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.

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.