The path to the IRA Split: September 1969

September 1969 witnessed more milestones in the journey towards the split in the IRA. From a Belfast perspective, key events happened over the course of 22-24 September when the Battalion informed Cathal Goulding’s Dublin-based IRA leadership that it no longer recognised it’s authority. This had its roots in multiple different historical issues. The most immediate was the failure of the Dublin leadership to prepare for the violent attacks in the north that summer. But other factors were at play too, such as long term tensions between Belfast and Dublin over IRA strategy. The split (and moves to not prevent it happening) can also be seen in the context of contemporary guerrilla theory. You can read more background to the IRA split here, here and here.
The release of the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, from internment in mid-September required a meeting of the Belfast Battalion Council to formalise his reinstatement as OC, since, under the IRA’s own rules, individuals had to relinquish their commands on imprisonment. While O/C’s were often nominated by the IRA’s leadership, they still had to be formally approved by a vote of confidence from the local staff. But the Belfast IRA had changed significantly since McMillen’s arrest on 15 August. Large numbers of IRA veterans had returned to active duty with the organisation and there had been an influx of new recruits. As an organisation, the IRA operated to a constitution and standing orders at least nominally, if not always in practice. As such, leaders were elected at conventions organised for that purpose. The Belfast IRA of 22 September 1969 was much larger than that of 15 August 1969 both in terms of membership and in the strength and distribution of its units. According to Joe Cahill, “Immediately after events of 15 August, everybody who had been in the IRA and had been dismissed or resigned or whatever, reported back to the Belfast staff.” (Anderson, Joe Cahill; A Life in the IRA, p176). Given that the Belfast Battalion of the IRA and other republican organisations such as Cumann na mBan had a strength of around 1,000 in the early 1940s, and 200-300 even in the 1950s, there was a sizeable pool of former members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan and their families from which to increase its size.
There is a dramatic contrast in the condition of the Belfast IRA on 14-15 August and mid-September 1969. In August it was effectively unarmed, much of its leadership arrested and unable to really influence events when violence erupted. By mid-September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the Central Citizen’s Defence Committee (and acting as Belfast O/C in McMillen’s absence) was meeting Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north. Not only were the British Army and Belfast IRA talking directly about how to guard barricades and manage security, they were apparently doing so over the heads of the Unionist government. This, however, flew in the face of the commentary coming from the IRA leadership in Dublin, via the likes of the United Irishman newspaper in September and October. The British army was presented as being there to maintain sectarian divisions and foment a civil war (so it could intervene and present itself as a saviour). This was claimed to be part of a wider British strategy to regain control of all of Ireland in a London-led federation, hidden within the moves by London and Dublin to join the European Economic Community (eg see United Irishman, October 1969). Goulding’s analysis – which, in a mirror image of the inaction of Lynch’s government, had been exposed as so flawed in mid-August – seemed to be oblivious to any role or agency unionists might have in actively fomenting violence.
The IRA leadership’s response in the aftermath of August 1969 was minimal. A meeting in Leitrim on 17 August had failed to persuade IRA O/Cs that the leadership was capable of responding to any new outbreak of violence. In September a further meeting in Lurgan saw Daithi O Conaill appointed as a military advisor to the northern defence committees. In reality, IRA GHQ in Dublin appears to have been more focused on pushing through changes to IRA policy on abstentionism and political activity such as the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ (in that respect there were elements within the IRA and Sinn Féin that opposed Gouldings policies for a variety of reasons).
The events of mid-September 1969, that saw the formalisation of a ‘peace-line’ and further violence from unionists following the publication of the Cameron Report. This was the immediate backdrop to McMillen’s release. Famously, the Battalion Council meeting to approve his return as O/C was attended by representatives of the newly expanded units of the Belfast Battalion, some of whom were armed (having travelled across Belfast in September 1969 that seems hardly surprising). Billy McKee, who had preceded McMillen as Belfast O/C, outlined what many of those present believed Belfast Battalion strategy should now be: demand changes in the IRA leadership in Dublin with Sean Garland replacing Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff, increase the Belfast Battalion staff to include a number of named individuals, Goulding release monies raised for arms in the north for the purchase of weapons. McMillen recounts some of his own views of the meeting in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees. The Belfast IRA agreed to break with Dublin for three months until the necessary changes were made. This was communicated to Dublin but it was quickly claimed that McMillen had reinstated communication with Dublin and agreed with Goulding to string his opponents along for the time being. The repercussion from this then played out as the split in the IRA widened over that autumn. At the time, though, there is nothing in the likes of United Irishman to suggest that the events of September were particularly seismic.
Goulding, through the United Irishman, began to claim that a faction within Fianna Fáil was trying to take control of the IRA in the north naming individuals like Hugh Kennedy (who was a press officer of the Citizens Defence Committees) and the likes of Seamus Brady formerly of the Irish Press. Paradoxically, that October, Goulding himself was actually meeting with the likes of Haughey and in discussion with him and others over the channelling of money to the IRA (he also later claimed that it was Fianna Fáil that was trying to have him ousted as IRA Chief of Staff). By November, though, the Fianna Fáil contacts had clearly soured as the United Irishman carried a critical expose of the contacts with Haughey, Blaney and Boland (in a 1971 pamphlet, Fianna Fáil – the IRA Connection, Goulding again sought to blame Fianna Fáil for the IRA split). Matt Treacy (in The IRA, 1956-69) makes it clear that Lynch’s government had heavily infiltrated Gouldings Army Council long before August 1969 and believed itself to be well-informed in July 1969 when it considered ‘taking steps’ to deal with the IRA in an apparent response to the bombing campaign in the north (which was actually the work of the UVF).
Tensions between Belfast and Dublin were hardly new and had been a long term feature of internal republican politics. It had dogged relations between units in the north and IRA GHQ in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in the Belfast IRA taking over GHQ during the ‘Hayes Affair’ and then relocating GHQ to Belfast for a period of time in the 1940s. Co-operation was no less problematic in the lead up to the 1956 IRA campaign and wasn’t helped by the fact that the weight of internment in the north fell mainly on the Belfast IRA.
The changed circumstances of August-September 1969 brought about a shift in the balance of power within the IRA in Belfast that wasn’t immediately recognised. Historically, the lower Falls had been the seat of the Belfast IRA leadership. IRA units around the city had generally taken a lead from the area as the IRA had a high concentration of supporters there, with more access to safe houses and freedom of movement. Maintaining hegemony in the lower Falls then meant controlling the Belfast IRA. When the IRA rapidly expanded in numbers in 1969, though, its membership had a much wider geographic spread across the city and less of an inclination to take an uncritical lead from the lower Falls. In the short term, McMillen (and by extension Goulding) appears to have felt secure in his own position as he could rely on his support in that area, not realising that the powerbase of the IRA in Belfast had shifted.
A last point to bear in mind when looking at internal tensions within the IRA in 1969 is to briefly look at contemporary perceptions of what a revolutionary movement constituted. Cathal Goulding had intended to announce the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ with a number of other groups during 1969. This largely mirrored Vietnam with the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (typically referred to by the press as the Viet Cong) incorporated into a wider National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF name had been used in previous successful anti-colonial wars, such as in Algeria and by the Greek resistance to the German occupation during the second world war. The IRA under Goulding had already been issuing statements under a variety of shifting identities during the 1960s, including ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’ and ‘Irish Resistance Forces’.
In theory at least, Goulding already recognised the need for encouraging the participation of a diversity of groupings to achieve success. Where other organisations had operated in competition with the IRA, such as the short-lived Irish Freedom Fighters in Belfast in the mid-1960s, the IRA had shut it down. That Goulding wasn’t quick to move against opponents once a split started opening in the IRA in 1969 may, at some level, been rooted in a National Liberation Front concept that could have absorbed a split as long as it remained under the same general umbrella. In some ways this explains what appears to be complacency about a split on Goulding’s part. A split may also have had a useful purpose. An anti-colonial movement that was often noted in republican publications in the 1950s and 1960s was in Palestine where Irgun and Haganah had performed differing offensive/defensive roles. Consciously or subconsciously, there may even have been a sense that there would be roles for a variety of republican groupings by 1969. That division in roles is pertinent to the later emergence of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. In that regard, it is possible that a future split in the IRA could have been imagined as an opportunity as much as a threat in 1969.
There is more on the split and related events in the various links throughout the text above and the Belfast Battalion book.

Revisiting 1969: the Belfast IRA, reactions and responses

This is a brief account of IRA activity in Belfast over the course of 13-15th August 1969 and its reaction to events.

[A brief warning: I’ve included some graphic press images of the violence in Belfast below. Published images and footage of the night-time violence appear to be almost non-existent, despite the clear presence of film crews and multiple photographers.]

By 13th August, in anticipation of protests over events in Derry, the Unionists had 400 B Specials on duty in Belfast. The RUC were briefing that events in Derry and the solidarity protests elsewhere were being organised by the IRA and Sinn Féin. This included claims to have intelligence that the IRA was mobilising units in South Armagh to make a move on Newry and IRA units assembling within Newry itself.

That night violence flared after demonstrations outside Springfield Road and Hastings Street RUC stations. There was also trouble in Short Strand and in Hooker Street off the Crumlin Road. According to Billy McMillan, the Belfast O/C in August 1969, the Battalion consisted of around eighty volunteers and an auxiliary of around two hundred. The Battalion had sent all its weapons to dumps in the south in 1956 prior to the border campaign and at the time was effectively unarmed. For a number of months the Belfast IRA had been requesting it get sent arms and ammunition as it was feared that, similar to the 1920s and 1935, a fresh pogrom was imminent. According to members of his Army Council, like Roy Johnston, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding had deliberately left the Belfast IRA without arms. Goulding assumed violence from the RUC and B Specials would generate so much negative publicity it would lead to Stormont being closed, London taking over responsibility and beginning reforms. Bizarrely, as the crisis unfolded in Belfast Goulding was actually busy staging an ‘IRA training camp’ outside Dublin for a British television crew (for a £200 fee). On 14th August, his solution to Belfast’s problems was to ring one of the Battalion staff, Prionsias MacAirt, and order him to go out and try and reason with the rioters.

On the evening of the 13th August, the RUC had taken up positions on the roof of Hastings Street RUC station with machine guns, while Commer armoured cars drove across the Falls Road into Mary Street, Lemon Street and Peel Street where the RUC smashed windows with batons (see image below).

RTE 1969

Commer armoured cars in Divis Street on night of 13th August (RTE).

McMillan ordered a number of IRA operations to be carried out against the RUC and B Specials with whatever weapons the Battalion had available. Shots were then fired at an RUC vehicle in Leeson Street. Two grenades were also thrown but only one exploded. The RUC also reported that six shots were fired from a passing car at Andersonstown Police Station but no damage was done. Later at the Scarman Tribunal, investigating the violence, Belfast RUC Commissioner Harold Wolseley claimed that, taken together, these attacks were deemed to be the signal that an IRA insurrection was underway.

Under this pretext, Shorland armoured cars were despatched to patrol Divis Street and the adjoining areas (see photos below). At Springfield Road Barracks the RUC opened fire on the crowd wounding two men. B Specials and RUC assisted crowds who were evicting Catholic residents from their homes on the night of 13-14th August (eg see Dominic Corr’s account and Michael McCann’s book Burnt Out).

Hastings St 13.14 Aug 1969

Petrol bombs exploding in front of Hasting Street RUC Barracks on the night of 13-14th August (Belfast Telegraph)

Shorland

Mark 1 Shorland armoured car mounting a Browning machine gun (from http://www.shorland.com)

Shorlands 6 and 7

Shorlands on the move in Belfast – identification numbers feature in eye-witness accounts of shooting, particularly number 6 (from Chartres, Henshaw and Dewar, Northern Ireland Scrapbook).

The night of 13-14th August had already used up the minimal resources of the Belfast IRA. While Belfast was relatively calm during daylight the next day, it was clear that preparations were being made for concerted attacks by unionists in areas such as the Crumlin Road, Clonard and Divis Street that night. The Unionist cabinet met that afternoon and decided to intern ‘IRA agitators’ overnight and to request use of the British Army in Derry. The B Specials were also fully mobilised.

During the day, current and former members of the Belfast Battalion scraped together whatever weapons they could find as they fully expected the B Specials to lead attacks from the Shankill Road into Divis Street, Cupar Street and Ardoyne that night. The weapons they got together included any form of shotgun or hunting rifle that could be begged, borrowed or stolen. Billy McKee, a former Belfast O/C, managed to collect together bits of ammunition. Jimmy Steele, another former Belfast O/C, retrieved two revolvers from an ancient dump in his brother’s attic. Joe Cullen, O/C of the Belfast IRA’s engineering battalion in the 1920s assisted with getting the guns into shape. Around twenty-three handguns, some grenade casings and a handful of hunting rifles and shotguns were gathered together by the time darkness fell. A single Thompson submachine gun had also been found (its single magazine was fired in bursts over the head of the crowd attacking St Comgalls). That was the armament available to the IRA to face the heavy machine guns in the Shorland armoured cars, Bren guns, Sten guns, rifles and revolvers carried by 500-600 B Specials and RUC.

By late afternoon that day, houses were already being burnt out and mobs began to emerge onto Divis Street from the direction of the Shankill Road including the Shankill Defence Association, B Specials and RUC. The RUC were also using Shorland and Humber armoured cars after 10.30 pm to drive at the crowd. Armed with a variety of submachine guns, rifles and revolvers, eye witnesses recorded that the B Specials began opening fire in Divis Street. Residents responded with stones and petrol bombs. The crowd that emerged from Dover Street and Percy Street began burning and looting businesses and homes on Divis Street. After 11 pm the RUC and B Specials tried to lead baton charges into the complex around Divis flats. By now the Shorland armoured cars were firing from their heavy machine guns. There was also violence in Conway Street (the first location at which the Shorlands’ opened fire), Cupar Street and on the Crumlin Road.

After midnight the violence intensified as fighting focused on St Comgalls School, which was defended by a number of former IRA members. The Shorlands were firing tracers and it could be seen that they were raking each floor of Divis tower and shooting into side streets (this is when Patrick Rooney and Hugh McCabe were killed). There were also RUC and B Special guns on the roof of various buildings firing down into the various streets.

Falls Road 14.15 Aug AP Wirephoto

Shorland and armed B Specials with ambulance waiting behind them off the Falls Road on night of 14-15 August (AP).

Belfast 14.15 Aug 1969

Petrol bombing exploding underneath a Shorland armoured car surrounded by  B Specials, night of 14-15 August (Belfast Telegraph).

Falls Rd Indo 14869

Falls Road, armoured car and petrol bombs burning on night of 14-15 August (Irish Independent).

Belfast shot in head 14.15 Aug 1969

Un-named man wounded in head ‘by a sniper’ (possibly near Divis tower) on night of 14-15 August 1969 (Daily Mirror).

The IRA had no control over events as they happened, had no meaningful stocks of arms or ammunition and had not trained its members for the roles they now needed to fill. In the absence of any planning, current and former members organised ad hoc groups to defend the likes of St Comgalls School as they came under sustained attack, or like Cullen and Steele, were stationed on Broadway with handguns ready to delay any incursion from the Donegall Road. At the same time, the Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, though, had advised IRA members that they should only shoot over the heads of attackers. The minimal stocks of ammunition available was used up within minutes. Despite the lack of offensive capability of the IRA, the RUC issued reports saying they had to fall back and were besieged in the likes of Hasting Street Barracks.

In the early morning of 15th August, thirty men were rounded up in an internment sweep including McMillan and MacAirt (although Sullivan avoided the round-up). During the day, as the violence worsened, the IRA commandeered the Broadway cinema as people fled the mobs trying to burn them out of their homes in the streets off the likes of Divis Street and Cupar Street.

When British Army assistance was finally requested by the Unionists, it actually deployed along the Falls Road and Divis Street. The RUC had been advising that the IRA had snipers positioned along the rooftops and that the district was in the middle of an IRA insurrection. It took considerable persuasion by the likes of Fr Patrick Egan to convince the British Army to relocate to the streets, like Bombay Street which had been burned down or were under attack. Six people had been killed in Belfast and at least 133 wounded. One of those killed was Gerard McAuley, a member of Fianna Éireann, the republican youth organization.

C070B6EE-D7DD-44C0-B76A-F9E3320853FF

Billy McKee with Gerard McAuley just after he was shot in Clonard (courtesy of Pat Leahy).

Xenia Daily Gazette cablephoto Belfast Falls 15 Aug 1969

A street off the Falls Road in flames on night of 15 August 1969 (AP).

Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill walked down the Falls Road the next day (16th August). There was a mood of despair and anger directed at the IRA for its failure to be prepared to defend the population. Both were called deserters and traitors and Cahill claims they were even spat upon (see Anderson, A Life in the IRA).

Meanwhile, besieged in Dublin by IRA officers looking for GHQ to open its dumps and distribute arms and ammunition to the north, Goulding retreated to an upstairs office with Mick Ryan and said “This is terrible, Jesus Christ, this is terrible. What am I going to do? Living Jesus, what are we going to do?” Goulding hadn’t been able to locate the IRA’s Quartermaster General, Pat Reagan, so he replaced him, on the spot, with Ryan (this is based on Ryan’s interviews in Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism). The depth of disorganisation around Goulding is shown by the fact that Ryan didn’t know Reagan had been Quartermaster and thought Goulding was filling the role himself.

A variety of meetings took place, in public and private in Dublin, and money was donated to both solidary funds (for refugees of the violence) and defence funds (basically, to purchase weapons). A meeting between IRA O/Cs and the Army Council was told by Goulding that the IRA should not respond with armed action. Meanwhile, the Unionist Prime Minister, Chichester-Clarke, blamed Catholics, the I.R.A., civil rights movement and Irish government for trying to discredit and subvert Stormont.

Amid the chaos, Goulding issued a widely-derided statement claiming that northern units of the IRA had been in action in Derry and Belfast and that the Army Council had placed “…all volunteers on full alert and has already sent a number of fully equipped units to the aid of their comrades in the Six Counties and to assist the local Defence Committees, Citizen Action Groups and other popular organisations…”. The statement noted, somewhat paradoxically, that “The people of the Falls Road area have gratefully acknowledged this assistance in the past few days and have contrasted it bitterly with the failure of the Dublin Government to act in their defence.

From Belfast, Joe Cahill, Jimmy Drumm and Leo Martin had been dispatched in three teams to bypass GHQ and make contact with IRA units in the south and retrieve any dumped weapons they could find. They drove non-stop across the south for twenty-four hours then regrouped in Dundalk before bringing the weapons to Belfast. This included a few Thompsons, some Sten guns, .303 and .22 rifles (including M1 carbines, Garand semi-automatics, bolt-action Springfields and Lee-Enfields) and revolvers. Ammunition calibres varied widely as the Thompson fired a .45 bullet, M1s and Garands a .300 and the Lee-Enfield a .303. Many younger volunteers had little expertise in using the weapons. Notably, older volunteers from the 1940s (and earlier) were required to maintain and oversee their use.

Meantime, Steele and McKee had remained in Belfast and organised a meeting to be held a couple of days later, on the return of Cahill, Martin and Drumm. The meeting was held in the social club at Casement Park on 22nd (it may have been on 24th August as exact date isn’t clear). It was attended by the likes of Daithi O Conaill (IRA O/C of Derry and Donegal), Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Billy McKee, John Kelly, Billy Kelly, Leo Martin and Seamus Twomey. Cahill, Drumm and Martin were able to report on the attitude of the IRA units, members and supporters they had encountered on their whistle-stop tours. According to Billy McKee, John Kelly and Joe Cahill, those in attendance agreed that the Battalion staff prior to August 15th had to take responsibility for the failures of mid-August and lack of preparedness of the IRA in Belfast. This failure had been compounded and confused by the direction being given by GHQ in Dublin. This included both the emphasis being placed on politicisation and the unwillingness to listen to those in Belfast who had reported that the risk of significant violence against Catholic communities was getting critical.

Those present appear to have decided not to challenge the current Belfast leadership and gave GHQ time to respond to events. The IRA’s own rules would require McMillan to need to be voted in again as O/C on his release from prison (Jim Sullivan acted in the role during his absence). The influx of new and returning members had rapidly expanded numbers in the IRA and created uncertainty over the status of individual’s who took on company and staff posts in the days after 14-15th August. In the meantime, they could just do what they could to distribute the arms and ammunition recovered by Cahill, Drumm and Martin and provide other supports to the threatened districts across the city. And they waited for Billy McMillan’s release from internment to see what would happen next.

 

You can read more about these events and the wider split in the IRA here and in the Belfast Battalion book.

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

Death of Sean Garland announced

Garland

This evening it is being reported that Sean Garland has passed away. Garland was one of the key figures on the left of the republican movement. He was a key figure in the split that followed the upheavals of the summer of 1969, but perhaps not in the way that many people might think.

Despite the subsequent portrayal of the 1969 divisions within the I.R.A. as being rooted in a dispute over left wing politics, at the time the very pointed issues that caused so much internal dissension were the disarming of the Belfast I.R.A. and the control being exercised by Cathal Goulding. This all came to a head in a famous meeting at the end of September 1969. The Belfast O/C, Billy McMillen had been interned since before the intensification of violence in mid-August and his release was the pretext for him meeting the Belfast Battalion staff to seek confirmation that he would continue in the role (as Belfast O/C).

In McMillen’s absence, circumstances in Belfast had changed dramatically. As many former I.R.A. volunteers had returned to active duty, some of those arrived at the meeting, including Billy McKee and John Kelly to update McMillen on events.

McKee and Kelly “…outlined the concerns of the Belfast units and put three proposals to McMillan. The first was that they asked for co-options onto the Battalion staff for the likes of McKee, Leo Martin, Seamus Twomey and Sean McNally (six co-options were made in the end).

The second was that Belfast was to break with G.H.Q. until it acknowledged its responsibility for the failures of August. In that regard, it wanted four named members – Cathal Goulding, Mick Ryan, Roy Johnston and Seamus Costello – to step down and be replaced. The proposed replacement for Goulding was Sean Garland.[i] Garland had overseen the development of the plan for a northern campaign that had been captured by the Gardaí in May 1966. As he was known to be a committed Marxist this seems to further indicate that left wing politics was simply not a factor in the issues between Belfast and Dublin.[For instance, Kelly had spent a number of years in prison with Garland in the early 1960s]

McMillan accepted the first and extended the Battalion staff accordingly and, on the second point, agreed to break with G.H.Q. and the Army Council for three months to allow the necessary changes to happen.

McMillan notes a third issue that was agreed but has generally been overlooked – a demand that the money donated to the Northern Defence Fund for the purchase of arms was to be spent on arms. Goulding was already known to be diverting this it into his political projects (supposedly he insisted that the first £10,000 raised would go to fund political activity).[ii]

Having discussed and agreed the various points, the meeting broke up.”

That account is taken from the new Belfast Battalion book which (almost literally) ends at that point.

As McMillan advised the Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding via Sean MacStiofáin, that evening, the Belfast Battalion split from G.H.Q. in Dublin.

[i] See Swan 2008 (Official Irish Republicanism), p312.

[ii] Billy McMillan in Rosita Sweetman 1972 (On Our Knees), p191 and MacStiofáin 1975, p128-129.

 

 

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A.?

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.

Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.

The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]

1936-37 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.

1945 Johnny Murphy?

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.

Interview with Ivor Bell

Interesting interview with Ivor Bell (pictured below) about 1969-70, with reference to strategy, particularly in Belfast where he was Brigade Adjutant.

Much of the analysis offered for this period is based on journalistic opinion, often heavily influenced security briefings. While Frank Kitson has become a bit of a bogeyman in writing the history of the conflict here, he features heavily in the contemporary republican press. The British brought a developed counter-insurgency game into play straight away in 1969 (Kitson himself being on the ground almost immediately). The tired and simplistic ‘mindless violence’ narratives for this period, and the conflict in general, obscures the extent to which the various players had developed a strategy and tactics to further their aims. It also limits the capacity of victims to put their loss into a context that has some sort of meaning (not that that necessarily offers any hope of them being able to deal with the loss any better, but it at least gives it a structure).

In his interview, Bell offers some insight into how the IRA intended to develop its campaign at the time (effectively before the period from July 1971 to January 1972). I had interviewed Billy McKee previously (mainly about the 1940s) and we had touched on the 1969-71 period. He had also said that, contrary to subsequent histories, the IRA had preferred to keep its size small, manageable and secure, rather than over expanding and taking in volunteers it had not had time to properly train and vet.

I’ve written before about the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which might have provided the defensive role that the IRA had to take on (as discussed by Bell), here.

You can read the interview with Ivor Bell here:

https://irishrepublicanmarxisthistoryproject.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/p-michael-osullivan-interview-with-belfast-brigade-ira-adjutant-iver-bell-in-belfast-february-1972/

List of O/Cs of Belfast IRA, 1924-69.

The following is a draft list of the officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. There are gaps and may well be omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. In some instance, sources are ignored (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff ( it is implied he was O/C but not stated). Any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-27 Hugh Corvin

As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. Continued as O/C until 1927 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He was to remain prominent, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943.

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A veteran of 1920-24 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Hugh Corvin. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps (first at Carnlough in Antrim and then Gyles Quay in Louth), Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project. In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy,George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-24 campaign veteran. Took over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34. While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was court-martialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite order from Army Council not to, instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the court-martial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA. Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast in late 1937 following McArdle’s arrest. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and may have remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast). However, there may be a gap between McGlade and Steele in 1939-40 when someone else was O/C (this isn’t clear from surviving sources).

1939-40? gap in available information

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna veteran of 1920-24, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were court-martialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh.

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and apparently was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

1945-47 There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47.

1947-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have served as O/C during the late 1940s, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly though of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1950 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

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

1960-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.