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.

Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

I have a few posts on events in 1969 taking a fresh look at some key events. This will include the deployment of the British Army, the introduction of internment and the split in the Belfast IRA in September 1969. But they are for another day. Firstly, I’m going to wrap up the previous post on the speeches given at a major IRA event in Mullingar in July 1969 (you can read them here and see some more here).

So, was Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar really the first sign of the 1969 split in the IRA, or was the treatment of Steele simply an example of methods and attitudes of the IRA leadership at the time? Steele, a former IRA Adjutant General, had been President of the Directory of Republican Clubs in the north as recently as 1967-68. The excerpt from his speech quoted by Peter Taylor (in Provos) is used in most accounts of the 1969 IRA split to support an argument that the split reflected broad left/right divisions within the republican movement. The surviving audio of his speech neither corresponds to the text quoted by Taylor nor provides much evidence that left/right ideological issues were really the major factor in the later IRA split.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

That the speech prompted internal ructions within the IRA isn’t at doubt. The day after it was given, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding, had Steele removed from Sinn Féin’s official panel of speakers for republican events. Steele had been involved with Fianna Éireann and the IRA since 1920, spent numerous periods in prison or interned and edited a variety of republican newspapers and pamphlets. According to Belfast IRA veteran Billy McKee, on the Wednesday evening he was in Steele’s house when Malachy McGurran (an IRA Army Council member) and Jim Sullivan (the Belfast IRA Adjutant) arrived. McKee, who had not been active in the IRA since the early 1960s, was asked to leave as Sullivan and McGurran told him they had IRA business to discuss with Steele. When McKee met Steele again a couple of days later, Steele told him that McGurran and Sullivan had been sent by Goulding to inform him of his immediate expulsion from the IRA. Any reference to Steele’s speech was omitted from the subsequent coverage of the event in the subsequent issue of the main republican newspaper, The United Irishman.

Steele’s speech had been delivered in front of crowd of 10,000 at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormick. Barnes and McCormick had been hung in England in 1940 after a 1939 IRA bombing in Coventry in which five people died. A repatriation committee had campaigned for the return of their remains since 1949 and Steele spoke at the reburial on its behalf. Various other people spoke from the platform including Sinn Féin President Tomás MacGiolla (who had chaired the repatriation committee). The main speech on behalf of the IRA was by Cork man Jim O’Regan, an International Brigade veteran who had also been active during the 1939 English campaign and imprisoned along with Barnes.

 

Peter Taylor’s text

Taylor published the following text as a quote from the speech: “Our two martyred comrades who we honour today … went forth to carry the fight to the enemy, into enemy territory, using the only methods that will ever succeed, not the method of the politicians, nor the constitutionalists, but the method of soldiers, the method of armed force. The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed, one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots. [At this point there is applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear’ on the tape.]

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. May we hope that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit … a spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task that our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

Subsequent references to the speech all seem to be solely quoting Taylor. This includes the likes of Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72 (which specifically cites Taylor’s quote as a transcription). Almost all use it to support an analysis of the ideological split within the IRA over opposition to a ‘leftward’ drift under Goulding.

Taylor gives his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by McKee. The recording had been made in Mullingar by another Belfast IRA veteran Leo Martin who later donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death. The surviving recording includes the speeches by O’Regan and Steele. Despite the dreadful weather the audio quality is still remarkably good although the very start of Steele’s ten minute speech is missing.

 

Steele’s speech

The extant audio (you can read the transcript here) starts with Steele criticising People’s Democracy’s Michael Farrell and the Derry Labour Party’s Eamon McCann for refusing to march behind a tricolour at a recent James Connolly commemoration in Belfast. Here Steele chimes exactly, in tone and language, with coverage of the same issue in the June and July 1969 issues of United Irishman, and with recent statements by people close to Goulding like Tomás MacGiolla and Derry Kelleher, all  of whom emphasised James Connolly’s combination of socialism and republicanism.

The excerpt below, following his criticism of Farrell and McCann, illustrates Steele’s theme of Connolly’s vision of left-wing Irish republicanism. “Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

The reference to “the teachings of Chairman Mao” then appears in a different context in the audio than that implied by Taylor’s account: “A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.

Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.

There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.” [Text in bold is the quote given by Taylor].

Despite Taylor’s annotations, there is no interruption in the audio for applause or shouts of ‘hear, hear’. Some of the text Taylor quoted could come from the start of the speech that is missing on the audio held in the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. That, however, doesn’t explain other discrepancies with the text and annotations here.

 

A Raw Nerve

The final section of Steele’s speech also varies from the text given by Taylor (the text missing from Taylor’s quote is marked in bold): “From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

The missing reference to the “…social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly…” again continues that James Connolly zeitgeist that ran through Steele’s speech, MacGiolla’s Bodenstown address and recent United Irishman articles. Clearly, though, given the speed of his dismissal from the IRA, Steele hit a very raw nerve. But what raw nerve did he hit? Politicisation? Left wing policies?

A longer term view suggests neither of the latter was much of a problem for the Belfast IRA (and the likes of Steele who had been active republicans for much of the previous fifty years). Steele had stood as a candidate and acted as an election agent in previous decades, and the IRA had ran candidates in Belfast in the 1960s. The Belfast IRA had also engaged with a series of political projects since the 1920s which usually included collaborating with the left although that relationship was often fraught. Tarlach Ó hUid, in his 1960 memoir Ar Thóir mo Shealbha, recounts how the IRA and various left wing groups formed an anti-imperialist republican club in Belfast in the late 1930s, only for it to fracture in 1941 when communist members withdrew support on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war as an ally of Britain. Publications like Irish Freedom and statements by leading communists like Billy McCullough show a shift in tone in 1942 away from ‘anti-imperialism’ (which included colonial powers like Britain and France) to ‘anti-fascism’ (i.e. Nazi Germany, Italy etc). Betty Sinclair later claimed Belfast communists were accused of passing the RUC information on former allies in the IRA leading to arrests and arms finds. That fallout in 1942 coloured the Belfast IRA’s perceptions of the Communist Party as an entity rather than left wing politics itself (and, based on that experience, Sinclair’s own prominence in the Civil Rights Movement was viewed with suspicion). This attitude was reinforced by the role local communists played in defending the Soviet Union’s suppression of national movements like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

Those present at Steele’s speech like Joe Cahill, Sean Dunne, Roy Johnston and John Kelly all show they clearly understood the references to control and strategy as direct criticisms of Cathal Goulding. Goulding himself, in an interview with Seán Ó hÉalaithe published in Comhar in 1973, claimed that despite regularly meeting Steele, Steele had never raised any concerns with him over politicisation or left-wing IRA policies. Although there is evidence of Steele previously criticising the direction Goulding was promoting within the IRA policy. Steele had been the main speaker at the Manchester Martyrs centenary in Manchester in November 1967. His speech had carried criticisms of the ‘New Departure’ of Davitt and Devoy, a deal between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and constitutional nationalists over attendance at Westminster. This was obviously allegorical and cut across Cathal Goulding’s own push to end abstentionism, but this clearly wasn’t that raw a nerve since Goulding took no action against Steele after the 1967 Manchester speech. Notably, though, Goulding had pushed through an expansion of the IRA’s Army Council, from seven to twenty members in September 1968 which enabled him to co-opt supporters of his politicisation strategy and force through reforms of the IRA. Goulding’s methods here may have been one focus of Steele’s criticisms.

The Mullingar speech also took place in the shadow of loyalist bombings in April, May and June 1969 and increasing concerns in Belfast at Goulding’s refusal to relax his control over access to IRA arms. In May and then again in July, Goulding told meetings of IRA GHQ staff that there were plans in place to defend northern nationalists in the event of unionist violence. However, he told a meeting of local IRA O/Cs that, in a crisis, it would be the British government who would have to step in and disband the B Specials and bring in reforms. In May the northern O/Cs had met and had a request for weapons approved but they never got them. Matt Treacy, in The I.R.A. 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic, records that Roy Johnston, then on the Army Council, claims Goulding intended to leave Belfast undefended as he hoped that a backlash to any sustained violence against Catholics would lead to the disbanding of the B Specials. Goulding himself admits that G.H.Q. had arms but they withheld them from the north as they had not believed what they had been told about the threat of violence (Goulding as quoted in Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict). I am a little dubious about this last point though, as on 16th August 1969, when the IRA demanded Goulding issue weapons, it seems clear that there no longer were any significant dumps of IRA weapons for Goulding to release.

Cathal Goudling (centre) being spoken to by Jim Sullivan (with armband) while Tomas MacGiolla stands behind him.

While Goulding’s plans to end abstentionism were a clear focus of Steele’s speech, I think the atmosphere around the Mullingar event was created by Goulding’s policy on weapons. The Belfast IRA had collected its existing stocks of weapons prior to the 1956 border campaign and then transported outside Belfast to be redistributed to units involved in the border areas during that campaign. Afterwards, throughout the 1960s, the Belfast Battalion only had access to a handful of weapons. Steele and others may have been conscious that Goulding’s intention was to leave Belfast undefended (as claimed by Johnston). The Belfast IRA was acutely aware of how its lack of weaponry made it unable to respond to the kind of crises that occurred in 1920-22 and 1935 and which its older members had directly experienced.

Whether over constitutionalism or weapons for the Belfast Battalion, Steele’s quote “unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives” intentionally insinuated that Goulding was now acting in the interests of someone other than the IRA (clearly meaning the Communist Party). All of this obviously hit a raw nerve. Despite his speech never referencing the weapons issues in Belfast, those present seem to have understood Steele’s point (and it seems unlikely that a long time IRA veteran like Steele would breach IRA protocols by openly discussing IRA business at a public event). What perhaps made matters worse was the fact that there were almost always longstanding enmities between Belfast and Dublin over control of IRA strategy. While rarely discussed openly, this clearly had been a recurring problem for the IRA and had been central to previous crises, such as in 1922 and the Stephen Hayes affair of 1940-41. Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees actually quotes Steele as saying he would “Get his own back on Dublin” after his expulsion.

So arguably, the real tensions within the IRA were over access to the weapons that everyone believed Goulding had securely under his own control. On 16th August 1969 when violence began to consume the north, Goulding was besieged by IRA units demanding he open up all the dumps. Only then did it became clear that the IRA’s stocks of arms and ammunition, that were central to that crisis in the IRA that summer, did not really exist.

While Mullingar clearly represented an event in the journey towards the split in the IRA later in 1969, I suspect it was actually less significant than is claimed. It was later to suit those on both sides of the subsequent split in the IRA to reach back before the events of August 1969 for the split’s origin. As far as the Official IRA was concerned, this served two purposes. It allowed it to claim that the basis of the split in the IRA was one between what it could present as ‘progressive’ versus ‘militant’ republicanism. The second purpose was that this neatly deflected from the criticism of Goulding and the IRA’s failure to respond to unionist violence during mid-August 1969. More so, in extremis, the likes of Roy Johnston have even sought to actively implicate those who were on the Provisional IRA side of the split as intentionally complicit in fomenting the violence of mid-August 1969 and cite Steele’s speech in Mullingar as evidence. As far as those on the Provisional IRA side of the split were concerned, though, Steele’s speech evidence of internal resistance within the IRA to the policies that led to the IRA’s own failures in mid-August 1969. Thus the Provisional IRA could also disassociate itself from Goulding and the events of that August by placing the roots of the schism before that August.

It that regard, it is hard to see beyond the IRA’s failure to prepare to counteract the extreme violence of mid-August 1969 as the real basis for the IRA split later that year but I’ll cover that another day.

 

You can read a full transcript and hear some audio of Steele’s and O’Regan’s speech here. Notes on 1969 meetings of Sinn Féin’s Coiste Seasta are available on Roy Johnston’s website (see www.rjtechne.org). The account of Steele’s dismissal from the IRA is based on information from Billy McKee.

There is more on the context of the Mullingar speech in Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

Joint IRA and British Army barricades, Belfast, 1969

For a period of time in September 1969, barricades in many Belfast districts were effectively guarded jointly by the British Army and IRA, under the guise of the local Citizen’s Defence Committees (CDC). The Central CDC in Belfast was chaired by Jim Sullivan who was also acting O/C of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion. The Belfast O/C, Billy McMillen, had been  arrested prior to the August 15th attacks and interned without charge even though it had initially reported that he was being held for illegal possession of a firearm.

A CDC had been formed in Derry early in August 1969 and elsewhere later in the same month. The name mirrored the ‘Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee’, formed in 1966, and its precursors, like the ‘Omagh Citizen’s Defence Committee’ and another set up in Fermanagh in 1953-4 to co-ordinate the local unionist campaigns to prevent Catholics obtaining jobs and housing. Creation of CDCs in 1969 provided an umbrella organisation in which the likes of ex-servicemen, Catholic clergy, political representatives, former IRA volunteers and others could co-operate with each other and the IRA without having to be publicly presented as a face of the IRA, even though it was effectively led and directed by the IRA.

The use of shifting organisational identities had been pushed by Cathal Goulding and others for some time. IRA statements using names like ‘Resistance Forces’ and ‘Citizens Army’ had been appearing even before the formal end of the border campaign in 1962. This was to accelerate into the early 1970s (and later) as the Goulding-led Official IRA was to continually shift it’s identity.

When the British Army was deployed in mid-August 1969, it also brought into play a well established counter-insurgency strategy as well as its best known advocate and practitioner in Brigadier Frank Kitson. This included establishing its own intelligence gathering capabilities in the absence of any effective intelligence held or shared by the RUC, Special Branch or the unionist government.

At a high level this meant that the ongoing attempts to negotiate a removal of barricades from districts that  had been attacked in mid-August could provide a pretext to profile the CDC (and effectively IRA) leadership from close-in. On 6th September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the CDC and acting Belfast Battalion O/C, met with the Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north (revealed in that weekends Sunday papers). This happened alongside meetings with Catholic clergy and others over defence of the districts that had come under attack. Sullivan and Dyball agreed that the barricades would now be guarded by British soldiers alongside the CDC.

That weekend, three barricades in Albert Street were taken down and replaced with British Army barriers and soldiers maintained a presence at them, as had been agreed. The press was rife with rumours that the discussion where this was agreed wasn’t between the British Army and local clergy as publicly claimed, but between the British Army and IRA. But the agreement reached in Albert Street wasn’t replicated elsewhere as almost nightly attacks on isolated Catholic families continued.

That Sullivan pushed for the removal of barricades and delegating the defence of Albert Street to the British Army cut directly across the later narrative promoted by the Officials that the violence didn’t come from the communities and the general unionist population but, rather, was directed by forces from elsewhere (typified by the likes of the British Army). Sullivan personally pushed for the removal of the Albert Street barricades, certainly this is, at least, how it is represented in the contemporary press. Around 300 barricades had been erected across the city but the example of Albert Street didn’t lead to further exchanges of hastily erected barricades for British Army barriers. Within a couple of days, Sullivan was threatening to re-erect barricades if the British Army removed them without agreement. Sullivan, along with Stormont MPs Paddy Devlin and Paddy Kennedy then travelled to London to try and meet senior British government figures for discussions.

British Army preparing to erect the so-called ‘peace line’ in Cupar Street (Irish Press, 11th Sept 1969)

Meanwhile, a demarcation line was being erected by the British Army along the boundary of the most threatened areas (described as a ‘peace line’). This was continuing over the course of the next week and was mostly completed by 16th September. Pressure was growing to have the other barricades removed and the CDC organised meetings of delegates from the various districts to gauge the mood. Assurances were given by the British GOC that the army would provide adequate security and that the Special Powers Act would not be applied. Again, Jim Sullivan then pushed for the barricades to come down but often agreements had to be made on street by street basis indicating a high level of discomfort over the proposed arrangement. This was not misplaced.

Given how the British Army was aware of the limitations of the quality of the intelligence gathered by the RUC and the unionists. An agreement to jointly guard barricades with the CDC now provided the British with a pretext to create its own profile of the IRA. Kitson himself had requested a meeting with the IRA leadership (which was turned down), but John Kelly has recounted that the depth of contact between the IRA and British Army extended as far as a British officer providing a class on machine guns. Kelly suspected that this was to evaluate the level of the technical capacity of the IRA (and presumably to identify the relevant personnel). On top of the failure to have adequately prepared to defend districts from attack in mid-August, the rapprochement between his Belfast IRA leadership and the British Army was also to be held against Cathal Goulding by many in Belfast.

Peace lines in Dover Street (Irish Press. 13th Sept 1969)

One barricade that was slow to come down, was the one that had been erected at the top of the New Lodge Road, at it’s junction with the Antrim Road. This too was taken down on Tuesday 17th September. As with elsewhere, it was then replaced with a British Army barricade which was one of those jointly guarded by the 2nd Light Infantry and the CDC.

On the Saturday night, Tony McNamee, Brendy Magee, Mark O’Connor and Hugh Adams were playing cards on a windowsill outside the Duncairn Arms at the top of the New Lodge Road. As some men were seen approaching the traffic island from Hallidays Road (leading back to Duncairn Gardens), a soldier, Lance Corporal Peter Reid went to warn the four young men to withdraw behind the barrier for safety. Shots were then fired from the other side of the traffic island, at a range of about twenty metres. All five were wounded. Reid, McNamee and Magee were the most seriously injured, with Reid sustaining facial injuries. Following the shooting a local taxi firm was also attacked.

As crowds gathered at either side of the barricade, hundreds of soldiers were rushed into the area. Hallidays Road was searched and a weapon recovered in a house in Stratheden Street. Four men from the unionist Tigers Bay district, Andrew Salters, Arthur Ingram, John Strain and William Jamieson, were arrested (in the end only Jamieson was found guilty, receiving a two year sentence). The next day they were charged with possession of the shotgun used in the shooting. At their remand hearing, on the Monday morning, RUC Head Constable Thomas McCluney explained to the court that the accused fired the shots as ‘feelings had been running high’.

On the Sunday, the CDC for the New Lodge and Docks had met and agreed further security measures. This included introducing a graduated curfew for children (8 pm) and others not involved in patrols and defence (10 pm). The CDC put in place a rota and schedule of patrols for the defence of the area. Oliver Kelly (vice-chairman of the CDC) said the shooting had been a salutary lesson for all those involved. The Major in charge of the 2nd Light Infantry in the district admitted that the hadn’t believed that they would be fired upon by unionists.

But on that Sunday night, unionists left a 2lb gelignite bomb in Exchange Street in the Half Bap area (immediately to the south of the New Lodge and North Queen Street). It exploded in the middle of the street, shattering windows in thirty houses although no-one was badly injured. Immediately a barricade was re-erected at the end of Exchange Street. The same pattern was to follow over the next week as local violence prompted the return of barricades.

The same weekend, the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, was released from internment. On the Monday, against the backdrop of the New Lodge Road shooting and the bombing of Exchange Street, McMillen called a meeting of the Belfast IRA staff in Cyprus Street. Famously, he was confronted about the rapidly changed political landscape in a meeting regarded as critical to the fragmentation of the republican movement that accelerated over the next few months.