Was ‘troubles’ related death toll as high as 30,000?

How many people died in the recent conflict in Ireland? You’d think this would be a relatively easy to answer question. But depending on how you decide to define a death as conflict-related, the total, which is usually given as around 3,700, is probably at least 5,733 and may be as high as 30,000.

A quick trawl of existing databases puts a detailed death toll in the region of 3,640-3,760. This is a considerable figure and itself only a fraction of the number who received injuries or were harmed in some other way by their experience over the same period. But a comparison of some of the components of those totals shows that this is an estimation and a very conservative one and doesn’t seem to fully reflect the extent of loss of human life arising from the conflict. Initially, I was looking at this to see the methods employed to determine what might be the best way to estimate the loss of life in the north (and Belfast in particular) in 1919-23. Instead, I noticed that, depending on how you choose to define whether a death is related to the conflict here, you can argue that the actual death toll is at least 5,733. Or you could even put it as high as 30,000.

There are a number of publicly accessible databases recording deaths arising from the post-1966 conflict here. This includes the following: Lost Lives ; Malcolm Sutton’s An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland 1969-1993 (with a draft list up to the present); and, Michael McKeown’s Database of Deaths Associated with Violence in Northern Ireland, 1969-2001. The latter two databases are hosted, in various formats, along with contextual literature and other resources on the Conflict Archive on the Internet (known as CAIN).

The 2006 edition of Lost Lives records 3,720 deaths from 1966 to that date. The database compiled by Malcolm Sutton covers the period from 1969 to 2001 and records 3,532 deaths (in relative terms, this is 149 less than the total for the same period in Lost Lives). It also includes a provisional total of 88 deaths from 2001 to the end of 2017. The second database available via CAIN, prepared by Michael McKeown, records 3,649 deaths over the period from 1969 to 2005. Compared to the same period covered by Lost Lives, McKeown lists 3,622 deaths, 98 less than Lost Lives. Combining the figures in Lost Lives and those on CAIN for the period up to 2017 gives a total of 3,762 conflict-related deaths from 1966 to 2017.

This variability hints at the complications that underlie what deaths are deemed to be conflict-related and how that is defined. It is also still possible to identify some deaths that have been overlooked in all them, such as Erwin Beelitz in Berlin in 1972. Lost Lives does provide discussions of individual cases that illustrates the scope of what is considered as a conflict-related death. It generally just includes violent deaths and so would not typically include, for instance, someone whose health suffered from conflict-related stresses leading to a premature death. The latter may be much more difficult to determine and be quite subjective (although more on this point below).

What got me interested in the divergence from the general quoted figures of around 3,700 was in the officially declared military death toll. I’d thought that a relatively obvious way of checking how robust the available figures were, was to compare figures for individual groups against published records. In December 2012, the UK Ministry of Defence provided a breakdown of British military personnel who died during Operation Banner (the British army deployment to the north). For deaths as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” it gives a total of 1,441. Lost Lives gives an overall figures for the British Armed Services of 503 along with 206 UDR and RIR. The breakdown for Operation Banner, provided by the Ministry of Defence, though, is 814 regular army, 548 UDR and RIR, and a further 79 for other branches (making up that total of 1,441). This is 732 in excess of the figures provided for in any of the relevant databases. This underestimate, by some 103%, is considerable. As the term used in the letter detailing the figures very specifically says that the deaths were as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” this would be appear to be the official total.

Critically, to understand the methodology, the existing databases all list every individual who was is included. The official figures for Operation Banner do not provide individual details.

It is also possible to look at the figures given republican fatalities. A ‘Roll of Honour’ was published in An Phoblacht in 2010, identifying the deaths of those named as having being conflicted-related. This gives a total of 336 conflict-related IRA deaths (it also lists 25 Sinn Féin members). Using the tables provided by Sutton, his equivalent figure appears to be 292 (excluding Sinn Féin members) suggesting there were a further 44 deaths on top of those conventionally associated with the conflict. A further 83 republican combatant casualties are recorded by Sutton (including INLA, Official IRA etc). McKeown reports some 271 IRA deaths, of a total 350 republican dead, while Lost Lives provides a combined total of 396. If the An Phoblacht figure reflects deaths deemed to be conflict-related but not conventionally captured by the methodologies employed by Lost Lives, Sutton and McKeown, the existing method may underestimate republican conflict related deaths by around 15%. So, if extrapolated for republican casualties as a whole, a figure of around 455 may more accurately reflect the scale of loss. If it might be argued that similar factors would be at play, the Lost Lives figure for unionist paramilitaries, 167, should probably be revised upwards on the same basis to 192. Neither of these figures would necessarily capture conflict-related deaths that are due to factors connected to their experience as combatants, incarceration or self-harm.

The issue of self-harm, more particularly suicide, is one that arises in a variety of contexts. The number of recorded RUC fatalities is given as 301 by Sutton, 303 by Lost Lives and 304 in McKeown. But on a number of occasions, official statements and figures have been given for suicides among serving RUC members, with 55 recorded by 1996 and 75 recorded by 2007. Without trivialising such a complex and emotive issue as suicide, it may never be known how many of these could be directly attributed to conflict-related factors. However, as noted with the difficulty of assessing the factors in any individual death, a review of overall figures might show any increased mortality that, in the context of the north during the conflict, is likely to have arisen from factors related, at least in part, to the conflict.

Occasionally, individuals who took their own lives are included amongst the conflict-related deaths. Patrick Sheehy, an IRA volunteer who appears to have shot himself in Nenagh in County Tipperary on 1st January 1991 is listed in Lost Lives (3170), although not in either Sutton or McKeown. It seems difficult to argue that it wasn’t related to the conflict and so it’s inclusion seems reasonable. On the same basis, it would seem that RUC fatalities should also be included. Taking Samaritans figures, it is possible to make wider comparisons with suicide rates across Ireland and Britain to see if the broader impact of the conflict on mental health is reflected in elevated suicide rates. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence for this until 2007, after which time an apparent rise by about 6 deaths per 100,000 since around 2007 is considered by some to be attributable to earlier conflict-related stresses. This would amount to around 1,080 deaths and continues to this day.

Combined with other additional deaths noted above for Operation Banner, the IRA, RUC etc, this would suggest the total number of deaths is closer to 5,733.

To follow this through, a similar comparison of general mortality for the north in the 1970s through to about 1998, makes for equally grim reading. Typically the male mortality rate was at a level significantly below that of the UK and the south of Ireland, by around 200 deaths per 100,000 per year. By the early 1980s, this had closed to around 100 per year and the mortality rates were then roughly comparable throughout the 1990s. The female mortality rate was significantly higher in the north than the UK and south of Ireland average in the early 1970s, by around 210 (per 100,000 per year), staying just under 200 higher in the early 1980s, rising to around 220 higher in the 1990s and the dropping back to just under 200 deaths higher (per 100,000 per year) by the end of the 1990s. Taking the overall differential in the mortality rates over the period from the early 1970s to 1998 suggests that maybe 24,000 more people died than would be expected, based on the rates prevalent in the UK and the south. Are there a series of complex factors underlying the increased mortality rate? Undoubtedly, but it is hard to see how it is likely that any complex factors are not, in themselves, somehow connected to systemic and structural issues related to the conflict. In that sense, it could be argued that these 24,000 should also really be regarded as conflict-related.

So is it plausible that we should consider the death toll from the recent conflict to be 30,000 or roughly 5,733 rather than around 3,700? The currently used conservative estimates of the quantum of deaths arising from the conflict has at least two origins. A concern of many of those who complied the databases was in painstakingly researching and detailing each individual death. Where the deaths are anonymised into collective data (such as the casualties from Operation Banner), it seems that there is no mechanism for either Lost Lives or the likes of Sutton or McKeown to include them.

Another factor, though, is that acceptance of the reduced figures is also an artefact of the same security policy that sought to minimise the nature and intensity of violence and brought us terms like ‘ulsterisation’ and ‘criminalisation’. This isn’t to imply that Lost Lives, Sutton or McKeown are somehow complicit in furthering the same policy. They are simply following convention and documenting instances of violence in which lives were lost. This differs significantly from British (and Irish) government strategy that sought to present violence in the conflict in the language of decontextualized, criminal acts. A logical outworking of this would be to continue to adopt a minimalist approach in assessing the human cost of the conflict even where, for instance, the official death toll of Operation Banner is way in excess of the figure normally cited for military losses. Unfortunately this attempt to promote a conservative estimate minimises the actual impact and adds to the dissonance between the official narrative and the impact experienced by individuals, families and communities. For them, perhaps we need to recognise that the scale of related fatalities is much greater. In that regard, a fresh consideration of how we define the death toll from the recent conflict may be worth further exploration and debate.


Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.

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


A McGurks Bar timeline

Since the debate over McGurks Bar has continued, I’ve put together a timeline for relevant events on 4th and 5th December 1971. What I have omitted are the (factual) news reports that carried the eye witness evidence stating a man was seen leaving a bomb at the door of the bar and the claims of responsibility by the ‘Empire Loyalists’ (a UVF cover-name). I’ve concentrated on those items that refer to the forensic reports or promote the deception that emerged blaming those inside the Bar for the blast and claiming involvement by the Provisional wing of the IRA.

Where not linked below, media quotes are taken from the Police Ombudsman Report into the bombing. Much of this is also covered in great detail in Ciarán MacAirt’s book on the bombing.

4th December
At 8.45 pm the bomb explodes in McGurks Bar.
That night an RUC spokesman was “…quite categorical in blaming the Provisional IRA.” (reported by The Irish Times, 6th December)
Forensic examination of the Bar began.

5th December
At 10.50 am an undisclosed multi-line statement was sent to the British Army’s 39th Brigade for public release from RUC Musgrave Street. It is not clear what the content was and whether it related to the bombing as the text is redacted.
At 11.10 am an immediate response came back from 39th Brigade stating: “ATO is convinced bomb was placed in entrance way on ground floor. The area is cratered and clearly was the seat of the explosion. Size of bomb is likely to be 40/50 lbs. This was marked ‘not for public release.”
At lunch time on BBC Radio 4 (according to OPONI report) “…A few minutes ago, police said that forensic scientists investigating the blast are convinced that the bomb exploded within the building, and not at the door as early reports had suggested.” This appears to reference what was sent for release from Musgrave Street at 10.50 am (and provoked the ATOs response trying to correct the error at 11.10 am).
The evening edition of The Times (in London) follows the same line and reported: “Police and Army intelligence officers believe that Ulster’s worst outrage: the killing of 15 people, including two children and three women, in an explosion in a Belfast bar last night was caused by an IRA plan that went wrong. Forensic scientists, explosive experts, and Army and police officers with an intimate knowledge of the area pieced together the theory this afternoon.”
Two official reports on the day are contradictory, the British Army Director of Operations Brief (4/5th December 1971) records that bomb was ‘planted outside the pub’. The RUC Duty Officer’s Report for the 24 hours to 8 am on Sunday 5th Dec 1971 states that the bomb was inside and carried into the bar by an IRA member. The actual time and date at which either report was compiled is unknown and could have been at any time during 5th December, or later.
On the evening of 5th December, Paddy Kennedy gave a news interview to Radio Eireann where he said that “..people it’s the beginning of a Protestant backlash.” A statement by John Taylor, reported by the Irish Independent the following day (6th December), responds to Kennedy’s comments quoting the same phrase about a Protestant backlash, instead Taylor specifically blamed the IRA for the bombing.
Taylor is the first public figure on record to blame the IRA, rather than the loyalists who the press had already reported to be claiming it, who had been observed planting the bomb at the door of the bar, and the details then correctly identified and reported within hours by the ATO. Taylor currently insists the facts were not established and that it was believed it was an IRA bomb inside the Bar. Although, at least once on Twitter, he has said (of those killed by the bomb): “At time of bomb there was no advice to suggest they were innocent.” Which even now, is an extraordinary statement to make.

The first to blame the IRA were the RUC on the night of the bomb itself (according to The Irish Times). This was publicised despite being contradicted by the forensic evidence at the latest on Sunday morning, of not earlier (once enough debris had been moved for the ATO to establish the location of the crater showing where the bomb had detonated).

Whatever about blaming that on any initial confusion. The deception was also the version given by Taylor as a statement to Stormont on the 7th December, days later when the truth was known to the authorities. The RUC are clearly culpable here. The unanswered question is the extent of Taylor’s knowledge or command of what was happening (given the central role he played in the deception). The longer he avoids giving a meaningful answer, the less likely it seems that he didn’t know.

The McGurk’s Bar deception: Q and A with John Taylor

Where did the deception over the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing that victimised those killed, their families and community originate? One person, John Taylor (now Lord Kilclooney), seemed central to that question but had more or less eluded any discussion of the matter. Finally, over social media, he answered some questions yesterday.

The current evidence is that the British Army’s Army Technical Officer had completed preliminary analysis of the scene and identified the seat of the blast as being outside the building and, based on what was visible, that around forty to fifty pounds of gelignite had been used (you can read much more about the bombing on Ciaran MacAirt’s blog here and in his book on the bombing). This was consistent with the eye-witness evidence and claim of responsibility by the UVF (using the cover name ‘Empire Loyalists’). This had been communicated and logged by 11.10 am in the situation report on the morning of the 5th December.
During that day, John Taylor, the junior Home Affairs Minister, spoke to the press and indicated that he believed the Provisional IRA to be responsible, with his comments reported in the press the next day. I am unaware of the content of radio or television reports on the day and whether they broadcast on the 5th as well. That the blast was an “IRA own-goal” became the official version of the bombing up to 1977 when a UVF member, Robert Campbell, was convicted of the bombing.
One key question around McGurk’s Bar is – where did the own-goal claim originate? Whoever was involved in the original planning for the bombing at 8.45 pm on 4th December hadn’t incorporated the deception into their design since the UVF made a claim of responsibility, albeit under a cover name. Nor did the deception emerge as a mistake in the technical assessment of the scene since it can be shown to have accurately been reported by 11.10 am on the morning of the 5th December.
A number of possibilities exist. One is that it was a genuine mistake but this is simply implausible and appears to be contradicted by the reports from the Army Technical Officer on 5th December. A second is that political sympathies motivated someone to promote the deception to either cover for the UVF, attack the IRA or a combination of the two. The person, or persons, involved could have been within or across various organisations, including some or all of the RUC, British Army, civil service and the governing Unionist Party. Whatever the origin, it first emerges into the public record with John Taylor on 5th December, who then further elaborated the deception in Stormont on 7th December. This puts Taylor, then junior Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, at the centre of the deception.
But what was Taylor’s role. Was he simply the spokesperson who had been briefed by his staff and spoke to media accordingly? Or had he given an off-the-cuff statement on 5th December and the deception subsequently emerged through attempts of the Ministry of Home Affairs staff attempting to ‘work towards the minister’ by creating a fictional story to match comments he had made in public. The third, of course, is that Taylor was an active party to the creation of the deception.
Up to now, Taylor has studiously avoided any engagement with those investigating the circumstances around the bombing. Yet, recently, he had joined Twitter (as @KilclooneyJohn) and begun to post and comment on social media. His social media usage probably reflects the abilities that brought such a meteoric career. He was the rising star of unionist politics in the 1960s where he was destined for senior government roles while only in his early thirties. He sustained significant gunshot wounds when the Official IRA tried to kill him in February 1972, only to later serve as a Councillor, MP, MEP, MLA and now in the House of Lords, while simultaneously managing his own group of newspaper companies. Now 79, his ready adoption and use of social media suggests a mind that has retained it’s sharpness despite a busy and eventful life.
So I took an opportunity to ask him a question as he was responding to questions about MI5 that I happened to be copied in to. This led to the exchange below transcribed more or less verbatim (for ease of reading I’ve corrected spelling mistakes and expanded acronyms but little else). On a number of occasions it branched into parallel conversations with others, but for clarity, I’ve added them as footnotes. Ultimately I was interested in Taylor recounting his memory of the events of the 5th December to see if cast any light on how the McGurks Bar deception came into being. Did he make an off-the-cuff remark blaming the IRA that Department staff then took as a guide and provided him briefing notes to support his own, incorrect, statement. Or was Taylor central to the creation of the deception?
In correspondence, in person and online he had continually evaded detailed questions about McGurks Bar. As it happened, I had been copied into an existing conversation with Taylor on Twitter. In response to a question about MI5 he had said.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): The answer is simple. As Minister of State at Home Affairs I worked with Police and Army but NEVER MI5.
So I’d responded and the rest is below…
John Ó Néill: But you won’t answer questions regarding work with army and police, e.g. with regards to McGurks Bar, so denials about MI5 are difficult to credit.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement in Parliament about the terrible bomb at McGurks Bar was prepared by the Home Affairs Secretariat. After I was not involved!!
John Ó Néill: Did you feel you were misled. Or (in retrospect) that it was an error of judgement to keep pushing the own goal line when it was untrue. (see 1 below)
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): After the IRA assassination attempt and my removal from Home Affairs I had no role; responsibility; or knowledge of events at McGurks Bar. (see 2 below)
John Ó Néill‏: Obviously, I don’t think anyone with any sense would think otherwise. Your knowledge and perspective on all this is a glaring gap in the public record. You’d be doing a great service to maybe have (private!) correspondence with @ciaranmacairt to explore it in more depth.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I have no further information about the terrible McGurks Bar bomb than was advised to me three days after the bomb by the Secretariat!
John Ó Néill: As Home Affairs Minister, didn’t you expect to be briefed on the night of the bombing and the next day? Were you being kept in the dark?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not Home Affairs Minister. I was Minister of State and stood in at times on behalf of the Minister of Home Affairs who was Brian Faulkner.
John Ó Néill: I take your point. It still seems odd that you weren’t being repeatedly briefed, given the gravity of what was happening.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not briefed because I was Minister of State and NOT Minister of Home Affairs. I did not even know that internment had been introduced!
John Ó Néill: But John, your first statement was day after bomb (here’s Irish Indo report on 6th), 2 days before you say you were briefed for Stormont.
I then quoted this text from the Irish Independent on 6th December 1971:

“In the North, Mr John Taylor, Junior Minister of State for Home Affairs, said he was “aghast” such an event had taken place. I don’t care whether the people are Roman Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Unionist. It is a tragedy indeed that Irishmen should die in this way at this time. He said: “I personally would be very surprised if this were the start of a Protestant backlash. The evidence at the moment is that the Protestant community are facing up to the IRA campaign in a very responsible manner and are quite prepared to leave the initiative to the politicians and to the security forces. I would dismiss the idea that it was the Protestants. The role of the Provisional IRA which ash been criticised by the Official IRA, is to try and create sectarian bitterness and they already exploded several pubs on the Shankill Road and Ormeau Road.” (see 3 below)

John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Information on this tragic bomb changed with time. I was only involved in the early stage as junior to Home Affairs Minister. After 3 months I ceased.
John Ó Néill: Your initial response on 5th, though, reflected what was put out as disinformation rather than the truth which press reported on same day.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Different press say different things! Do not generalise by using the term “press”.
John Ó Néill: But on 5th Dec, all the ‘press’ consistently reported eye witness testimony and ‘Empire Loyalist’ claims. You dismissed those reports.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement was based upon initial police and forensic advice. As Minister I could do no other!
John Ó Néill: Well, the press from the time shows you were first person (on 5th) to voice what was later shown to be deliberate disinformation from RUC.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement was based upon initial police and forensic advice. As Minister I could do no other!
John Ó Néill: ATO/RUC knew truth by 11am on Dec 5. And you are first person on record with false account later on 5th, two days before Stormont statement. (see 4 below – an ATO is an Army Technical Officer, often called the Bomb Squad)
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I stand over all my statements.
John Ó Néill: But you can’t explain origin of what you said on the 5th Dec that became the lie that was perpetrated on 7th Dec in Stormont and after?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Anything I said was on advice of Home Affairs Secretariat. I was always strict about this.
John Ó Néill: So they briefed you on 5th Dec when they had access to ATO report. Yet they had you promote a false claim. Wow, that’s a serious allegation.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was always careful to abide by advice from Secretariat.
John Ó Néill: You do realise, then, that that same secretariat used you to cover up mass murder and victimise those killed and their families?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): That is your opinion. I am not usually used! In this case I was being advised by Home Affairs Secretariat and deputising for unavailable Minister.
John Ó Néill: But that’s your words (not my opinion) – Secretariat had you promote (what they knew to be) a false claim as to responsibility on 5th Dec.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Home Affairs Secretariat would have advised information on basis of facts available to it at that particular time. Facts can change!!
John Ó Néill: Public record shows Secretariat had full facts by 11.10 on 5/12/71. That’s not in doubt. Question is origin of false claim. Them? RUC?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I have no idea as I was not involved – as Minister I was responsible for fire service; road safety etc. Prime Minister was responsible for security etc.
John Ó Néill: In public record false claim starts with you on 5th Dec (not Stormont statement on 7th). Yet you are unable to explain its origin.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): All comment was as advised by Home Affairs Secretariat.
John Ó Néill: Who would that involve from Secretariat. What were their roles? Department Secretary General or Under Secretary. Or specific advisers?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Cannot recall.
John Ó Néill: It would be useful to identify who briefed you as their role in other matters needs to be scrutinised given severity of issues involved.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Sorry cannot recall the individuals.
John Ó Néill: You could check your own papers/diaries as historical record, as it stands, has you hung out to dry on promoting false claim re McGurks.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I can assure you I acted honourably as basis of official advice.
John Ó Néill: Well, those who advised you then have left you, rightly or wrongly, to become a villain of the tragedy of McGurks Bar.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Not a villain but one who honourably accepted advice.
John Ó Néill: But currently false claim about McGurks can only be traced back as far as you on 5th Dec 1971. Only you can trace it back to actual source.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Would like to but afraid I cannot help.
John Ó Néill: Ok. But in absence of any further information, it’ll be hard to persuade people that you weren’t ultimately responsible for the false claim.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I can only claim to have acted on advice and therefore honourably. Regrettably I was unable to remain in post to articulate any new facts.
John Ó Néill: I’m not sure that holds up as a defence. As a senior figure in Home Affairs you bear responsibility unless you have proof you were misled.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I acted on advice given to me. I had no reason to believe that I was being misled and, since I have never been involved since, I do not.
John Ó Néill: But John, on 5th Dec and again on 7th you advanced false claims about McGurks. If you weren’t misled, it makes you a party to the deception?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): At the time they were the best advice available to me and not false.
John Ó Néill: If you were briefed after 11.10 am 5/12/1971 (at the very latest), you were given verifiably false information. It was not ‘best advice’.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): As far as I was concerned it was the only advice available.
John Ó Néill: Given the scale of loss of life, only the most senior people (who knew the truth) in RUC and army would have briefed you and Home Affairs.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not briefed by army nor police. Only by Department.
John Ó Néill: But you would have understood Department to have been briefed by RUC and army?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Yes that is correct.
John Ó Néill: So you spoke to press after Department briefed you on 5/12/71. They hadn’t said ATO reported bomb was outside. When did you first hear the truth?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): What you call the truth is different for me. I was only briefly involved in subject and truth was what I was advised in that short period.
John Ó Néill: Well, when did you first hear bomb was planted outside McGurks and it had been work of UVF? Before the murder attempt on you or much later?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I do not recall hearing that.
John Ó Néill: Even after the trial of Robert Campbell for the bomb in 1977? At no point did you feel you needed to revisit the advice given to you?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No I have never revisited the subject.
John Ó Néill: But do you remember when you first heard it had been the UVF and not the IRA?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No.
John Ó Néill: And at no point on 5th Dec 1971 did you ask Department officials why you were contradicting Empire Loyalists claim and eye witness evidence?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I did not accept such sources as reliable information just as I do not accept ISIS claims today.
John Ó Néill: On the day after the bombing, were you formally briefed or simply given a heads up by someone in the Department?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No recollection.
John Ó Néill: But you do agree that you must have been briefed the day after the bombing (5th) as well as before making the Commons statement on the 7th?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Sorry. No recollection.
John Ó Néill: Ok. You said you would only have spoken to press after being briefed. You first advanced the IRA theory on 5th Dec. So you’d been briefed?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No idea.
John Ó Néill: This is what you said on 5th Dec. Had you been briefed to say this?
To this I added the same text from the Irish Independent on 6th December 1971 that I had added earlier:

“In the North, Mr John Taylor, Junior Minister of State for Home Affairs, said he was “aghast” such an event had taken place. I don’t care whether the people are Roman Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Unionist. It is a tragedy indeed that Irishmen should die in this way at this time. He said: “I personally would be very surprised if this were the start of a Protestant backlash. The evidence at the moment is that the Protestant community are facing up to the IRA campaign in a very responsible manner and are quite prepared to leave the initiative to the politicians and to the security forces. I would dismiss the idea that it was the Protestants. The role of the Provisional IRA which ash been criticised by the Official IRA, is to try and create sectarian bitterness and they already exploded several pubs on the Shankill Road and Ormeau Road.”

There has been no response to this last question, to date.

So does any of this help us understand Taylor’s role? He initially insisted that he only spoke when briefed by the Department (meaning Home Affairs). When first challenged over his statement on 5th December he states that information on the bomb changed over time, by then he was no longer in a ministerial position. He also said that he always ignored claims of responsibility and eye witness statements as unreliable. I’ll come back to these points in a second.
Later, Taylor continually insisted he would only have made a statement after being briefed, specifically by Department officials, not by the police or army. What is surprising, I think, in light of this, is that he refused to admit to ever having any curiosity as to where the deception about McGurk’s came from, nor any idea of when he first heard the truth. Neither could he point to who had originally briefed him with the false information about McGurk’s Bar. That seems extraordinary, in retrospect, if he had surely been an unknowing accomplice in promoting the deception about McGurk’s Bar.
Notionally, the thrust of Taylor’s responses are that his statement on 5th December (which was carried by the press) was based on his own dismissal of the ‘Empire Loyalist’ claim and the eye witnesses that saw the bomb being left at the door of the bar. He seems to specifically exclude that he was formally briefed by either the RUC, army or Department staff (as they only seem to have briefed him for his speech to Stormont on the 7th December and provided information from the RUC and army for him). By a process of exclusion, Taylor effectively removes everyone else from the genesis of the McGurk’s Bar deception story, other than the first person who is documented as advancing the claim that it was the IRA – himself.
Obviously, it may have been a politically motivated, off-the-cuff statement on 5th December and the deception subsequently emerged through attempts of the Ministry of Home Affairs staff attempting to ‘work towards the minister’. But the subsequent lack of curiosity or memory of discovering the truth doesn’t suggest someone who was ever unaware of that the official version was a lie.

As Ciarán MacAirt has pointed out – in the hidden records about the bombing the RUC deception might have began before 8am on 5th December and was then transmitted throughout intelligence channels. On the 7th December, Taylor uses the same address, 83 Great George Street, in Stormont rather than North Queen Street. But this document may have been prepared as events unfolded and so we don’t know if it reflects the position at 8.45am or later in the day once the false line had been created. John Taylor may know the truth. Was it the RUC?
We fall into uncomfortable territory here, though. Taylor, like many others, is a prisoner of events that are not yet in the past and silenced by the real absence of peace. As the Boston History project evidenced, we haven’t yet transitioned to a post-conflict dynamic where individuals can honestly and openly discuss their knowledge of the past in a way that, while it might not bring relief to those who suffered by their actions, can at least allow us to know what really happened. At least then, people would, if nothing else, know the truth.

1. @BobSmithWalker also asked a question at the same time: “But after you learned the truth did you counter your own statement? Forgive me if you already did so but I’m not aware that you did?”
2. There was second stream to the conversation at this point beginning with @BobSmithWalker asking: “You served in 3 parliaments thereafter. Was there really no parliamentary opportunity to correct your statement, over a 30 year period?” To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said “Not at all because I was no longer responsible or in possession of any information. The subject was serious and not one for speculation.” Niall O Murchu then asked a question on the same thread, “Looking back, is it fair to say you were probably misled? It’s already been proved the MoD misled the Westminster cabinet about the bombing.” My next comments were part of this same conversation.
3. There was a second, overlapping, conversation at this point as Ciarán MacAirt‏ pointed out “RUC Chief Constable Shillington and Head of Special Branch told lies directly to you, PM Faulkner and GOC Tuzo in JSC on 16th Dec 1971” To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) replied “Chief Constable Shillington did not tell me directly lies – he did not speak to me – you are becoming irresponsible by making false claims!”. Niall Ó Murchú then pointed out: “I know it’s uncomfortable to admit it Mr Taylor, but they really did lie. They did a proper stitch up job.” But John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) continued to disagree, “They did not lie. They advised on the basis of advice available at the time. Advice. Shillington was a most honourable man. He would not have lied. He would have stuck strictly to the facts available to him at the time.” Ciarán MacAirt then stated “I have just shown you Shillington lied to you in the JSC of 16th Dec 1971. PSNI cannot even present false intelligence for Shillington’s lie to you” to which Niall Ó Murchú added “Mr Taylor, is it possible Mr Shillington was lied to first?”. To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said, “I would hope not but one cannot say ‘definitely not’. Who knows??”.
4. Ciarán MacAirt asked two questions, “Mr Taylor, if RUC admitted that #McGurks was attacked by UVF (as per the evidence), would NI Gov have had to intern alleged PUL extremists? Mr Taylor, so would Mr Faulkner have had to intern alleged PUL extremists (as he promised Mr Heath in August 1971)? In response, John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said “I do not know. I did not know he was interning anyone until after it had happened. Actually I was in Dublin when it happened!!” Then, @McNeice1989 also asked “Do you rescind your statement made on the 7th?” To this John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) replied “I stand over all my statements.” At this point I rejoined the conversation.

Erwin Beelitz, a forgotten conflict death from 1972

A German killed by Germans in Germany probably sounds like the most unlikely fatality of the recent conflict in Ireland. Yet, in 1972, sixty-six year old Erwin Beelitz was killed by a bomb planted in ‘solidarity with the IRA’. His name doesn’t typically feature in any lists of those who died during this period, but this is his story.

On the evening of Bloody Sunday, a young German, Michael Baumann, had watched a television report on events in Derry that day. Like many of the post-war generation in West Berlin, there was a certain level of resentment at the continued occupation by the victorious allies of various sectors of Berlin. This lent itself to empathising with others they perceived to be sharing an experience of military occupation, whether that was in places like Vietnam or, since 1969, Ireland. Baumann was so moved by events on Bloody Sunday that he decided that he “…had to do something about it”.

Next day, Monday 31st January, Baumann and a friend, Hans-Peter Knoll, met with Verena Becker, Harald Sommerfeld and Inge Viett who had also concluded that the killings of unarmed civilians by the British Army demanded a response. Becker, Sommerfeld and Viett had been members of Schwarzen Hilfe, a support group for political prisoners, but had recently joined Baumann and Knoll in Bewegung 2 Juni or B2J (the June 2nd Movement).

B2J had been founded the previous year by individuals associated with various German groups that had emerged from the student and radical campaigns of the late 1960s. Even the B2J name commemorated the day in 1967 (June 2nd) when unarmed Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police detective, following vicious police repression of a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran to Berlin. The events of that day were repeatedly cited by many individuals involved in the radical groups as a pivotal moment in their transition from peaceful and largely conventional protests to more militant actions.

Like many of the German radical groups, B2J were trying to adapt urban guerilla tactics, largely following the outlines sketched by Carlos Marighella (in Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla). They hoped that the example of actions by a small, elite, guerilla group would catalyse support for their aims. Ultimately, this was meant to lead to ‘the people’ seizing power from the conservative, capitalist forces that controlled the state. This marked a departure from the successful, ‘focalist’ model used in the likes of Cuba and Vietnam, where the impetus began in remote rural areas prior to marching on, and seizing, the urban centres. In the metropolitan western states, the focus needed to be on building support in the urban areas. The Tupamaros in Uruguay and, historically, the urban IRA operations organised by the likes of Michael Collins were seen as exemplars of urban guerilla methods. Up to 1972, B2J had mainly confined itself to robberies and shootings. A response to Bloody Sunday seemed to provide an opportunity to progress to widen its campaign. This was largely following the template set out by Marighella in his Minimanual.

B2J was a loose coalition of anarchists unlike the better known Marxist-Leninist group, the Rotte Armee Fraktion (R.A.F.). The latter is usually rendered in English as Red Army ‘Faction’ although ‘Fraction’ is more accurate and reflects the intention to identify the group as an integral part of wider society, rather than a discrete entity in its own right.

Famously, the R.A.F. included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. A name often given the first generation R.A.F. – the Baader Meinhof Group or just ‘B-M’. Mistakenly, Meinhof was taken to be a leader. The R.A.F. didn’t really have leaders, per se, but the most prominent female figure was probably Ensslin, not Meinhof. Emerging from those same left wing challenge to the aging conservative establishment in West Germany, the R.A.F. held a particular appeal to young Germans. Imagery and optics were important, and the group’s public personae, consciously or subconsciously, resonated with a sort of revolutionary chic. For instance, a mythical preference for using stolen BMWs (dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Wagen) is believed to have brought the then provincial and largely unheralded BMW brand to prominence. When Baader was arrested in 1972, he had a bleeding gunshot wound in his thigh, but still managed to keep his Raybans on. The high profile female voices within the organisations, like Ensslin and Meinhof, signalled an aspiration towards gender equality that both increased their youth appeal, and, differentiated them from the older male-dominated West German establishment which was also tarnished by the country’s history under the Nazis.

While there had been widespread student and radical protests in Europe in the late 1960s, only really Germany, Italy and Ireland had also saw the development or renewal of a range of militant groupings. The publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was connected to both German and Italian radicals, provided some of the thinking and resourcing behind the development of the Italian groups. He was instrumental in setting up the Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups) which was founded around the same time as other left radical groups like Lotta Continua and Gruppo XXII Ottobre (October 22nd Group) in 1969, soon to be followed by the more durable Brigata Rossa or ‘B-R’ (‘Red Brigade’, later ‘Red Brigades’ as it absorbed members of the other groups as they disbanded). Unlike the German groups, there were very few prominent women in the Italian organisations.

In Italy, right wing groups were also active. They carried out occasional bombings and shootings from 1969 onwards to which the left wing radical groups responded in kind. Media coverage meant that left wing protests around the world quickly reached a much wider audience (from October 1968 onwards, Irish events also began to feature on television news bulletins). The patterns of militant activity and scale of fatalities in Italy and Germany (and indeed Ireland) were not vastly dissimilar for much of 1969 and 1970. While there were points of contact between the various groups, there was little in the way of formal links. However, all were constantly aware of, and sympathetic to, events in other countries. As late as 1985, the third generation R.A.F. had a unit called ‘Kommando Patsy O’Hara’.

For that reason, Baumann and the others identified with events in Derry on Bloody Sunday. In West Berlin, a peaceful protest by fifteen hundred people on the Tuesday following Bloody Sunday had converged on the British Consulate-General. The protesters had demanded the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. Trouble flared afterwards and eight windows of the BBC’s Berlin office were broken by stone throwers.

While that was going on the former Schwarzen Hilfe members in B2J, Verena Becker, Inge Viett and Harald Sommerfeld and another inexperienced member, Willi Räther, were scouting for British military targets to attack in the Gatow and Kladow districts along the western outskirts of West Berlin. Figuring most were too well protected, they happened upon a sign for the British Yacht Club on the Havel, just off Kladower Damm which was mainly used by British officers. They reconnoitred the club and decided it would make a suitable target. As it was out of season, it was deserted and so there was little risk of anything more than damage to property.

Up to then, B2J had mainly been involved in a handful of encounters with German police and bank robberies to raise funds. Baumann and Knoll had went to see other leading figures in a Schoneberg apartment including Heinz Brockmann, Ralf Reinders and ‘Ina’ Siepmann to see what could be done. It was agreed that Brockmann would manufacture explosive devices to be used in mobile attacks. Next day Baumann acquired the necessary materials and brought them to an apartment in Sybelstrasse where, Brockman manufactured three bombs using fire extinguishers, water pipes, clock parts, gunpowder and fireworks, and Baumann made explosives from weed killer and sugar. Meanwhile, Becker and the others reassemble in Eisenbahnstrasse and prepare a letter to leave at the British Yacht Club stating that the attack was in solidarity with the IRA and in revenge for the British Army’s actions in Derry.

The bombs are all set to detonate at 2.15 am on 2nd February.

The inexperienced Becker, Viett, Sommerfeld and Räther were to plant the bomb at the deserted British Yacht Club. They drove to Gatow by car where Viett stayed in the car with the lights on and engine running, while Becker, Räther and Sommerfeld climbed the fence. Once inside, Becker kept watch as Sommerfeld and Räther carried the bomb around to the side of the clubhouse facing out onto the Havel. Räther placed the bomb on a chair and sets the time for the ignition, delaying it until 2.30 am to allow them more time to get away. Having attached the cables so the bomb is now live, he covered it in a bag while Sommerfeld left the A3 sheet with their statement by a window of the building. Without waiting for the detonation, they return to the homes.

The remote British Yacht Club was a safe target. The other two bombs, on a public street, brought a much higher risk of passers by becoming casualties. The other two bombs were carried by the more experienced B2J members around Charlottenburg in Berlin. They drove around with the armed bombs looking for targets of opportunity. Brockman spotted a car with British plates in Theodor Heuss Platz, where he planted one of the bombs under it himself. Baumann and Knoll planted the second after finding a similar car.

At quarter past two in the morning, the two Charlotteburg bombs exploded. Even allowing for the slight delay, the Yacht Club bomb didn’t explode. At 8 am the next morning, a boat builder employed at club for twenty years, sixty-six year old Erwin Beelitz, found the bag covering the bomb on his morning inspection of the premises. He took it to his workshop where he put the contraption in a vice to open it up. The bomb exploded, blowing fingers off Beelitz’s right hand and sending fragments into his stomach and thigh. Three students visiting the club later that morning find him bleeding and dying.

Erwin Beelitz (Getty Images)

Shortly afterwards, B2J started officially using the name on communications. By May 1973, Sommerfeld had been captured, tried and sentenced for the Yacht Club bomb (various members were to face the courts by 1974). He received a sentence of four years and nine months for the bombing as the court accepted that the intention had been to damage property only and that it had been intended as a show of solidarity with the IRA.

You can read more in Peters Butz’s 2017 book, 1977: RAF gegen Bundesrepublik, Wolfgang Kraushaur’s 2012 book Verena Becker und der Verfassungsschutz and contemporary news reports in Irish press and Der Spiegel. Richard Huffman has a blog and podcasts dedicated to the R.A.F. and related groups here.

And you can read an online edition of Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla here.

William Harbinson: a New Lodge ‘Fenian’

September 11th 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of William Harbinson in Crumlin Road prison. On the evening of his death, Harbinson was found dead in his cell and the coroners inquiry heard he had an unexplained head wound but did not establish if it occurred prior to his death. The Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, Harbinson lived in the cottages known as Pinkerton Row just above the junction of North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road (roughly where Pinkerton Walk is today).

Map of Belfast in 1860s showing North Queen Street, the Infantry Barracks (later Victoria Barracks) and the lower New Lodge Road. Pinkerton Row is unmarked appears to be the line of cottages just above ‘Trainfield’. The breaks in the houses on that side of the New Lodge Road roughly correspond to Bruslee Street, Carntall Street, Carnmoney Street and Pinkerton Street that all linked back to Artillery Street (which appears on the map as dotted lines). These streets were flattened in the 1960s and 1970s. The Half Bap and Little Italy districts extend from the bottom right of the map.

Harbinson was a Staff Sergeant in the Antrim Rifles and had access to the Infantry Barracks arsenal. He was one of a number of ‘Fenians’ among the serving garrison in the barracks. The IRB had consciously inserted soldiers in the British Empire’s army and used them to both cultivate further recruits and bring back a quantum of military know-how and material to the organisation. In many respects this was an expression of the complex relationship between the Empire and its Irish subjects.

Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. The year after Harbinsons death, James Connolly was born – brought in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Many of them became involved in the IRA. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association. So, in many respects, Harbinson reflects a tradition within republicanism that is often overlooked. James Connolly rationalised the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

Harbinson also reflects a largely unexplored aspect of republican tradition across north Belfast. In some respects, like Harbinson, this is connected to the presence of the Infantry Barracks and Irish soldiers serving there. But he is far from the only senior IRB figure to have lived in the north of the city. Frank Roney, Head of Centre in Belfast before Harbinson, was from Carrickhill. Robert Johnston served on the Supreme Council from the 1860s, FJ Biggar was co-opted onto the Supreme Council by the end of 1870s. Henry Dobbyn was also prominent in the IRB. That generation was slowly eased out and replaced by the likes of Denis McCullough (President of the IRB’s Supreme Council in 1916). All lived in the north of the city, on of around North Queen Street or the Antrim Road. Johnston was the father of Eithne Carbery, the pre-eminent poet of the nationalist revival of the late 19th century and editor of the Shan Van Vocht newspaper. Her brother, James and cousin James were also active in the IRB (the likes of Major John McBride were also connected to north Belfast through St Malachy’s College). Another Antrim Road resident, Winifred Carbery, was Connolly’s assistant throughout the Easter Rising.

So, on the 150th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering how William Harbinson reflects many aspects of republican history in north Belfast (and further afield) that really should warrant further exploration in the future.