfast. The northern government response was predictable as, in the next month, two Belfast members, Mary Donnelly (Unity Street) and Sarah Grimley (North Queen Street), were given prison sentences for posting ‘seditious’ hand bills in Vulcan Street on the eve of a British royal visit in Belfast. Donnelly spent three months and Grimley two months in Armagh Jail (see Irish Press, December 17th 1932). Donnelly also allegedly had Cumann na mBan documents in her possession that stated that its aims were: “…(a) Complete separation of Ireland from all foreign Powers, (b) Unity of Ireland, (c) Gaelicisation of Ireland.” Speaking from the dock after refusing to recognise the court, Mary Donnelly said: “…We will carry on to the end until we get a Republic.

In 1933, under Eithne Ni Chumhail’s leadership, Cumann na mBan reviewed its relationship with the Second Dáil organisation (composed of those members elected to the second Dáil who maintained that it was the legitimate source of authority in Ireland). Up to then, Article 1 of the Cumann na mBan constitution required members to recognise the continued existence and authority of the Second Dáil. This limited it’s capacity to attract new members. Miss MacSwiney and two others resigned when the proposed change that only required members to “…never render allegiance to any Government but a Republican Government for all Ireland…” was passed at the convention in Dublin in June (the IRA had broken its link with the Second Dáil by 1926). At the same convention, the Cumann na mBan executive also announced the formation of Cumann na gCailíní, for girls aged 8 to 16. This facilitated an influx of new members later in the 1930s. The convention additionally agreed to embark on a campaign to propagate social reconstruction on the lines laid down by James Connolly and for an intensive campaign in the north (see Irish Press, June 14th, 1933). May Laverty was prominent in this campaign.

Following the mass arrests of Belfast republicans that October (1933), Cumann na mBan again raised funds to support the dependents of those who had been imprisoned. In June 1934, Belfast contingents from the IRA, Fianna, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na gCailíní had marched in uniform in Dublin prior the annual IRA ceilí in the Mansion House. Leading Cumann na mBan figures like Eithne Ni Chumail had supported Republican Congress but returned to Cumann na mBan when Congress began attacking the IRA.

In 1936, May Laverty again took a lead role in the public protests against de Valera’s government. In June, Cumann na mBan demanded entry to the meeting in St Mary’s Hall where the Anti-Partition League was founded (initially called the ‘Reunion of Ireland Organisation’). The meeting was chaired by ex-Belfast IRA O/C Hugh Corvin and while the likes of Padraig MacLogain attended, Cumann na mBan was refused entry and the IRA did not support the project. In 1937, as part of the Military Pensions Act, an ‘Old Cumann na mBan’ Association was formed in Belfast from members who had been active up to 1922. As with similar associations, it was boycotted by many who refused to endorse the Free State government.

Prominent members of Cumann na mBan in Belfast in the mid to late 1930s included Una Burke, Bridie Dolan, Crissie Dolan, Bridget Hannon, Dorrie Hill, May Laverty, Violet McGowan and Maggie Nolan. A Cumann na mBan and a Cumann na gCailíni contingent had participated in the funeral procession for veteran Fenian and IRB organiser Robert Johnston (also the father of poet and author Eithne Carberry), in March 1937, in Greencastle.

Dorrie Hill and Madge Nolan were present, representing Cumann na mBan, in Pearse Hall in King Street in October 1937 when a Belfast Brigade Council meeting was interrupted by the RUC and all those present had their names taken (despite the Belfast IRA staff being present the RUC thought it was a meeting of Joe McKelvey GAA club).  The likes of Josephine Brady and Mary McAreavey both received significant sentences for possession of weapons or documents in the late 1930s, while Bridie Dolan was badly injured in a premature explosion. Bridie O’Hara and Mary Hewitt were both expelled from Britain during the Sabotage Campaign of 1939. Cumann na mBan was prominent in the very public demonstrations of republican strength in Belfast in the late 1930s, such as the burning of gas masks in May 1939.

In September 1939, there were forty-eight members of the Belfast contingent at the Cumann na mBan conference in Dublin (Eithne Ni Chumail was still the leader at this time). The RUC believed that Cumann na mBan in Belfast was divided into two companies. Peggy Rafferty led the Belfast Cumann na mBan contingent at the infamous 1939 Bodenstown commemoration. At the time, Annie Hamill was in charge of Cumann na gCailíní in Belfast. Many of those involved in Cumann na mBan  were relatives of prominent IRA members, such as Bridget Corr (sister of Arthur), Mary McLaughlin (sister of Chris) and Ellen McCurry (sister of Willie John).

In October 1940, Isobel Murphy, Mary and Bridget O’Hare and Elizabeth O’Toole got two years each for distributing Cumann na mBan leaflets outside a cinema on the Crumlin Road. Cassie O’Hara was one of the first Cumann na mBan member to interned in the 1940s and was soon followed by others. Mary Donnelly, though, was killed when a German bomb destroyed her family home in Unity Street on 16th April 1941. The same night, Bridget Corr’s mother and brother were killed by another bomb at their family home in Vere Street.

Prison conditions in Armagh were very bit as bad as those that the men had to endure. Those imprisoned in Armagh included Madge Burns, Nora McDowell (the only one who had children), her daughter Una, Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. In the autumn of 1943, the Cumann na mBan members in Armagh Jail decided to embarked on a hunger strike. You can read more about the hunger strike here, but briefly, the women joined en masse on 21st November, although by the time Therese Donnelly was given the last rites after twenty-two days it was apparent that the protest was being robbed of publicity and it was decided to call it off (it was a lesson ignored by the men who went on hunger strike the next March). The same pressures and family hardships bore down on the women as the men and inevitably some had to sign out.

The last Belfast Cumann na mBan prisoners were among the eight released in July 1945 (including Cassie O’Hara), but like the IRA itself, the organisation was slow to rebuild in Belfast. Joe Cahill records that, by 1956, Bridie O’Neill was O/C of Cumann na mBan in Belfast (and apparently had been for some time). As in previous eras, Cumann na mBan looked after much of the transportation of weapons to and from dumps. In the lead up to the campaign, O’Neill had organised her units to collect and move weapons from Belfast to the border where they would be used during the campaign. Arrests during the Border Campaign also showed that Cumann na mBan continued to collect funds (officially these were for the ‘Freedom Fighters Fund’ – see Fermanagh Herald, October 18th 1958). O’Neill was the only women interned during the 1956-62 campaign (she interned for seven months). Again, as in 1945, Cumann na mBan was largely intact due to the low number of imprisonments but was slow to re-engage its membership.

By the time the early 1970s, the IRA was directly admitting women as members presenting a different challenge to the rationale for Cumann na mBan to continue to exist (it largely supported Cathal Goulding in 1970 and later).

The shooting of John Pat Cunningham, 1974

Barney Watt: propaganda and obstructing justice in February 1971

And then, from Aidan Hennigan in London:

‘The boy who rules Free Derry’ (a profile of Martin McGuinness from 1972)

Below is the earliest (and perhaps the most illuminating) profile of Martin McGuinness, written by Nell McCafferty and published in The Irish Times on 19th April 1972, within weeks of Bloody Sunday. Entitled, ‘Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo‘. Given all that is being said following his recent death, it is fascinating to read as it gives a sense of what is missing in the overall commentary, namely, what motivated him to join the IRA.

Firstly, though, an earlier mention of Martin McGuinness in the press. Back in October 1969, he was arrested and brought to court following a confrontation with British soldiers in Derry. The Irish Times reported: “Martin McGuinness (19), of Elmwood street, Derry, was fined £50 for disorderly behaviour on last Saturday at Strand road. Head Constable Campbell said the troops had moved a crowd of about 200 along Strand road. A sergeant had noticed four or five youths, including defendant, shouting, abusive remarks. The troops were ordered over the barrier and the sergeant caught McGuinness.”

McG 1969

He first spoke in public as a republican leader in April 1972, which is what prompted Nell McCafferty’s profile of him, which I have reproduced below. If you are unfamiliar with the chronology of events, a useful resource, the Conflict Archive, is here.

Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo by Nell McCafferty

You know how much life has changed when you’re having a Republicans tea – a bottle of orange and a bap – in the back of a car, just a few minutes from your own home.” Martin McGuinness, the 21-year-old O.C. of the Derry Provisional I.R.A., may have changed his life-style, but he is acutely embarrassed at popular press descriptions of him as ‘the boy who rules Free Derry’. He was catapulted into the limelight at a press conference in the Creggan estate last week, and since then the English papers have had a hey day writing about his ‘good looks, youth and shy charm.’ An American TV man spent a wistful hour planning the scenario for a colour-film spectacular about him. “Jeez,” he said, “that boy would be hot on the coast. Can you see him, six feet tall in a dinner jacket, raising funds.” His wish will presumably not be granted. The English journalist who romanticised Mr. McGuinness was ordered out of town. He left immediately.

[Elsewhere Nell names that American TV man as New York columnist, Jimmy Breslin – he died two days before Martin, on 19th March 2017]

I don’t feel like a big-shot, travelling around the area in a stolen Ford Avenger,” said Martin. “I have to do what the people want. They don’t treat me like I was something different. In fact one wee woman couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go down the barracks to bail out her son who’d been arrested. I had to take her up to headquarters and arrange for someone else to do it.

He joined the I.R.A. after the Battle of Bogside, 1969. Initially he was with the Official wing. “There was not a Provo unit in Derry then. The Officials approached me and for three months we attended policy and training lectures in a house in the Bogside. But they wouldn’t give us any action. All this time, there was fighting in the streets and things were getting worse in Belfast. You could see the soldiers just settling into Derry, not being too worried about the stone-throwing. Occasionally, the Officials gave out Molotov cocktails, which wouldn’t even go off, and I knew that after 50 years we were more of an occupied country than we ever were.

It seemed to me that behind all the politics and marching, it was plain as daylight that there was an army in our town, in our country and that they weren’t there to give out flowers. Armies should be fought by armies. So one night I piled into a black Austin, me and five mates and we went to see a Provo across the Border. We told him our position and there were several meetings after that. Then we joined. Nothing really happened until Seamus Cusack was killed, and internment came soon after. Then the Provos in Derry were ordered into full-time military action. I gave up my job working in the butcher’s shop.

His mother was panic-stricken, he said, when she found out he was in the IRA. “A few months after I’d joined, she found a belt and beret in my bedroom and there was a big row. She and my father told me to get out of it, and for the sake of peace I said I would and they calmed down. But now they have to accept it. They’ve seen the British Army in action and they know I’d no choice.” His mother, though, had started smoking again, which she hadn’t done in years. “I know her health has failed, and she’s always worrying about me. If I’m not  around to tell her myself, I send her words that I’m alright. I don’t discuss my business with her, and she doesn’t ask.

Martin’s mother was angry at the press reports of him. “You’d think he was running around the area with a gun, telling people what they could and could not do. The only time I saw guns in this house was when the British Army raided it.” She worries about him even more since Joseph McCann was shot in Belfast. “Since Martin’s picture appeared in the papers, every soldier in Derry knows what he looks like.” And when it’s all over – should it ever end – she worries about his job. “His trade’s been interrupted. His father is a welder, his brothers are at the bricklaying and carpentering, but what will become of Martin? That’s why they’ll have to get an amnesty, so’s he can get back to work, and not be always on the run.

Martin himself doesn’t worry too much about what will come after. His aims are devastatingly simple. “I want a United Ireland where everyone has a good job and enough to live on.” He had read a little, he said, since becoming a Republican, and supported Socialist views, “but the Officials are all views and no support. I wish we were getting more press coverage in Derry for our political beliefs but we don’t have the talkers in our ranks. Still, the people support us, and that’s good enough.

He wondered sometimes, he said, if Socialism would ever work out. “I have a lot of respect for Bernadette Devlin, but I think maybe people are too greedy. I’d be willing to sweep the roads in my world and it wouldn’t seem like a bad job if they got the same wages as everybody else, but do you not think now that people are just too greedy. Somebody always wants to make a million. Anyway, before you can try, you have to get this country united.

We’d make sure that Protestants are fairly treated. I don’t accept that we are sectarian. But you have to face facts that it’s the Catholics who’ve been discriminated against. The Officials go on about us all the time, but was them that blew up the Protestant mayor’s house in Derry and shot Barnhill and John Taylor. Mind you, I’ve nothing against the rank-and-file officials. They’re soldiers, just like me, with a job do. That job, as far as I am concerned, is to fight the British Army.

The Provisionals took care, he said, not to harm innocent civilians. “But sometimes mistakes are made. There was an explosion in Derry some time ago and I read afterwards that a man had been trapped in the basement. He lost a part of his leg. Then you read that he’s a cyclist and you feel sad. The worst I ever felt was Bloody Sunday. I wandered about stunned, with people crying and looking for their relatives, and I thought of all that about honour between soldiers. The British Army knew right well we wouldn’t fight them with all those thousands of people there, so they came in and murdered the innocent.

I used to worry about being killed before that day, but now I don’t think about death at all.

If there’s a riot on, he sometimes goes and throws stones. “It relieves the pressure, and it’s a way of being with my mates, the ones who have not joined the movement, and I feel just ordinary again.

I suppose,” he added, “you think us Provos have no feelings at all, just because we have no time to talk about it.

Last week he talked publicly, for the first time. His speech, to a wildly cheering crowd in the Brandywell, was very short and to the point. “If Gerry Fitt and John Hume think they are going to sell the people out,” he said, “they’ve got another thing coming. It’s just not on.” He looked very young as he spoke. He was probably not what Austin Currie had in mind, last autumn, when he warned the people that the possible imprisonment of MPs would create a need for a ‘second-tier leadership’. But the influential, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road Derry Centre Citizens Council took sufficient cognisance of this leadership to go and have a talk with him about his ideas. Afterwards they rejected the Provisionals proposals for elections in the city. Martin didn’t mind too much.

“I know they’re wrong,” he said. “I know it and I feel it when I go round the barricades and see the boys they called hooligans and the men they called wasters, and the fellows that used only to drink, doing things now they really believe in. Protecting the area, and freeing Ireland and freeing themselves.

 

The 1973 Border Poll

On the 8th March 1973, the British government held a referendum in the north in which it asked voters to indicate their preference between two statements: “Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” and “Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?” To date it is the only formal referendum that has asked voters to choose between these specific options.

The order for the vote, under the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act of 1972, was published on 24th January 1973. It included a provision for only a single counting centre so that results could not be analysed at a constituency level. The number of polling booths to be used for the election was reduced from 900 to around 380. Specific provision was made for postal voting that meant that anyone who was on the 1973 electoral register (for Stormont) was eligible to get a postal vote from an address in the UK only (essentially meaning that anyone who had fled over the border could not use an address in the south).

The poll, which had been vaguely promised when Stormont was prorogued and direct rule introduced (in March 1972), was almost immediately dismissed as a pointless exercise. Even British Labour party MPs had been critical of the reduction in polling stations and suppression of constituency level results. The announcement had followed a Green Paper from William Whitelaw on ‘The Future of Northern Ireland‘, which was to be followed by a White Paper (but not until after the poll). Membership of the EEC and its opportunities for cross-border co-operation were also part of the public debate at the time Whitelaw announced the Border Poll would take place.

As the poll was announced, the Nationalist Party and Republican Labour confirmed that they would be calling for a boycott of the Border Poll. The SDLP followed suit in late January, also calling on voters to register for postal votes to ensure they weren’t impersonated at a polling station. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had followed suit by 30th January criticising the simplified questions being asked in the poll. It also pointed out the position being taken by the Alliance Party in supporting the poll, questioning the wisdom of it falling into the same camp as the Unionists and Ulster Vanguard, although it expected Alliance to do “…much soul searching, leading ultimately to abstentions…” (see The Irish Times, 31st January 1973). Whatever soul searching Alliance did, it openly campaigned for the UK option in the poll. Political parties in the south were also dismissive of the poll. The IRA studiously ignored the Border Poll, with little mention in Republican News.

Like the Alliance, the NI Labour Party openly supported the UK option in the Border Poll, but were taken aback in a meeting with the British Labour Party in mid-February when they were criticised by some for not supporting a united Ireland. In the week before polling, as the extent of the boycott became evident in the numbers of applications for postal votes, the debate shifted on to how a result should be interpreted. Given the lack of official status of any referendum result, the poll became largely an exercise in measuring the unionist vote. In the days before voting, the nationalist MP Frank McManus noted that when a similar poll had been held in Malta, the result was dismissed as the turnout was below 50% (see Irish Times, 6th March 1973). In the same days, Brian Faulkner and other unionists were indicating that they would be disappointed if less than 550,000, or under 50% of the total electorate did not vote for the UK option. John Taylor had suggested on television that they needed to get 100% of Protestants and 20% of Catholics to vote for the UK option to demonstrate support for the union (that would be roughly 725,000 votes).

Given the electorate of 1,030,000, that 550,000 target wasn’t overly ambitious. The parties campaigning for votes for the UK option, the likes of the Unionist Party, Ulster Vanguard, NI Labour had got around 567,500 votes in the 1970 elections to Westminster (when there was 5,000 less on the electoral register). Alliance, which hadn’t contested the election in 1970, were to receive between 66,000 and 98,000 votes in two further elections in 1973 (in both cases overall turnout was lower than it had been in 1970). The paradox for unionists lay in the quasi-democratic nature of the UK where a referendum had not actual standing, and, that the number of actual voters could now be conflated with support for the union, meaning even a sizeable win for the UK option, if below 50% of the electorate, could actually be represented as rejection of the union.

Republican News cartoon, 3rd March 1973.

Just as counting of ballots was undertaken at one centre only, there wasn’t even official reporting of turnout in each constituency. So only some anecdotal references give  hints of the turnout. The day after the vote, The Irish Times suggested that it was believed that 1% of Catholics had voted in Derry and reported that unionists believed that overall turnout among Protestants was at 90%. Given that many people questioned the activity of unionist observers inside the polling stations (in some cases it was claimed they even were openly ‘assisting’ election staff), that figure may reflect detailed knowledge of who was marked as having voted on the electoral registers. The Strabane Chronicle of 17th March 1973 reported that; “In Omagh, several hundred Unionist voters went to the polling booth for the predominantly Catholic West ward, or about one-fifth of those entitled to vote on that day. About 40% of the population had postal votes. There was a very large turnout however at the booths for the other two wards in the town, the mainly Protestant South and North wards. In several areas, namely in the Carrickmore and Aghyaran areas and at some booths in the Strabane district, the turn-out of voters, was in single figures.” The high proportion of postal votes was reflected elsewhere, such as Fermanagh, where a huge number had reportedly applied for postal votes. In both cases, this was presumably to prevent impersonation.

The formal result was that 591,820 voted for the UK option, while 6,463 voted for the United Ireland option. Politically, the number of voters who came out for the unionists later in 1973 didn’t exceed 450,000. The likes of Alliance and NI Labour combined in the later elections in 1973 got between 66,000 and 98,000 votes. The success metrics suggested by likes of Faulkener before the poll appear to have been met only by Alliance and NI Labour supporters bolstering the  mainstream unionist vote. The result didn’t come near John Taylor’s suggestion of 725,000 votes.

Bob Cooper  (Alliance) claimed the result justified Alliance’s stand, and insisted that  substantial number of Catholics had come out and voted for the UK option. In the 1971 census figures, though, the 591,820 would equate to about 91% of the non-Catholic population. While it is obviously too simplistic to insist that voting and the boycott were observed solely along religious lines, it does make Cooper’s justification appear implausibly weak. Ironically, the main outcome of Alliance and NI Labour support for the UK option in the Border Poll was in providing sufficient additional votes to allow Faulkner and the unionists to claim a victory of sorts.

Republican News (17th March 1973) was particularly scathing of both after the Border Poll, referring to them as the “…flag-waverers of the Alliance Party and NI Labour.” It also reported, “Mixed-Up Kids. Once upon a time we had the Unionists. Now we have the Alliance Unionists, Labour Unionists, Democratic-Unionists, Faulkner-Unionists, LAW-Unionists, Vanguard-Unionists, NUM-Unionists.”

While you looked down your gun: providing the British Army with immunity in 1972

In 1972, a high level security meeting agreed that the British Army would be indemnified against prosecution for its actions in Ireland. This means, effectively, soldiers (and the RUC) could shoot and kill knowing they would not face prosecution. Many people, including professional historians would summarily dismiss that claim as being purely a conspiracy theory. At least one hundred and forty-nine of those killed by the British army between 1969 and 2001 are regarded as non-combatants while many others were killed that were combatants but often in disputed circumstances. That only four soldiers were ever jailed, none of whom ever served more than a token sentence, demonstrates that in practice indemnification against prosecution was put in place for the security forces. So the question shouldn’t be ‘Did the state indemnify soldiers from prosecution?’ but rather ‘HOW did the state indemnify soldiers from prosecution?’.

In 2012, Relatives for Justice publicised a memo showing that a decision had been taken to protect soldiers from prosecution. The 10 July 1972 memo came from a high level security meeting chaired by Secretary of State William Whitelaw. Decision J of the meeting was that “The Army should not be inhibited in its campaign by the threat of Court proceedings and should therefore be suitably indemnified.” I’d written about the decisions taken at this meeting before (see here). Briefly, all the decisions taken at that meeting can be shown to have been followed up and acted upon, including Decision (I) “Plans were to be produced urgently for the containment of areas harbouring bombers and gunmen“, which was the go ahead to prepare Operation Motorman which took place on 31st July 1972.

Two additional meetings either side of 10th July illustrate how this decision was not an aberration but instead was entirely consistent with wider policy. In June, the Director of Public Prosecutions had complained to the Attorney General that he was not being passed on all the case files by the joint RUC Special Branch/Military Police teams investigating criminal cases. Those teams actually reported to an RUC Divisional commander who, in turn, reported on each case to the DPP. According to Huw Bennett, in the same month, the DPP had indicated his general intention to refuse to prosecute security force members who killed or wounded civilians while on duty (see Bennett 2010). According to Bennett, this advice had already issued as memos from the Attorney General in early June. This was two weeks before the July 10th meeting.

On the 24th July, at a further meeting, indemnification was discussed. While the DPP had already indicated an unwillingness to prosecute and indemnification of soldiers had already been agreed the points made in the discussion are still astonishing (see below). Much of this is detailed and sourced by Huw Bennett in various papers, e.g. Bennett, H. (2010) ‘Detention and Interrogation in Northern Ireland, 1969–75’, in Sibylle Scheipers (ed.), Prisoners in War, Oxford;  Bennett, H. (2010) ‘From Direct Rule to Motorman: Adjusting British Military Strategy for Northern Ireland in 1972‘, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33: 6, 511 — 532; and Bennett, H. (2013) ‘Smoke Without Fire’? Allegations Against the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1972–5. 20th Century British History 24 (2): 275-304.

The British army’s Chief of the General Staff (CGS) was present along with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Attorney General at the July 24th meeting. The CGS thought to provide indemnity “…it was necessary either to find a way of doing what they had to do within the law, or to change the law“. He also stressed the army’s duty to protect its soldiers from prosecution. Those present at the meeting concluded soldiers could not formally be told they were immune from prosecution so a formal ‘Act of Indemnity’ was ruled out.

The cluster of meetings in June and July demonstrate that everyone, the government, civil service, military, prosecution service and Attorney General were all agreed on providing immunity for soldiers, and that it couldn’t be done publicly. This theme was sustained over a number of meetings (and can by shown to have been subsequently implemented in the almost complete absence of prosecutions of soldiers). Coincidentally, this is where the real paper trail seems to end and the implementation took a form that would not then be visible. All of this also happened against the backdrop of the debacles of the Compton Report and Widgery Tribunal in the preceding six months. It is not like the Attorney General, CGS or DPP were not all completely aware that soldiers had killed and were killing  innocent civilians.

At heart, the indemnification took the form of a culture of behaviour that would ensure prosecutions did not happen. When investigations did actually take place, the prosecution rate (even then, generally for assault not firing weapons) was only a small fraction and the conviction rate even less so (some judges openly dismissed any evidence given against soldiers). As Bennett shows, evidence from Catholics was largely disregarded, even in favour of contradictory evidence from soldiers. Out of 502 cases investigated from March 1972 to September 1974, only 56 lead to charges and 17 to convictions pretty much all for minor offences. Complaints against the security forces were to be passed directly to the DPP from November 1972. There were 1078 assault cases looked at by the DPP between March 1972 and November 1974. The low level of investigations carried out is also illustrated by the fact that a higher number of official complaints against the army, 530, was made between December 1971 and February 1972 alone. At every stage of the process the complaints were filtered and the number reduced.

Even where the British Army actually admitted a liability and paid compensation, soldiers were not charged or prosecuted. In 24 cases involving fatalities between 1972 and 1975, the British Army admitted liability for negligence and paid compensation in 22 cases, only challenged two and lost one of those cases. Many of the settlements were out-of-court and were conditional on the army not being required to ‘legally’ admit to the liability. So no-one was ever prosecuted for those cases. The 24 cases were a fraction of the 203 fatalities the security forces were responsible for up to 1975. Indeed, in July 1974 when this culture was firmly established, GOC Lt. Gen. Frank King wrote to Lord Gardiner talking about how investigating complaints and prosecutions were having “… a serious effect on operational efficiency and morale.” Ironically, King was referring to the minimal level of complaints and prosecutions that was taking place.

It seems highly doubtful that some formal methodology was sketched out between June and July 1972 to help soldiers avoid prosecutions. In practical terms the failings of the joint RUC Special Branch and Royal Military Police investigations were already noted by the DPP and Attorney General in June 1972 but not corrected. Extraordinarily, the DPP had signalled an unwillingness to prosecute soldiers for killing or wounding civilians that June. The high level discussions in July affirmed a commitment to protect soldiers from prosecution across the spectrum of politics, civil service, legal system and military. What does seem to have been agreed was that the army’s demand couldn’t be met openly by changing the law. Instead, there  must have been no pressure subjected to those in RUC Special Branch and the Royal Military Police who were supposed to investigate complaints. This had to involve at least the investigating teams, RUC divisional commanders, the DPP and Attorney General and anyone else in an oversight role. Never mind the fact that both RUC and army were investigating themselves, anyway.

What this all created was the necessary culture of non-investigation, disregard of witnesses and failure to observe due process and oversight. This meant soldiers could shoot with almost near impunity, knowing they faced no consequences. This indemnification of soldiers for their actions continued as long as the British army’s deployment.

The 1972 hunger strike

In 1972, an IRA hunger strike was successful in achieving the recognition of the political status of those held as prisoners by the British government. The hunger strike provided significant lessons for later republican protests in 1980 and 1981 and, in itself, was modeled on earlier hunger strikes.

The numbers of prisoners had increased dramatically since 1969, when a wave of detentions in August had preceded the burning of Bombay Street by unionists. Two of those detained were interned until later that year, foreshadowing the widespread use of internment to repress opposition to the northern government from August 1971.

From August 1971, there was a constant increase in the numbers held at Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road), Armagh Gaol, the Maidstone prison ship and the camps at Magilligan and Long Kesh. Many of those detained had been imprisoned by the northern government on one or multiple occasions from the 1920s to the 1960s. Collectively there was a deep well of knowledge of dealing with the systems the northern government deployed to keep its opponents in captivity. This included forms and modalities of protest and resistance, such as hunger strikes.

Republicans had participated in various forms of hunger strike against the northern and southern government in the previous thirty or so years. Open-ended group hunger strikes had taken place in 1936 (in Crumlin Road), 1939-40 in Mountjoy and 1940 and 1941 (in Crumlin Road), 1943 (in Armagh) and 1944 (in Crumlin Road). In 1939, republicans had gone on hunger strike to pressure the southern government, successfully, for release from captivity. In 1940 republican hunger strikes had saw two fatalities, Jack McNeela and Tony D’arcy, but had achieved recognition of their political status by the southern government.

Token, or defined period hunger strikes had also taken place at times (either in solidarity with other protests, or to disrupt the prison system), such as in Crumlin Road in January 1942 and November 1943. They had also taken place more recently, such as on the Maidstone prison ship in 1971. There were also solo hunger strikers, like Paddy Cavanagh in 1935, Sean McCaughey in 1946 (in Portlaoise) and David Fleming in 1946 and 1947. Notably Fleming’s was in parallel with Sean McCaughey’s. He had died quite quickly in Portlaoise after he also refused water as well as food. That tactic dramatically accelerated the point at which a crisis would arise.

A long debate about a hunger strike in D wing of Crumlin Road in 1958-59, ultimately ended in the IRA’s Army Council refusing to endorse such a protest. Many of the senior IRA figures inside and outside Crumlin Road in 1958-59 had been active during the 1940s and were only too aware of the risks and variables that would dictate the likely successful or failure of a hunger strike.

Various initiatives proposed by the IRA leadership in 1971 and 1972, which included ceasefire proposals also called for the release of all ‘political prisoners’. During 1938-45 and 1956-61, when there was widespread use of internment without trial by the northern government, those held as ‘internées’ were accorded special status. As IRA proposals referenced ‘political’ prisoners, there appears to have been a growing consciousness that those awaiting a formal trial or who had been given a prison sentence might be deemed to be outside of this framework, since this happened in 1945 and again in 1961. Senior IRA figures held in Crumlin Road in 1972, like Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been present at the time of the releases in 1945 and again in 1961.

Many of the conditions that had limited the effectiveness of previous hunger strikes were not present in 1972. There was a significant level of overt public support for the IRA and the publicity tools that the IRA had access to, such as Republican News, and international media coverage, offered much greater leverage than had been available in the past.

That said, the hunger strike began on 15th May 1972 with little fanfare. This was down to the lack of any real advance notice as, apparently, the IRA inside Crumlin Road had only notified the outside leadership of their intentions on 10th May (it also leaked into the media almost immediately), even though there had been an ongoing protest inside the jail. The first group to join the hunger strike included Billy McKee, Kevin Henry, Malachy Leonard, Martin Boyle and Robert Campbell. The hunger strike cut across high level contacts between the IRA and British government as the Army Council sought to illustrate its capacity to command and control IRA operations through implementing (and insisting on strict observation of) a ceasefire. Brief reports of a possible IRA ceasefire were mentioned by the press during late May, adding further pressure on the authorities to find a settlement to end the hunger strike. Based on previous hunger strikes, the critical period when a hunger striker was going to be at risk of dying, would be around 50 days, which would be early July.

There was a short article about the hunger strike inside the 18th May 1972 edition of Republican News. It mainly quoted Action, a newsletter published in Newington, which “…British justice finds political prisoners: – ‘Guilty’, British justice finds internees – ‘Guilty’. Are they then willing to release only internees? What is the distinction between ‘Guilty’ and ‘Guilty’? The distinction is this: – There has never been enough clamour for the release of ALL. Amnesty is often considered only in terms of internees. THE ‘GUILTY’ MUST BE FREED WITH THE ‘GUILTY’.”

The format of the hunger strike followed that used in the open-ended hunger strike of 1944, as small groups joined at intervals. Unlike 1944, when external publicity was frequently outdated and inaccurate, Republican News could now provide an effective platform for the hunger strikers to increase pressure on the British government. By the next issue, Republican News covered the hunger strike on its front page, stating that it was “…breaking the wall of silence that has been maintained by the authorities…”. This wasn’t strictly true, as the press had issued some reports on the hunger strike, such as nationalist MPs and senators calls on 22nd May to grant political status. The same day, a second team had joined the hunger strike, including Tony O’Kane, John Cowan, Malachy Cullen, Billy McGuigan and Paddy Monaghan.

On 25th May, it was announced (by the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau) that McKee was also now refusing liquids. If the authorities had anticipated some time to review their options, until mid or late June, McKee’s thirst strike meant a crisis could arise in the first week of June. The IRPB statement pointed out that a thirst strike could be fatal after seven or eight days. That weekend, there were twenty-four and thirty-six hour hunger strikes held at various towns and cities in Ireland, Britain and the US in solidarity with those in Crumlin Road. They were also joined by hunger strikers in Armagh jail, the Curragh and Mountjoy.

That Friday (26th May), the southern government re-instituted Special Criminal Courts and carried out a wave of arrests of senior republicans, including leaders of Sinn Féin. Ruairi Ó Bradaigh and Joe Cahill, who were arrested as part of the swoop, went on hunger strike in protest. Now, both the southern government and British government faced hunger striking republicans. On the 29th May, the ‘Official IRA’ called a ceasefire. This coincided with reports that the ‘Provisional’ IRA was considering a ceasefire.

The same day, a third team joined the hunger strike in Crumlin Road, including Ciaran Conway, Gerard McLoughlin, Michael McCrory, Tony Bradley and Noel Quigley. A team had also joined the hunger strike in Armagh jail on 25th May, including Seamus Connelly, Hugh McCann, Tom Kane, Jackie Hawkie, John Haddock and Tom Kearns. Susan Loughran, also in Armagh jail, now joined the hunger strike on 30th May. At the start of June, more women internees in Armagh would join the hunger strike in solidarity, as would internees in Long Kesh. Public hunger strikes in solidarity, petitions and calls from individuals and organisations to grant political status continued to make the news.

By that weekend, McKee had once again begun to take liquids but Kevin Henry, who had started the hunger strike with McKee, had become so weak that he once again began to take food. Unlike previous hunger strikes, the republican O/C in Crumlin Road, Prionsias MacAirt, could have statements carried in the press clarifying misinformation about the progress of the hunger strike. Claims that Billy McKee had ended his hunger strike on 30th May and that the hunger strikers had abandoned the protest on 1st June were immediately dismissed by MacAirt and the IRPB by the next day.

By the 6th June, Billy McKee was so weak that he was confined to his cell. Robert Campbell, who had also been on hunger strike since 15th May, was removed to the Mater Hospital the same day. Reports of Campbell’s condition apparently sparked riots in the New Lodge Road area, but on the morning of the 7th June he was sprung from the hospital by the IRA. The next day, the British government’s Minister responsible for direct rule, William Whitelaw, faced awkward questioning in the Commons over the escape and hunger strike and stated that the British would not be blackmailed.

On the 11th June, Brian McCann, Liam O’Neill, D. Power, Hugh McComb and Denis Donaldson joined the hunger strike. By now there were eight women in Armagh who had joined at a rate of one a day after Susan Loughran, including Margaret O’Connor, Brenda Murphy and Bridie McMahon. A full list of women participating does not seem to have been published although press statements referred to ‘all eight sentenced women’ in Armagh. There were also forty internees in Long Kesh on the protest in solidarity (listed in Republican News, June 11th 1972). Later press reports would claim up to eighty internees were taking part in hunger strikes.

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List of internees joining the hunger strike, Republican News 4th June 1972

The condition of the hunger strikers was often unclear in press reports, with conflicting reports in the press on whether Malachy Leonard and Billy McKee had been moved to Musgrave Park military hospital. However, there was significant co-ordination of related protests by republican, with the image on the front of Republican News on 4th June featuring as a poster and placard at protests, as well as regular press statements being issued from the Kevin Street offices of Sinn Féin in Dublin.

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Front cover, Republican News (4th June 1972)


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Women carrying “DO YOU CARE IF THIS MAN DIES” posters (Republican News, 18th June 1972)


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Poster in display in window of a house, McDonnel Street, Belfast (Irish Press, 12th June 1972)

Behind the scenes, contact between Whitelaw and the IRA leadership saw the SDLP taking on the role of facilitators to try and arrange a direct meeting. The IRA had offered a ceasefire in return for some pre-conditions, which included the granting of political status. The IRA made its position public on 13th June at a press conference in Derry. Behind the scenes, for the next week, the SDLP attempted to broker a meeting between Whitelaw and the IRA against a backdrop of reports on the worsening condition of McKee, Leonard and Boyle. A foretaste of what might happen in the event of the fatality was seen on the day of the IRA statement in Derry, when rumours spread in Belfast that Billy McKee had died and led to widespread rioting in the city.

In late June, press reports also listed ‘Official IRA’ prisoners who had joined the hunger strike, starting on 22nd May (Peter Monaghan and Pat O’Hare), 29th May (Sean Bunting, Mick Mallon, Seamus Carragher and Franky McGrady), 4th June (Brendan Mackin, Artie Maguire, Gerry Loughlin, Jim Robb and Sam Smith) and 11th June (Jim Goodman, Peter O’Hagan and Frank Quinn).

Whitelaw finally agreed to the preconditions on 19th June. That night word reached the hunger strikers in Crumlin Road. As this included political status, a discussion late into the night followed with an agreement to end the hunger strike in Crumlin Road early on the morning of the 20th June. Billy McKee was finally moved to hospital that day. The same day, Joe Cahill ended his hunger strike in Dublin as he was released without charge by the Special Criminal Court (Ó Bradaigh had already been released a week earlier). As news reached Armagh and Long Kesh, those on hunger strike there also ended their protest. In Armagh, the end of the hunger strike was delayed until 21st June as the British hadn’t made clear that the same status would be extended to women prisoners there. Press reports claim it took an additional twenty-four hours to clarify the issue.

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Back page of Republican News (18th June 1972), showing messages of support.

The 1972 hunger strikes represent the template adopted for the republican hunger strikes of 1980-81, in terms of the tactical approach, public protest and publicity strategies, particularly in 1981. There were to be subsequent major hunger strikes, including the group hunger strike of 1974, in which Michael Gaughan died and were the strikers were force-fed, and, the solo hunger strike in which Frank Stagg died in 1976. While neither the group that embarked on the open-ended hunger strike of 1980 or the individuals who joined at intervals in 1981 strictly followed the same format as 1972, the co-ordination of publicity and the scale of the protest bear closest parallels to that of 1972 from which (as from other protests in between) lessons were clearly applied in 1980-81. The 1972 hunger strike itself, though, was modelled on experiences gained by republicans over the 1930s and 1940s. Where the earlier hunger strikes were not successful, the success of the 1972 hunger strike may have been central to the hope, after 1972, that the tactic would work again.