why republican groups are so fractious…

It has long been a cliché that, historically, the first thing on the agenda in any Irish republican organisation is a split. But like many clichés it has an element of truth to it.

Most people are probably unaware that the Irish Citizens Army, as well as Republican Congress, organised in Belfast in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the Socialist Republican Easter commemoration at Milltown was probably bigger than the mainstream republican event. At different times others operated in Belfast under the names Laochra Uladh and the Irish Freedom Fighters.

Why is republicanism so fractitious? It was one of the points Michael Jackson picked up on in our discussion that was published in a recent newspaper article (see below).

This is the full text of the article and interview with me that was published by Michael Jackson in the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News (see original here). ‘Belfast Battalion, A History of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969’, by Dr John Ó Néill, is available online here or, in Belfast, from the Sinn Féin shop and Cultúrlan, from Connolly Books in Dublin and Calton Books, in Glasgow.

You can also consult copies in the library of Conway Mill Republican History Museum.

Given the significance of the IRA in shaping Ireland over the last century, there has been no shortage of historiographies about the organisation. Dr John Ó Néill’s Belfast Battalion, however, presents itself as a rarity amongst other texts on the subject.
The new book offers an invaluable chronological history of the Belfast IRA between 1922 and 1969, drawing on primary resources to provide a fuller-than-before view of the battalion’s actions, key personalities, direction and, at times, indirection during that period. Dr Ó Néill, a former St Malachy’s pupil from the Antrim Road, is also the author of the widely respected Treason Felony Blog, an online publication of his fascinating research on republican history.
Although an archaeologist by profession, Dr Ó Néill’s more recent research has a significant personal relevance, as his new book initially began as a biography of his great-uncle, leading IRA figure Jimmy Steele. However, he says that his own professional background helped him bring together many of the missing pieces in the IRA’s history.
“My background was mostly in pre-history and if you want to research a clandestine organisation then it seems to be perfect training, because you’re basically starting from scratch,” explained John.
“Other people have written some histories of the IRA during certain periods, but what I have tried to do is to create a chronological history. Obviously it gets flowery in places where you start talking about other issues that have impacted on it.
“In acadamia people have a tendency to take a thematic approach, but a fundamental building block for something like this is that you actually need to have the whole chronology of events.”
He continued: “You can start uncovering things like internal IRA memos and then you can start building up pictures of relationships between individuals, how things were done and organised. The idea was to take that period after the Civil War up until the start of the modern Troubles.
“Today it’s longer from 1969 than 1969 was to 1922, and the real experience of the people involved has to have coloured what happened in 1969. You have to wonder, do you really understand the more recent conflict here without having an understanding of what happened from the 20s to the 60s? This is my small contribution to starting that. It’s also about opening it up.
“By the same token, here are unionist groups who were involved in various campaigns of military violence, but there is very little documentation on them, or very little history written about them. We don’t really understand who’s involved on that side, what motivated them and what directs them. Are there greater forces at work or are you seeing a greater level of grassroots activity? I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”
While Dr Ó Néill’s exceptionally well researched book provides a detai- driven narrative of the Belfast IRA, one of its greatest triumphs is illuminating many of the internal struggles and personal differences within the wider movement, with tensions between the Belfast Battalion and the IRA’s Dublin-based GHQ featuring prominently throughout. Although historians, and even some republicans, particularly after 1969, have been keen to explore tensions between the IRA’s left and right wing defenderist traditions, Dr Ó Néill argues that the issues between Belfast and Dublin are a “much bigger dynamic continually”.
“If you look at the 1930s or 1920s, what is presented by some people as conflict over left wing politics is really a conflict over control from Dublin or control from Belfast,” he said.
“If you want to talk about a new Ireland, even republicans have always found it difficult to work out coexistence between Belfast and Dublin in terms of direction and everything else.
“I emphasise it quite a lot through the book, but in the 1920s and 1930s the Belfast IRA aren’t really represented at GHQ in Dublin. There is a constant difference in political initiatives that Dublin drives versus what the Belfast IRA want to see. It ebbs and flows and then in the 1940s it goes the other way. What actually happens is that Stephen Hays is stood down as the Chief of Staff of the IRA and the Belfast IRA take over GHQ and relocate it to Belfast.
“Even in 1969, the political dimension of socialism, communism or left wing politics was only introduced a few years later and you see that if you take what people wrote at the time was not was they wrote subsequently because they were trying to find a spin on it that worked for them.
“At the time Bombay Street was burned, the IRA Chief of Staff and his Army Council members were being paid to stage a training camp in the Dublin mountains in that week in August. It really illustrates the difference in experience of that time.
“I do think it’s a theme that you can extrapolate into modern politics to say that these are things that need to be borne in mind. Republicans who, on paper, have this same ideal or objective, can still have serious disagreements.”
The story of the Belfast IRA with its ebbs and flows in activity does, of course, have its moments of intense drama, some of which have been surprisingly obscured by time. One such story, which Dr Ó Néill rightly said has a “cinematic quality”, is that of Dan Turley, a veteren Belfast republican who was mistakenly shot as an informant.
“It’s a tortuous story,” Dr Ó Néill said. “It goes back to the 1920s. There was some conflict between him and some people from GHQ in Dublin. It blows up in the 1930s when a number of arms dumps were found in Belfast. At the time somebody else is blamed and is suspended from the IRA. Turley then gets blamed because the RUC gives false information to somebody who passes it on to the IRA. You don’t know from subsequent events if it was somebody who was working with the RUC, or whether they were unwittingly getting involved.
“Turley gets shot three years after he was expelled from the IRA. Within months of being exiled from Belfast he was contacting the IRA Army Council and they seem to endorse his return. He gets shot when the Belfast IRA is under serious pressure at the end of 1936. Members had been banned from taking military action over that period, so it’s questionable who actually shoots him.
“Clearly, from other events, Turley wasn’t actually guilty. His family stay involved in republican politics for years afterwards.
“In the middle of all this there is the story of when he gets shot in Clonard, people see it and run over. He has his hand on the inside of his jacket, they think that he was going to pull a gun and defend himself, but he actually had a Child of Prague statue that he had his hand on. I asked his grandson if the story was true, and he told me it was, and he told me that he still has the statue on the mantelpiece in his house.”
He added: “Dan Turley was involved in the IRB with Sean Mac Diarmada in Belfast in the 1900s. He was the Director of Elections for the First Dáil for Sinn Féin in Belfast. He’s one of those people, and there’s quite a few of them, that are obscure figures that should probably be better known, as much to inform people of their own history as anything else.”
Although Dr Ó Néill’s account ends in 1969 when the IRA finally split, Belfast Battalion gives a clearer picture of the reasons for the fall out, and helps illuminate the trajectory taken by the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA in the immediate aftermath. Although the events of 1969 are tumultuous, Dr Ó Néill highlights how personal differences and individual personalities played a significant part in the IRA’s more recent parting of the ways.
“One of the interesting things about it, and it does speak to modern republican politics, is that, in Belfast, to stay involved in something like the IRA throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, there’s a certain type of independent mindset that people needed,” he said. “You need a certain mindset to retain the aims and objectives that they had and to pursue this idea of an Irish Republic.
“People overlook that when they’re wondering why republican groups are so fractious. You need to be independent minded and strong willed to battle the oppression that they did. The natural outform of that is fragmentation because the people involved are not the sort of people who will roll over in a debate – they very much stuck to their guns.
“We often overlook the long-term impact of something like that. There are things that drew them together, but when when things that caused any kind of conflict emerged you see these strong personalities come out.”
He continued: “The personalities in the split go back decades and have nothing to do with 1969, almost. There were longstanding emnities between individuals that come to the fore. Billy McMillen, for example, who was OC at the time, had left the IRA in the 1950s after falling out with Jimmy Steele. Other people like Des O’Hagan had left as well and came back to the IRA in the 1960s.
“There were faultlines that had been there for a long time and disputes that come to the fore again in 1969. Again, the theme of Belfast and Dublin comes up because some people aren’t happy with the direction from Dublin, who they think don’t understand the dynamics north of the border.
“The funny thing that affects what happens after the split is, because the Belfast IRA was traditionally led from the lower Falls, what becomes the Official IRA concentrate on that area, whereas the Provisional IRA concentrate on the other districts. That’s a factor that people have often overlooked when trying to understand the split itself.
“The decision was informed by what people understood the Belfast IRA to be about and they thought that if you were in control of the lower Falls then you were in control of the IRA in Belfast. The traditional constituency for the IRA had spread much further than the red brick terraces of the lower Falls. Long shadows are being cast and you can see the impact of these things down the road.
“I think the book might help people understand some of the dynamic involved. There are so many positions and attitudes are so entrenched that you might not be able to change many of them. I’m probably not very sympathetic to Cathal Goulding and GHQ, but if you’re from Belfast and you’re trying to write it then it’s hard not be that way. You have your own baggage and your own emotional engagement in what you’re doing and that always comes out. I wouldn’t be apologetic about it.
“I think it’s worth people approaching afresh.
“I deliberately chose to stop in 1969 because all the things that happened afterwards aren’t inevitable. Because we know the people who were involved but we don’t know enough about them and there’s not enough written about them to get for people to get to grips with them.
“A few people have tried to do it, like Martin Dillon, Tim Pat Coogan, Ed Moloney, Eamonn Mallie, Richard English – lots of people have written about the IRA, but in terms of trying to understand the interpersonal relationships between the key figures and the history of their relationships.
“If you’re interned with people in Crumlin Road Gaol for a few years in the 1950s or 1960s, with the best will in the world you might not want to sit in a room with them again, whereas your politics forces you to do that.
“We need to understand a little bit of that to understand how that influenced certain events, rather than trying to fit things into a grander narrative. People might not tell these thing in conventional histories. There are some things that people told me during the research that I just couldn’t put in the book.”
A lack of documentary evidence, such as the incomplete runs of Belfast’s republican newspapers from the 30s and 40s, was just one of the challenges faced by Dr Ó Néill as he was conducting his research. However, he also believes that personal histories and family stories, including those of his own family, have a further historiographical gap to fill.
“My mother’s family would have been involved in politics going back around 100 years,” he said.
“As some of the older generation started dying out I realised how important their stories were.
“One of my mother’s cousins, Arthur Steele, was in prison in the 1940s and he had fantastic delivery telling the stories. He was really dry and droll – he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s a great oral history that wasn’t being recorded. Arthur died a few years ago and it’s one of the voices that is missing in a book like this because you’re not able to go back to him and ask him about it. You can create a very dry history based on newspapers articles and, but it’s the stories that you get from people that add the colour in. You then start getting at how personalities drive events, rather that people trying to tie them to bigger issues such as class politics, or whatever else.
“I’m fully anticipating that the more people who read this the more people will find things that aren’t correct, and that’s kind of the purpose. This isn’t the publication to end all publications, this is very much the starting point. I want people to read it and, paradoxically for most people, I would be happy for people to correct me on certain things so we can build up a bigger picture than this.”
He continued: “A lot of the history has been lost. It has probably been told within families, but there is no public voice. Nobody has been able to speak to them all, most of them are dead. A lot of that is knocking around in other people’s heads if it was talked about at all.
“There is the old rule that silence is golden. I’ve heard a few people say that their father maybe only opened up about things a year or two before they died, and that they wished they had done it before then.
“ A lot of that information might be lost, which is why we need to do things like this.”

Belfast Battalion available as ebook from today…

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

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

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

book teaser…

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

Watch this space…

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

An IRA arms dump, an RUC raid, a dead informer and mass arrests: Belfast, 1925

Confrontations between the Belfast IRA and the northern government settled into a rough pattern as early as 1925. This included mass arrests by the RUC, the involvement of an informer and the loss of a substantial arms dump. In many ways this was to set the tone for how the Belfast IRA and the northern government would clash in the 1920s and 1930s.

Early in the morning of 19th September 1924, a large detachment of the RUC and B Specials put a cordon around the Short Strand and carried out searches from 2 am until 9 am when they found an arms dump that included six Mills bombs, detonators, a Verey pistol, two rifles and one hundred rounds of ammunition.

But the press immediately reported that the RUC believed that a number of people had managed to escape their cordon with weapons. In reality, John Walsh had managed to get a taxi, driven by Patrick Woods, to move it from the Short Strand to Currie Street off the Cullingtree Road. It seemed clear that the RUC were acting on a tip-off.

Map showing Irwin Street, the unnamed streets off the left hand side are Christian Place (in line with Nail Street), Currie Street and Jude Street (running between Irwin Street and Albert Street)

The RUC then began another targeted raid on what was called a ‘dance hall’, known locally as the ‘Currie Institute’. They then searched houses in Currie Street where they uncovered the large dump of arms that had been moved from the Short Strand in a shed in the entry to the rear of number 18 Currie Street. The RUC found twenty-four service rifles, a Thompson, eight Mills bombs, detonators, ‘cheddar’ (explosives), thousands of rounds of ammunition and literature on weapons, including use of the Thompson. Dan O’Kane, who lived in number 18 was arrested. The RUC also detained twelve men found in the ‘Currie Institute’ including O’Kane’s stepson John McAstocker as well as Michael Mervyn, James Leonard, John McKay, John Leatham, Bernard Mervyn, Joe Barnes, William McAuley, Patrick Kelly, David Walsh, Thomas Morris and John McRory. In 1922, Bernard Mervyn had been a 1st Lieutenant in C Company, 1st Battalion of the Belfast IRA, John Leathem was a volunteer in E Company, 1st Battalion, John McKay is also probably the IRA volunteer of the same name in F Company, 1st Battalion (see MA-MSPC-RO-403 in Military Archives). The men were detained but not formally charged and eventually released.

Layout of Currie Street.

Layout of Currie Street

In court a couple of days later, O’Kane and McAstocker recognised the court and were defended, pointing out that there was public access to the building where the arms were found and so it could not be shown that they could have had any knowledge that the arms dump was there. McAstocker made a statement saying that a man had gone through the house to the rear with two parcels at 10.30 pm on the night before the raid (ie 3 or 4 hours before the RUC cordoned off the Short Strand). The musical instruments from the dance hall were also typically left in the house. The RUC reported that O’Kane was known to have been in Ballymacarret the same night the arms were moved from there to Currie Street. Despite protesting their innocence, O’Kane and McAstocker were held until October.

Dan O Kane

Dan O’Kane (reproduced from here)

It had been clear from the press reporting that the RUC had a tip-off that an arms dump was being moved to Currie Street but how they knew wasn’t clear until the next summer.

In July 1925 John Walsh of Chemical Street (off the Newtownards Road), was arrested and charged with possessing the explosives, arms and ammunition discovered in Currie Street in 1924. Evidence was given against Walsh by Patrick Woods who had driven the taxi. Woods himself was from Beechfield Street in Ballymacarret. Immediately Woods business suffered after he gave evidence in court and he ended up working for his father-in-law, Hugh Donnelly, who was a coal merchant. He did remain living in Ballymacarret.

The IRA, though, took revenge on the evening of 19th November. Woods was walking down Seaforde Street in Ballymacarrett when he was approached by a single gunman who shot him three times, including twice in the heart. Woods was shot for giving evidence against John Walsh in September and possibly giving away the arms found in Short Strand and Currie Street. He was brought into a shop where he died before he could be given medical assistance.

After Woods death on the Thursday evening, RUC then carried out a series of raids from 1am on the Saturday night detaining fifty men across Belfast. They were brought to the Central Police Barracks in Chichester Street then around twenty were released and the remainder moved to the Belfast Prison on Crumlin Road where they were detained. One man, from North Queen Street, was specifically detained for questioning about the shooting of Patrick Woods. Many of those detained were former internees, some had also served in the Free State forces during the Civil War. Effectively, they could be held for three weeks before they had to be released (or either formally charged or given an internment order). In the end some spent the full period on detention and then were released. In the end, no-one was ever convicted by the northern government for Woods death. The whole episode, too, has been largely forgotten, despite the fact that all the ingredients of the confrontations between the IRA and northern government were present. This appears to be the first killing by the IRA in Belfast after the end of the violence of 1922,

The Organisation of the Belfast IRA from 1917 to 1970

On formation of the IRA in 1919-20, the existing Irish Volunteer Companies of the Belfast Battalion simply became A and B Company of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion, with a C Company and D Company added in early 1919. It isn’t clear now whether each Company had strict catchment areas. The city’s IRA units were then re-organised, beginning in September 1920, when the companies were divided into a 1st and 2nd Battalion and by March 1921, officers and experienced members from the four existing Companies had been used to staff Companies in each of the two Battalions, which now formed part of the 1st (Belfast) Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. The 1st Battalion had Companies A to E and an Engineering Company. While C Company was centred on Carrickhill, the other Companies covered the Falls Road (again demarcation lines appear vague). The Companies of the 2nd Battalion each had a geographic focus, with A Company in Ardoyne and the Bone, B Company in Ballymacarrett, C Company in the Markets and D Company in North Queen Street. By April 1921, Na Fianna and Cumann na mBán structures were been aligned onto the IRA’s Divisional command structure.

In August 1921, two additional Battalions were created under the 1st (Belfast) Brigade, as 3rd and 4th Battalion and the Engineering Company of 1st Battalion effectively became a distinct Engineering Battalion in its own right. The new Battalions were created from the existing companies, such as the 3rd Battalion’s B Company which was based on the New Lodge Road. Many of those who joined the 3rd and 4th Battalions enlisted after the Truce and were derided as Trucileers by pre-July 1921 veterans.

The status of the 1st Belfast Brigade from 1922 is complex. As it mounted an offensive against the northern government from May 1922, it continued to remain in contact with both the Army Executive and Free State government until formal liaison with Headquarters ended around October 1922. It also appears that most of the 2nd Battalion and all the 3rd and 4th Battalion Companies did not recognise the authority of the Free State government by July 1922.

The 1st (Belfast) Brigade command structures were, effectively, autonomous until the end of 1924 when the re-interment of Joe McKelvey’s remains in Belfast became the catalyst for the Belfast command to re-establish formal links to the IRA’s GHQ in Dublin. It was apparent, by this time, that the obsolete Divisional structure that had been put in place in 1920 needed to be replaced with something more suitable for the post-Civil War IRA.

The newly created Belfast Battalion had a staff with elected representatives of the Falls, Ardoyne, Bone, Carrick Hill, North Queen Street, Greencastle, Markets and Ballymacarret. It reported directly to GHQ in Dublin through a Communications Officer, in the absence of a middle-ranking regional command structure although it is often formally referred to as Ulster No. 1 Divisional Area. The Belfast Battalion was now organised into two Companies, both located on the Falls Road and an independent unit that covered Ardoyne, the Bone and North Queen Street. Volunteers from Greencastle joined the independent unit, while those from the Markets and Ballymacarret joined the Falls Road unit that covered the city centre.

Following the De Valera split, there was a further consolidation with Cumann na mBán, the IRA, Na Fianna and Sinn Féin that took place before the middle of 1928. The Belfast Battalion now undertook an expansion programme including a renewed focus on Na Fianna as a source of recruits.  District-based Companies were formally re-established beginning with Ballymacarrett. In the short term, there was a decline in strength between 1926 and 1930, from 242 to 177. Ulster No. 1 Area now had Companies A to G, with A Company covering North Queen Street, Carrickhill and the Docks, B Company covering Ballymacarrett and the Markets, C Company based in Ardoyne and the Bone, D Company on the Falls and F Company centred on the Pound. The other companies (E and G) covered from Clonard out to the Whiterock, Hannahstown and Andersonstown. The throughput of recruits from Na Fianna saw the Belfast IRA Companies expand in size to 564 members by 1932.

The Belfast IRA retained this structure through the 1930s, reporting directly to GHQ, until the beginning of the English Campaign in 1939, at which time regional commands were created as a response to pressures restricting the ability of GHQ to exercise control on activity in other districts. This was particularly the case in the north, where a Northern Command that was set up and then re-organised under Charlie McGlade in the summer of 1939 to include Donegal. The Northern Command included representatives from each local IRA unit, with the likes of the officer commanding (O/C) of the Belfast IRA concurrently holding a staff position on Northern Command (often the Adjutant of the Northern Command was O/C Belfast). By 1941, the internees and sentenced prisoners in the jails in Belfast, the Al Rawdah, Derry and Armagh also reported directly to the Northern Command via the Adjutant, with the internees in D wing in Belfast organised as Battalion No. 1 and the sentenced prisoners as Battalion No. 2.

A H Company was added secretly to the Belfast Battalion during 1941, which was a special section of mainly Protestant IRA volunteers which carried out particular tasks and roles. By the start of 1942, arrests and internment had led to a complete re-organisation of the Battalion back into four Companies (once again labelled A-D). For the remainder of the mid-1940s, these survived in a skeletal form and the Northern Command and GHQ both became inactive due to arrests and defections.

By the time the internees and sentenced prisoners had been released, the Belfast Battalion was effectively reduced to a single company. This remained the case until 1956 when, as part of the pre-amble to the Border Campaign, the Belfast Battalion was re-organised into two Companies. One was made up of veterans and others who were likely to be known to the RUC. The other was made up of younger, unknown Volunteers who were unknown to the RUC (and possibly also an informer who was believed to be active among the Belfast Battalion staff). Despite the widespread belief that Belfast was to play no part in the Border Campaign, Paddy Doyle, the Belfast Battalion O/C was fully aware of plans and operations to be carried out in Belfast (such as cutting the cable to Britain on the night of December 11th /12th 1956). As he had kept all the operational details to himself, the Belfast Battalion wasn’t able to re-organise in time after Doyle’s arrest to carry out the action.

The Belfast IRA was decimated by internment in 1956 and 1957 and was rebuilt by Billy McKee after his release. By 1961 the concept of a Northern Command had arisen again but not adopted. The Belfast IRA was to remain small until the changes that occurred in 1969-70 when, following internal upheavals, it broke connection with the then GHQ staff and leadership.