Jimmy Steele was born on 8th August 1907 in Artillery Street in the North Queen Street area of Belfast. When his mother, Catherine, died from tuberculosis on 3rd March 1912, Jimmy was just four years old. His younger brother, Dan, was two weeks short of his first birthday. Jimmy, Dan and their three older brothers were mainly brought up by their aunt Mary Ellen in her small shop on the New Lodge Road, rather than by their father, Arthur, a fitter originally from Randalstown (an older sister, Mary Ellen, had died as a baby).
Jimmy was later to write of hearing politics discussed as a child, of Home Rule, Joe Devlin, John Redmond, the Hibernians, Connolly and Larkin. He also recorded how he remembered hearing someone whistling ‘A Soldiers Song’ and graffiti on a wall in the street after the Easter Rising and of “…the wounded Connolly, idol of the Belfast dockers and mill girls being shot to death as he sat strapped to his chair”.
Arthur remarried in October 1919 to Sarah Scullion, who owned a pub on the New Lodge Road. Even before Catherine had died Arthur already had a reputation of being overly fond of drink (Jimmy was to be a lifelong teetotaller). Arthur’s drinking led his eldest brother, Charlie, to emigrate to New York in April 1920. His brother Arthur emigrated too. Jimmy was attending school in Hardinge Street where he apprenticed as a plasterer. He got involved in gaelic games there and played on the school’s hurling team.
The Steele’s came to the attention of the RIC in July 1920 when a revolver was found during a search of Mary Ellen’s shop. By then Jimmy and his older brother Bill were active in Fianna Eireann’s North Queen Street sluagh and D Company of the IRA’s 2nd Battalion in Belfast. Raids and arrests were to become a constant feature of Jimmy’s life. In 1921 the RIC came looking for Bill as his handcart had no light on it. As he wasn’t at home, they arrested Jimmy instead. North Queen Street saw some of the most intense violence of 1920 to 1922. His father’s brother James received serious head wounds in a grenade attack in August 1921 and other relatives were injured in the violence.
As a Fianna officer, Jimmy had dual rank and was also attached to B Company of the 1st Battalion of the IRA. He remained active after the split in 1922. He and Bill kept a small arms dump stored on waste ground behind Mary Ellen’s shop which was given away by a tip-off to the RUC in September 1923. At that time Charlie was home from New York and he and Jimmy were arrested as the RUC could not find Bill. While Charlie was quickly released, Jimmy was to spend three weeks in Crumlin Road. When Charlie returned to New York, he and Arthur repeatedly offered to pay for Jimmy and Bill to join them. Jimmy was to be arrested and imprisoned for a while again in 1924, with Mary Donnelly of Cumann na mBan.
By now he was part of an independent unit in the Belfast Battalion that covered north Belfast, under Jack McNally. He avoided the round-up of IRA suspects that coincided with the news of the failure of the Boundary Commission in November 1925, but was detained in January 1926 following the discovery in the postal sorting office of a package of 110 copies of An Phoblacht addressed to him (the paper had been banned the same month). The unionist government struggled to find scope in the Special Powers Act to prosecute him and he escaped with a fine for possession of a banned edition of An Phoblacht that was found in Mary Ellen’s shop.
He was involved in the setting up of Joe McKelvey’s GAA club by members of the Belfast IRA in 1925. Throughout the late 1920s and into the 1930s he was to be an active playing member for the club in both hurling and football, mainly in the half forward line. He won South Antrim junior and senior football championship, league, South Antrim Cup and Madigan Cup medals. He also played in a number of junior and senior hurling finals. The pinnacle of his sporting career was probably 1931 when, as South Antrim champions, McKelveys played in the Antrim Senior Football Championship final against the North Antrim Senior Football champions Cuchullains, from Dunloy, eventually losing a replay 1-4 to 0-3. The next week McKelveys lost the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final to O’Connells. He played in all three matches.
In 1927 he and Tony Lavery had been tasked by the Belfast Battalion O/C, Davy Matthews, with rebuilding the Fianna organisation in Belfast. This led to a tripling in size of the Belfast IRA by the early 1930s as individuals progressed from one organisation to the other. This was accompanied by more arrests and detentions. In 1928 he was arrested with posters that were to inform people of an Easter commemoration but again the authorities found that their intended charges were not covered by the Special Powers Act. Arrested yet again with posters that were deemed ‘illegal’ in 1929, the unionist government had its prosecution thrown out of court as it transpired that no prohibited organisations were actually mentioned on the posters. Documents reportedly found on him during one 1929 arrest showed he was then learning Irish and writing poetry.
As sectarian tensions began to simmer in Belfast again in the early 1930s, the Belfast Battalion staff began to fight a running battle with IRA GHQ in Dublin over how to confront the issue. The Battalion staff refused to get visibly involved at an organisational level in the Outdoor Relief strike in October 1932 as it would give the authorities a pretext to put it down violently. Many IRA volunteers were actively involved as individuals, though. As the suppression happened anyway, the Battalion got officially involved in the railway workers strike in January 1933, carrying out bomb and gun attacks at the request of the unions. This wasn’t sufficient to placate those in IRA GHQ who were trying to leverage the Belfast Battalion so that the IRA would more fully engage in political activity. By various means over 1933 and 1934, existing Battalion staff like Davy Matthews, George Nash and Dan Turley were forced or pushed out and Tony Lavery and Jimmy then took over as Battalion O/C and Adjutant.
The IRA had increasingly come in to conflict with the RUC during 1933 and RUC constables were killed during confrontations in January and October 1933. The latter led to widespread arrests of IRA suspects, including Jimmy and he spent several months in prison. He was to take over as Battalion Adjutant on his release in 1934. Protests over the arrests and a huge election rally in support of republican candidates in the November 1933 election saw the IRA candidate run Joe Devlin close in Belfast (the unionist government response was to introduce a non-abstention oath for candidates). During the election campaign the Belfast IRA also began to produce its own occasional newspaper, An Síol to which Jimmy began to contribute (particular from 1935 when it began to appear weekly). He also continued to play for McKelveys although the club was struggling due to the repeated arrests of its players.
The formation of Republican Congress in 1934 took some of the IRA GHQ opponents of the previous Belfast Battalion staff out of the IRA. In Belfast sectarian violence was now leading to occasional deaths and the growing threat of a sustained assault on Catholic districts such as had happened in 1920-22. Drawing on its experience of 1920-22, the IRA tried to replenish its stock of rifles and train its members as preparation for defence of threatened districts, leading to further confrontations with the RUC as it intercepted drilling parties and searched for weapons. Jimmy was arrested again in late 1934, with habeas corpus suspended the unionist government denied it was even holding him as a prisoner. His treatment was bad enough to require medical assistance on his release in January 1935.
Despite increasing street violence, the Belfast Battalion agreed to attend a training camp at Gyles Quay Louth in July 1935. As violence erupted in North Queen Street on the 12th July, Free State forces swooped on the Belfast Battalion’s training camp, confiscating weapons and imprisoning twelve of those present. On the 13th, Jimmy managed to disentangle enough volunteers to return and take over the defence of the North Queen Street district where violence continued until late summer.
In November, Jimmy acted as Director of Elections to Charlie Leddy (who had been imprisoned over Gyles Quay) in West Belfast during the general election. In December, the Belfast battalion ambitiously tried to clear out the two hundred rifles of the OTC armoury in Campbell College. Instead, it was surprised by the RUC and fought a running gun battle in which one volunteer was captured (Jimmy and Tony Lavery had to go to the scene to call off the operation). The aftermath saw a wave of arrests and the Battalion investigated whether there was an informer among the staff.
Jimmy acted as Battalion O/C when Tony Lavery was ordered to a courtmartial for having some of those arrested defended in court (against GHQ orders). On 30th March, he lined out at centre half forward for McKelveys as they won the Biggar Cup final. He was the only remaining player from the team that had played in the 1931 senior county final. Lavery’s court martial in Crown Entry the next month, which was doubling up as a conference of senior IRA commanders in the north, was given away by the same informer and Jimmy and most of the IRA northern leadership were arrested. They were charged with treason felony and given varying sentences in Crumlin Road (Jimmy got five years penal servitude). He had been preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Anna Crawford, prior to his arrest. Prior to the sentencing he wrote a poem called ‘A Prayer From My Prison Cell’ that was to be published in the Wolfe Tone Weekly on September 11th 1937. During that summer he also wrote ‘Belfast Graves’ which was to be a popular song among Belfast republicans. Lines from the song are quoted in Brendan Behan’s novel Borstal Boy (Behan later recalled Jimmy staying with his family when visiting Dublin).
The treason felony prisoners demanded they get recognised as political prisoners (there were twenty-three long and short-term republican prisoners in Crumlin Road by August 1936). After several clashes with the prison authorities a hunger and thirst strike began on 18th August, although they began taking water again by the sixth day. By the 1st September only Jimmy remained on hunger strike. Weakened by the initial thirst strike, he became weak on the 3rd and Bill was called into the prison to see him. A supposed deal was brokered by the 5th and Jimmy ended his hunger strike only to restart it on 17th and continue to the end of the month (by now the authorities had at least agreed to deal with a nominated O/C of the republican prisoners). This protest took a long term physical toll on his health as it damaged his lungs.
Jimmy was forced to observe the unfolding of the IRA’s English campaign from inside Crumlin Road, only to be released in May 1940, immediately reporting back for active service (on 1st August he was also to finally marry Anna). Assigned as Director of Training to the Northern Command, he took over as O/C Belfast around September 1940 having been involved in disciplinary proceedings against members of the Belfast Battalion who were believed to have had ‘fascist’ leanings. He also appears to have edited the Belfast edition of War News (the forerunner of Republican News). At the start of December he was arrested in the backyard of Anna’s father’s house on North Queen Street. A revolver and cash found in his coat were used as a pretext to later give him a ten year prison sentence and was he returned to Crumlin Road. The expanding number of republicans in Crumlin Road had saw the internees and sentenced men divided into two battalion structures, with Jimmy as O/C in A Wing. He continued to write poetry and articles that were smuggled out and published anonymously in War News, An tÓglach and The Critic. Like the other prisoners, he was confined to Crumlin Road during the blitz when bombs fell around the prison (his cousin James O’Boyle and Mary Donnelly, who had been arrested with him in the 1920s, were both killed during the German bombing in April 1941). The authorities also identified him as having a role in procuring equipment for the escape of five prisoners in June 1941 but they made no attempt to punish him. During 1941 and 1942 relations were strained within the prison when the IRA killed a prison warder in February 1942 and Tom Williams was hung there in September the same year.
The latter was followed, on 15th January 1943, by the escape of Jimmy, Hugh McAteer (the recently arrested IRA Chief of Staff), Ned Maguire (brother of the Belfast IRA O/C) and Pat Donnelly from Armagh. They had accessed the roof space over A wing and broke through the roof, climbed down a rope made of sheets and scaled the outer wall. The unionist government was severely embarrassed at its inability to recapture the escapees. This became even more acute when twenty one prisoners tunnelled out of Derry jail in March (Jimmy was involved in the operation on the outside). In between, Jimmy had taken over as the IRA’s Belfast O/C and Adjutant of Northern Command and also edited Republican News. In April, when Liam Burke was arrested, he took over as Adjutant General of the IRA. At the end of the month, he and McAteer further embarrassed the unionist government by staging a public Easter Rising commemoration in Broadway cinema in Belfast. Within a week the northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, resigned.
The intense searches that followed saw Jimmy re-arrested in Amcomri Street in May and he was returned to Crumlin Road (this time with a further twelve years added to his sentence). His seventeen year old nephew, Arthur, received a ten year sentence the same day. On returning to A wing he immediately joined the blanket protest taking place at the increasing harshness of the prison regime which ended in September. After the blanket protest ended he received a beating in his cell at the hands of prison staff. Although the women in Armagh Jail had shown up the difficulties in mounting a hunger strike in late 1943, the men in Crumlin Road didn’t heed the lessons and began their own hunger strike in February 1944. Starved of publicity and looking increasingly likely to lead to fatalities, the strike was ended by orders of the IRA Chief of Staff on 6th April. Jimmy had spent forty days on hunger strike. Beatings and violence from warders continued to be a feature of prison life until the end of the war in May 1945 and the release of internees in August that year. However, despite the demonstrably political nature of sentencing policy, the unionist government was slow to accept that it had also to release the sentenced prisoners and Jimmy was the last to be released, in September 1950. Earlier that year, he had been stood as the Sinn Féin candidate in West Belfast in the general election but had polled poorly.
After his release he was given work doing deliveries for Hughes Bakery and he and Anna tried to settle into some sort of married life. In April 1951 his father, Arthur, died at the age of 81 (his second wife, Sarah, had died in 1948). He and Anna had their own child, a son called Colm, in 1952. On his release Jimmy had also reported back for duty to the IRA and took over again as O/C Belfast. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and resources were taken up with the publication of a newspaper, Resurgent Ulster (from November 1951), but there were still occasional confrontations with the authorities and periods of detention for Jimmy. Much of the early 1950s was taken up with re-establishing the Belfast IRA as the pre-eminent republican organisation in the city. Jimmy began to be publicly involved with the National Graves Association in Belfast and more openly associated with political activity with Sinn Féin. The Battalion didn’t seem to fully engage with IRA GHQ’s emerging plans for a border campaign though. By the time the campaign started Jimmy had stood down as Belfast O/C in favour of Paddy Doyle (an organiser sent up by GHQ). Doyle’s arrest on the eve of the campaign meant that Belfast never fully participated as subsequent swoops by the RUC detained many active republicans. Jimmy avoided arrest until 1957 but was to be held until 1960, spending much of the time as O/C of the internees and famously rallying them following mass beatings after a failed escape attempt.
By the end of his time in Crumlin Road, his health had begun to suffer and on his release, while he was re-employed by Hughes Bakery, he eventually had to take up work in the Bakery shop rather than carry out deliveries.
In October 1961 tragedy struck when Colm was knocked down and killed in a hit-and-run incident at a pedestrian crossing on the Falls Road. Although the driver was eventually caught, the inquest in December 1961 returned an open verdict on Colm’s death.
On his release from Crumlin Road Jimmy had again reported for duty to the IRA. The Belfast IRA resumed publishing its own newspaper, Tírghrá, in December 1962 and tried to rebuild some sort of capacity under Billy McKee. Over the next couple of years, Jimmy worked closely with National Graves in developing the republican memorials in Milltown which coincided with the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 and then the Easter Rising commemorations in 1966 by which time Jimmy had published Antrim’s Patriot Dead and Belfast and nineteensixteen. In so far as the state organised the 1966 commemorations in Dublin, the IRA largely organised those in Belfast, with Jimmy as President of Directorate of the Commemoration Committees.
As with the Wolfe Tone societies set up earlier in the 1960s, all of these coalesced groups into the organised ‘Republican Clubs’ which the IRA saw as an outlet for political activity. Jimmy continued as President of the Directorate of Republican Clubs. Over the course of the 1960s, the Divis Street riots and UVF attacks in 1966 had become reminiscent of the 1930s with the threat of intensifying violence against Catholic districts. Billy McKee had resigned as Belfast O/C in 1963, to be replaced by Billy McMillen. Throughout the rest of the 1960s the IRA concentrated on political activity with little emphasis on procuring arms or carrying out training. Publication of Tírghrá ceased by 1965 as control centralised in Dublin and considerable disaffection was growing among republicans in Belfast over IRA policy. Jimmy’s continued involvement in the Republicans Clubs into 1967 to some extent validated the policy, but he began to make muted statements criticising the direction the IRA was taking at the Manchester Martyrs centenary events in Manchester in November 1967. He made a nuanced comparison with the ‘New Departure’ initiative of John Devoy in which leading IRB figures pursued a personal initiative to break with abstentionism as policy when it was not official IRB policy. Late the next year, Cathal Goulding, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, pushed through changes to the IRA that expanded membership of the Army Council which would have a majority of Goulding supporters until the next Army Convention when the membership would have to be re-elected.
With unrest growing on the streets of Belfast and the IRA totally unprepared to offer any defence to districts likely to face violent attacks, Jimmy decided to make his criticisms of the IRA leadership public at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormack in July 1969. His words were aimed directly at Goulding: “There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod… And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.”
Within days, Goulding had Jimmy immediately dismissed from the IRA without courtmartial. Within weeks, the unionist government had interned McMillen and much of the IRA leadership just before the widespread attacks on Catholic districts on 15th August. The parlous state the Belfast IRA had reached was illustrated by Broadway being defended by Jimmy and Joe Cullen, another 1920-22 IRA veteran.
In the immediate aftermath of the August violence, Jimmy and many others immediately returned to service with the IRA. Jimmy chaired a meeting a week later to try and backfill some structure where the IRA had all but disappeared. Districts were visited and organised, parties were dispatched to recover long forgotten arms dumps and distribute them to areas where they would be needed. When McMillen was freed a month later, Jimmy joined a deputation that went to where he was meeting the Belfast Battalion staff with demands on changes that had to be implemented. McMillen agreed to break communications with IRA GHQ until changes were made, including Goulding’s removal. The next day, McMillen resumed communications and the Belfast IRA divided into individuals and units willing to recognise Goulding’s authority and others, like Jimmy, who wanted a new leadership elected.
As the split in the IRA formalised in 1970, Jimmy was reputedly offered the role of Chief of Staff and Adjutant General but turned down both. He did help restart publication of Republican News by the summer of 1970, alongside the likes of Hugh McAteer. McAteer, whose health had been weakened by long years in prison died in June 1970 at the young age of 53. Jimmy gave the oration at his funeral. Rather than take that as a warning that he needed to slow down, Jimmy continued to edit Republican News and be active for long hours every single day. Then on 9th August 1970, Jimmy’s poor health also gave way and he died of heart failure. It was the day after his sixty-third birthday.
Here is a poem he wrote in 1946.
(A Prison Poem 1946)
The whitewashed cell is cold and bare,
As perished with the chilly air,
I sit and muse on times long past.
To feel the melancholy blast
Of longing, for the day I knew,
When sorrows with me then were few.
The home where all my youth was spent,
Advice and counsel kindly meant
From those dear ones, who felt for me
And sought to guard and keep me free
From every trouble, pain and care,
A wicked world gives as its share.
The pleasant nights of dance and song
Has set me reminiscing long.
To hear the voice of colleen sweet
The rhythm of the dancers feet,
The lilting tune of jig and reel,
That made our aching feet e’er feel.
The urge to dance and be so gay
And all our worries to relay.
The tramp o’er mountain, road and hill,
Or sitting in the quiet still
Of some lone glen; while someone there
Would speak or sing of Ireland fair.
The story of her ancient right.
The struggle ‘gainst usurper’s might;
Her sons who served and fought and died
In her just cause so sanctified,
And thus our hearts with pride, we’d lace
With love for our unconquered race.
The haunting sound of Gaelic tongue,
Enchantingly around us clung;
The hours we spent to win its fame,
And preach our gospel in its name,
The grip of caman in my hand,
Amidst a stalwart hurling band,
To glory in the rugged play,
Enthusiastic in the play.
Whilst in my ears the roars still clung
As eager fans made welkin ring.
The joy and fervour of it all,
E’en yet I feel it in recall.
More poignant thoughts seep through my mind,
And comrades faces there I find,
Who entered through the door of death
With martyred step and patriot breath,
Brave heroes in our country’s fight,
God grant them heaven’s place tonight.
What joy ‘twould give to wander back,
Along that old familiar track;
To greet old friends – old scenes again,
To shelter from the prison rain;
That soaks me with its sombre showers,
And turns the minutes into hours.
James Connolly, signatory of the 1916 proclamation, is widely accepted to have served as a British soldier in Ireland. Remarkably little is known about this period of his life and its impact on his political formation and views. It is assumed that he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, although direct documentary proof has yet to be found. However, new evidence about his brother’s service and the King’s Liverpool Regiment in Ireland suggests that Connolly could have been on duty as a British soldier during sectarian violence in Belfast, evictions in Meath and prison protests on Spike Island. He also took part in war games that tested the British governments deployment plan for the army in the event of war in Dublin.
Some biographers have Connolly joining the same regiment as his older brother John who had enlisted underage, using a false name, in 1878. John’s regiment is (variously) given as the Royal Scots or the King’s Liverpool Regiment and the suggested false name is usually ‘John Reid’ (much of this is teased out in Donal Nevin’s James Connolly: a full life). However, it is possible to recover a bit more information about John Connolly as he re-enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots (see WO/363, service number 20308), during World War 1. John was discharged due to ill health in February 1916. The reason given was Bright’s Disease, brought on through exposure to bad weather while guarding German prisoners at Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders in 1915.
This may, in part, explain why James Connolly’s last statement (smuggled out of his cell by his daughter Nora) begins, “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Given that he followed John into the army and then to Dundee, it would seem that he was close to his older brother. Concern at his brother’s reaction may even have influenced how James framed his own last words. John never recovered his health. He died on 22nd June 1916 and is buried in Edinburgh’s North Merchiston Cemetery.
His military records show that John had not served as ‘John Connolly’ but as ‘James Reid’ and his files note that he had previously spent sixteen years in the army, which he states was with the Borders Regiment. There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the regiment in WO/121, service number 1524, who joined on 9th July 1878 and was discharged in Dublin (due to ill health) on 9th March 1886. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service. Like his false name, John’s age was consistently recorded as two years younger than it was, due to his enlistment underage as James Reid. He does correctly list his wife’s surname as Connolly in his army documents, though. John had medals for his service in Afghanistan and Egypt (1882). He also re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597) before re-enlisting in December 1914.
As the Border Regiment was not awarded either the Afghanistan or Egypt 1882 medals, this seems to be where John completed his service or joined the reserve rather than where he served full-time. Of the other regiments mentioned, the Royal Scots did receive the former award (for the campaign in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880) while the King’s Liverpool Regiment received both. While it confirms some truth to the various rumours around the Connolly brothers’ military service, it doesn’t really bring us any closer to complete certainty on the regiment in which James served.
If John served as ‘James Reid’, is that the confused source of the false name ‘John Reid’? Or does it even open the possibility that, when enlisting James followed John in using the name ‘Reid’ and swapped first names with his brother? No records appear to be available for a John Reid in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. But this may simply be down to the surviving records or extent of digitisation since only the records of some soldiers named in the battalion in newspaper reports in the 1880s can be found, most cannot be identified. Whether John Reid was the name or not, it may be possible a soldier can be found to match up with his putative army service in the records of the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (possibly with a service number between, roughly, 200 and 260).
The earliest reference to Connolly’s military service appears in the anti-Larkin newspaper The Toiler in 1913 which claimed he had served in the Monaghan militia, deserted and went to Scotland. Since Connolly had lived in Edinburgh, not Monaghan, he wouldn’t have served in the Monaghan militia (he is listed in the census in Scotland in 1881). The strongest argument for him serving in the Liverpool Regiment appears to be Nora Connolly’s assertion that he was going to be demobbed in Aldershot in February 1889 when he left the army while her mother was to take up a post in London (in her account in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors). This is consistent with the dates that 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment moved from Dublin to Aldershot between 15th and 18th of February 1889 (see Aldershot Military Gazette 23rd February 1889). Connolly’s father, John, had a serious accident in February 1889, which may have precipitated his return to Scotland rather than to serve out his remaining time and complete his discharge in Aldershot. However going to assist his father seems less plausible when, by April he was living in the main area of Irish immigration in Dundee, Lochee where he was to begin his involvement in socialist politics.
Connolly arrived in Dundee in 1889 not long before he wrote what seems to be the first of his surviving letters to his future wife, Lillie Reynolds, from Mrs Boyle’s, St Mary Street in Dundee and dated April 7th (see MS 13,911/1, where it is dated as 1888). In the letter he mentions how “It was only across the street from here a man murdered his wife and they are all discussing whether he is mad or not, pleasant, isn’t it?”. Bridget Redmond was murdered by her husband, Joseph, in their grocers shop on St Marys Road on the 30th March. According to the Dundee Advertiser, both were Irish immigrants and Joseph was a retired soldier from the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Press reports in the likes of the Dundee Courier state that he had been taken to an asylum on 6th April, the day before Connolly wrote the letter. Redmond’s trial later was told that he had delusions about being threatened by Irishmen in Dundee into joining the Land League and that he had suffered from sunstroke while in the army in India.
The circumstantial evidence for Connolly having served in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment seems solid enough. Desmond Greaves quotes a story told to him in which Connolly reminisced about being on guard duty in Haulbowline, in Cork, on the night when Myles Joyce was executed in Galway for the Maamtrasna murders on 16th December 1882 (Connolly reputedly was able to show his knowledge of the local geography during political activity there in 1911). The 1st Battalion had moved to Ireland in 1882 to replace the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards (who were bound for Egypt). When it’s 480 men assembled in Liverpool to cross to Ireland onboard the Batavia, contingents came from Plymouth, Bradford, Fleetwood, the Isle of Man and Tynemouth. By the end of August, though, an additional 45 men had been sent from the regimental depot in Warrington. It is possible that Connolly joined at any of these locations and came either in July or August (meaning he was just four or five months short of his seven years’ service in February 1889). Connolly had just turned fourteen on 5th June 1882.
The battalion’s arrival in Cork, with companies based in Youghal, Haulbowline and Carlisle Fort coincides with a number of news reports of soldier beaten up by locals in Cork and Youghal. Shortly after Myles Joyce’s execution, in January and February 1883, 400 convicts from Spike Island prison, adjoining Haulbowline, were used as labour on works and staged a protest that ended up requiring the Royal Marines and military to be called out. Even if the 1st Liverpool Regiment wasn’t called out, it was surely a topic of conversation. This was James Connolly’s introduction to the British garrison in Ireland. The battalion relocated to the Curragh in September 1884 (some companies being rotated to Castlebar). It then moved to Dublin in September 1885, first Linen Hall Street and Ship Street, then Beggars Bush. While in Dublin it took part in manoeuvres and war games around the city. This included a war game where flying columns left Beggars Bush to intercept invading flying columns at locations outside the city. In 1916, it was probably assumed that this was the defensive plan the British army would expect to have to deploy, rather than an attempt to seize the centre of the city itself. So Connolly may well have taken part himself in practise deployments of the British army’s defensive plan for Dublin.
The most regular feature of the Liverpool Regiment’s posting in Ireland was the performances of its regimental band. It began performing publicly in August 1882 and continued through to 1889, playing at events such as regattas, sports days (including one under GAA rules in Ballsbridge on 30th July 1886), army parades, the Cork Industrial Exhibition (in 1883), banquets, the Rotunda, RDS, the Grand Promenade, Phoenix Park and many more. Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) was a recurring venue from 1887, and it may have been on a trip out to see the regimental band play that Connolly famously met Lillie Reynolds, both of them having missed the same tram. The regimental band also played at the visit of various dignitaries, such as the Viceroy, the Earl of Carnarvon in January 1886. In June 1887, the whole regiment provided a guard of honour (presumably including James Connolly) for Queen Victoria’s on her arrival and during her visit.
Not that the regiment’s period in Ireland was all band performances and guards of honour. Indiscipline and violence were never far away, with soldiers regularly appearing before the courts for attacking locals at the various postings, or as the victims of attacks (one drunken sergeant was reportedly seen shouting “Three cheers for Parnell!” and making ‘insulting comments about the Queen’ in February 1886). A Sergeant Carrigan shot himself in the head in Youghal Barracks in August 1884. There are also hints at the conditions inside the battalion in December 1888, when a Major Whitely had his house attack over conditions in the battalion. There was an inquiry into the condition of the barracks hospital and loss of stores around the same time.
For the individual soldiers, there was the recurring possibility of being posted overseas. Throughout 1882 to 1889, drafts of recruits and reserves were regularly processed through the 1st Battalion en route to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion on service in India. There are recurring claims that Connolly also saw service in India and it is conceivable that he somehow was added to one of the drafts that went out (if his brother John was on active duty in India that might have been sufficient incentive for him to go).
Ironically, if Connolly didn’t serve in India, the battalion’s duties over 1886 and 1887 may have contributed just as significantly to the formation of his political views. In the summer of 1886, the Liverpool Regiment was deployed on the streets of Belfast during serious rioting that saw over thirty deaths. It was reported in the Dublin Daily Express on August 12th that 379 men from the regiment were in Belfast (making it quite likely that Connolly was present). In October 1887, a company from the battalion was deployed to carry out evictions at Lord Masserene’s estate in Collon. While bailiffs and RIC constables removed the tenants, the soldiers were face-to-face with those opposing it as they formed a cordon to prevent the hostile crowds from intervening to prevent the evictions taking place. The soldiers had boiling water, gruel and mud thrown at them as well as much verbal abuse (eg see the account in the Dundalk Democrat, 29th October 1887). This may not have been the only occasion on which the regiment took part in an eviction. If the Bridget Redmond murder is anything to go by, the Land League was still a topical issue among Irish immigrants in Dundee in 1889.
If these events, or Indian service (or both), were contributing to Connolly’s political awakening, it was to be accompanied by increasing reports that the Battalion was to move from Dublin. This began in May 1887, with first Newry then Tipperary proposed (any move was formally suspended in August). Then in January 1888 it was suggested that the Battalion would now return to England (as a preliminary to a move overseas). By March the destination had been announced as Preston then the move was suspended again, only to be re-confirmed, without a destination, in April. This speculation would seem to overlap with James and Lillie meeting and may provide some sort of context to a decision to make an early break with the regiment rather than complete his service.
Just to expand slightly on the earlier point – Connolly would have acquired a service number between (roughly) 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and a soldier of that number should be listed in Regimental Defaulter Book in February or March 1889.
Unfortunately, Connolly did not leave any (known) account of his own army service or motivations for joining. Donal NevinClearly, from his own literacy and vocabulary, and even his letters from as early as 1889, he did acquire some education while in the army. Instead, the closest we may have to his own judgement on the value of his army service may be hidden in a story told by his daughter Ina in her own witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. Ina has Connolly giving his view of the value of serving in the army to a woman they knew whose son had ran off to enlist:
“Well”, said my father, “didn’t you ask for it, pumping the child’s head with the glories of the British Empire. What more can you expect?”.
“But he is so young” implored the mother. “What can I do? Won’t you help me? I thought of you, the first person I must go to; you never encouraged anyone to join up in the Boer war; surely the same applies now?”
“Not exactly”, replied my father: “there is no war on now and by the time he serves his three years he will be out of their reach by the next war. At least, I hope so, and if I can be of any service to you, I will do my damnedest to keep him at home then. You just remember these words and keep me to this promise for the next war and see how I’ll help you then”.
No, she could not see that long ahead.
“I will buy him out; the money will be well-spent. I can’t bear to think of him in the British army”.
At this father went over to her and put his hand on her shoulder saying: “Many a good man was in the British army; there is nothing wrong in being well-trained and it is in the British army the soldier gets a good training. It’s getting out of the army in time of peace and putting your knowledge to the advantage of your country is what I call a good soldier. You try, and no doubt you will succeed in buying him out, but the average youth that is Inclined to run away from home and join the British army will do so again if he is brought home against his wishes. The training and mixing with other youths, older than himself, will develop him and let him see the other side of the picture. Take my advice and leave him where he is at present”.
The story concludes with Connolly responding to this question from Ina:
“Well, why leave him in the army if you think it is wrong?”
– by saying:
“But I did not say being in the army was wrong. It was his mother who tried to insinuate that. My remarks were to 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”.
The story may actually be a deliberate set-piece dialogue created by Ina to allow him to summarise his views rather than an accurate retelling of an actual conversation. That last phrase, ‘A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community’ maybe should be taken as Connolly’s own opinion on his time in the British army for now.
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.
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).
A British Army spokesman admitted in Belfast yesterday that there were arms in Protestant areas, both in the city and throughout Northern Ireland, but he couldn’t explain why arms searches had not been conducted recently in these areas. Brigadier Marston Tickell, of the General Staff, was speaking at a press briefing at Tyrone House in Belfast. Questioned about the circumstances of Bernard Watt’s death on the Crumlin Road on Friday night, he was at a loss to explain the conflicting accounts made by army spokesmen of the circumstances of the killing. However, he was certain that despite practically the unanimous opinion in the Ardoyne area to the contrary, Watt was either throwing a petrol bomb, a gelignite bomb or firing a gun.
DeniedOn the death of Jim Saunders in Louisa St., on Friday night, the Brigadier categorically denied that there was any possibility that he was shot by Protestant gunmen and said that the Army had no information at all of shooting from a Protestant street in that area around that time. Brig. Tickell said: ‘The I.R.A. is having increasing difficulty in getting mobs on to the street, and it was obviously hoping that by increased activity it would get soldiers to respond indiscriminately so that innocent people would be hurt.” He added this of course would turn people against the Army, ‘but he believed that the silent majority in Catholic areas was on the side of the army. He said that there was no change of Army tactics, that it had always been the policy to use minimum force: “But if soldiers are attacked with lethal weapons, we will respond in kind but with deliberate aim and not with indiscriminate shooting.” Referring to IRI [sic] claims that its action was purely of a defensive nature, he inquired: “Why are they throwing lethal weapons on main roads at civilian vehicles and civilian property and why are they firing first, when in some cases no specific military action had been taken?”
Speaking about “the new weapon” which Lord Carrington, the British Defence Secretary, had referred to in a recent visit to Northern Ireland, Brig. Tickell said that the Army was constantly developing new weapons for riot control and over the last 18 months, these had been given a very high priority. “There are a number of possible new developments or refinements of new techniques in the pipeline, but we do not expect that any single weapon will solve the problem of riot control.” He said that he was entirely Ignorant of any inter-I.RA. feud or of any involvement of extreme Protestant organisations in the recent troubles. Furthermore, he was entirely at a loss to explain the Army report of the Dungannon incident on Saturday nigh, which stated that two U.D.R. rifles had been discharged accidentally when a scuffle broke out between U.D.R. men and the crowd. He agreed that this was impossible as U.D.R. rifles are not normally or should not be loaded. However, he said that all the evidence of the U.D.R. activity of Saturday night could not tarnish the non-sectarian image of that organisation.
A FiascoThe press briefing was from the Army’s point of view a fiasco. Time and again, reporters broke into loud guffaws as the Brigadier made totally incredible answers to many of the [this section ends abruptly in the original newspaper report].He revealed the British Army’s ignorance of the complexities of the IRA set-up and the possibility of extremist Protestant intervention in the recent troubles. His failure to explain conflicting Army reports of recent incidents further added to the air of incredulity in which the meeting took place. He claimed privilege when closely questioned on the circumstances of the death of Bernard Watt — he said that the matter was sub-judice. But he was prepared to be quite specific about the details of Jim Saunders’ death, which he later conceded was also sub-judice.When queried on his sources of information and the degree of popular support for “the IRA subversive”, he remained mute, and then agreed that perhaps, the reason that there were smaller crowds on the streets was due more to fear of the Army than to support of them.
And then, from Aidan Hennigan in London:
Children in North Riots, Lurid British Papers
Whether lurid headlines in many British dailies yesterday alleging deliberate involvement of children in the Northern Ireland riots are sensational for sensation’s sake or whether they were deliberately inspired by judicious army briefing or teach-ins is a question which must exercise the mind at the moment. In the British House of Commons yesterday, Mr. Robin Chichester-Clark (Unionist, Derry), brother of the Stormont Premier, said: “Groups of I.R.A. men are now known to be paying sums between 15s. and £3 to small children to go out and pelt soldiers with missiles and shelter behind them in doorways, even with automatic weapons.” The suggestion was denied, however, by Mr. Ian Gilmour, Defence Under-Secretary, Army, who said: “I am not aware of any economic connection between the I.R.A. and small children. Small children have been involved in disturbances over the last few days. “We are well aware there are extremists fomenting these disturbances.”New Approach
Virtually every British newspaper carried stories about the children yesterday. “Children of hate”, is how the Daily Mail described them. The Daily Mirror carried the banner headline on its front page: “Horror of the child terrorists”, while its newest rival, the Sun, also headlined the story: “Front-line kids”. What may not be at Issue is that children have been arrested and have been found in the riot areas but it is a different matter obviously to say that, and I quote the Sun newspaper: ” I.R.A. terror leaders in Belfast are sending new shock troops to war—their own children”, is quite another matter.These reports, apparently emanating from police sources in Belfast, are to be taken in conjunction with what is positively a new approach to the whole Northern Ireland situation by the British press.
Changed pictureOnly a year ago these same papers were pointing to the root cause of the disturbance, notably the need for reforms, and justifying the demonstrations by civil rights’ members and the Catholic minority. Today the picture is changed and the lean is on the Catholics. Equally one has to take into consideration the changed climate of opinion in the British Government, who are now taking a much harder line, or to put it more succinctly, who are being pressurised in to taking a harder line. With a relatively small majority in the House of Commons, the traditional support which the Unionists afford the Conservative Party becomes extremely important, especially as the Government is now very bard-pressed on its industrial policies. More recently there has been a certain restiveness among these very Unionists about the way the Government are handling the Northern Ireland situation. It was being made plain that Mr. Heath and his colleagues, especially Mr. Maudling and Lord Carrington, were playing too passive a role in Northern Ireland. The implication was that the British troops were not active enough in searching out what has been described as “extremists”. It was notable that the “extremists” in this case were meant to be on the Catholic side. Certainly the tougher measures now being taken by the British troops must be symptomatic of this hardening political climate. Obviously the last thing Mr. Heath and his colleagues want at the moment Is the downfall of Major Chichester-Clark. It would be only a short step, it is argued, until the British Government were forced to introduce direct rule.
ImplicationThe implication of such a decision with its direct responsibility is all too clear to the Tories. The line the papers are taking about the involvement of children is understandable in Fleet Street terms. It is intended to make gripping reading but, for any Government who might wish to justify tough action by its troops and justify its own political decision, the same headlines might be seen as a Godsend.
And finally, the report from the Scarman Tribunal:
Ex-Special says evidence was not fixed
A member of the former Tynan platoon of the B Specials denied at the Scarman Tribunal in Armagh yesterday that the evidence given by platoon members about shooting at Cathedral Road on August 14, 1969—when John Gallagher, 31-year-old father of three was shot dead—was “an agreed version.” Mr. Justice Scarman told Special Constable Joseph Gray “you can take it from me that every member of the platoon to give evidence to the tribunal so far has told us that he fired into the air. Was that an agreed version? “Witness—Not to my knowledge.” Mr. Justice Scarman put it to Mr. Gray that it might have been a B Special bullet which struck Gallagher? But witness replied: “I couldn’t say.” Further questioned, Mr. Gray said that he couldn’t say who shot Gallagher. He admitted that he had never been trained to fire a rifle into the air.
He told Mr. Turlough O’Donnell, Q.C., for Gallagher’s next of kin, that he had been issued with two rounds of ammunition to replace the two he had fired at a drill session about a fortnight later. “The instructor asked every man what replacements he required to make up for what had been fired in Armagh,” witness added. A former Co. Armagh adjutant in the Ulster Special Constabulary told the tribunal that no police officer had ever approached him or asked to see documents relating to the Tynan platoon, and, that at no time did anyone suggest to him that these documents should be retained for an enquiry. Mr. James Moore, an ex-Instructor in the Irish Guards, said that with the disbandment of the U.S.C., instructions had been issued from headquarters that all documents except those which had historic value should be destroyed. Mr. Moore said that no specific instructions were given with regard to personal property cards. He did not know what happened to them but heard they had been destroyed.
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.”
In the light of yesterday’s post regarding the provision of immunity from prosecution for soldiers, here is discussion from a parliamentary debate on tidying up legislation to retrospectively legalise the exercise of policing powers by British soldiers in Ireland.
Mr. Jeremy Thorpe:
I should like to start by echoing what the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) said: namely, that since the troops are in Northern Ireland as a result of a political decision of this House, they are entitled to all the protection and immunity to which they are reasonably entitled under the law. I cannot speak for the whole House, but certainly that is the view of my hon. Friends and, I suspect, of the vast majority of this House…
…The reason why I say that I believe that the Forces of the Crown have immunity in any event is the existence of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947. As the right hon. and learned Attorney-General will know, Section 53 of that Act expressly provided that its application could be extended to Northern Ireland, and by Statutory Instrument No. 1836 of 1949, the Act could apply in the courts of Northern Ireland. Section 11(1) says: “Nothing in Part I of this Act shall extinguish or abridge any powers or authorities which, if this Act had not been passed would have been exercisable by virtue of the prerogative of the Crown, or any powers or authorities conferred on the Crown by any statute, and, in particular, nothing in the said Part I shall extinguish or abridge any powers or authorities exercisable by the Crown, whether in time of peace or of war, for the purpose of the defence of the realm “—and I repeat those words—for the purpose of the defence of the realm or of training, or maintaining the efficiency of, any of the armed forces of the Crown.Subsection (2) says that the Secretary of State may, if satisfied that the act or omission complained of in regard to the Armed Forces of the Crown was necessary for any such purpose as mentioned in the previous subsection, issue a certificate. That is to say, if he were prepared to certify that the acts or omissions were in furtherance of the defence of the realm he could issue a certificate to the effectthat the act or omission was necessary for that purpose; and the certificate shall, in those proceedings, be conclusive as to the matter so certified.So we already have a complete protection for the Armed Forces of the Crown where they are acting in defence of the realm and the Secretary of State is prepared so to certify. The immediate panic that there will be a series of actions in tort against the Armed Forces of the Crown seems to me, with great respect, to show insufficient appreciation of the weapons which the Government have at their command under the 1947 Act.
After some interruptions, Thorpe continued:
I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I think he has a point. But we must look at the situation in which a private criminal prosecution can be brought against a member of the Armed Forces of the Crown. Certainly, a public prosecution would be within the discretion of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland and the existence of the certificate issued by the Secretary of State would be for him an indication that these matters could not be proceeded with.
I entirely accept that the Government are right to introduce legislation which will have the effect of clarifying the law and giving an immunity to the Forces of the Crown…
While Thorpe was, in theory, discussing the public suing soldiers for the wrongful use of arrest powers etc, he clearly indicates the extent to which the legal powers existed under which the DPP had discretion in bringing prosecutions. And he is quite specific in how the British government had the legal capacity to provide immunity to its forces. Did that capacity extend to immunity from prosecution for shooting and killing civilians? That isn’t clear and the extent to which the existence of such a certificate of immunity would be publicly disclosed isn’t apparent. What Thorpe’s contribution reflects, at the very least, is a concern to provide the armed forces with immunity.
Why should that be considered significant. This was all said less than a month after Bloody Sunday, and less than ten days after the Widgery Tribunal began its hearings. It is not coincidental.