why republican groups are so fractious…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.

history

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA).

The Northern Directory of Republican Clubs, 1967.

As a brief follow up to the footage of the Barnes-McCormick reburial in 1969 and much of the mythology that has developed around the IRA split, here’s a news item from The Irish Times on 18th March 1967:

REPUBLICANS TO DEFY BAN

The Northern Directory of Republican Clubs announced yesterday that it will hold a public meeting at Divis street, Belfast, tomorrow afternoon “…to defy the unjust banning of the Republican Clubs in the Six Counties by the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs,” and “…to protest against this flagrant abuse of civil liberties and democratic freedom which this action entails.”
The meeting will be held at the 43 Club, Divis street, Mr James Steele, Belfast, chairman of the directory, will preside. The announcement from the directory stated that the meeting will be attended by delegates from Republican clubs all over Northern Ireland, members of civil liberty and trade union organisations and Labour Members of Parliament from both Westminister and Stormont.

Typically, Jimmy Steele (and many of those involved in the formation of Provisional Army Council of the IRA in December 1969) are presented as being ‘…physical force men… whose methods would be purely military as opposed to the new socio/political methods advocated by Goulding’ (as described in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees, Ireland 1972, p.190). A review of contemporary news sources suggests the context given to the 1969 split, largely developed over the early 1970s against the backdrop of sometimes violent disputes between the different factions, merits some reconsideration and that the picture is more complex than is usually presented.

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Irish Times, March 18, 1967.

 

Some possible additions to the @IELeftArchive timeline of the Irish Left

The following are some suggested omissions from the Irish Left Archives twentieth century timeline of the Irish Left. The groups below appear to be consistent with those included in the timeline and are in no particular order here.

Irish Citizens Army: Roddy Connolly had wanted to form a Workers Defence Corps in 1929 (the organisation was proscribed in 1931) and Republican Congress temporarily reinvigorated the Irish Citizens Army, with Connolly, his sister Nora Connolly O’Brien and Mick Price all active. The Connolly’s ended up in two competing factions in 1935, with Price on Nora’s side. By 1936 the Irish Citizens Army had faded away (see Hanley, The IRA 1926-36).

Laochra UladhA republican group led by a former member of the IRA’s Northern Command staff, Brendan O’Boyle, active from 1949 to 1955 (see here for more). The group never issued a political programme and O’Boyle also tried to become Chief of Staff of the IRA. Laochra Uladh appears to have largely been a project to pressurise the IRA into mounting operations in the north. O’Boyle may have saw creating a pipeline of weapons and funds as a route to gaining the Chief of Staff post, to simply a kickstart a campaign, or both. O’Boyle was killed on an operation in 1955 marking the end of Laochra Uladh.

Anti-Imperialist League: Active in the early 1930s, included the likes of Maud Gonne, Madame Despard and leading IRA figures. Organised public protests against imperialist events and symbols (see MacEoin, The IRA in the Twilight Years, 1923-48). Despard was involved in various other organisations promoting social justice, feminism and other left agendas, including the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Women’s Prisoners Defence League and Saor Éire. The latter two were on a lengthy list (see below) of left and republican organisations banned by the Free State government in October 1931, that also included the IRA, Cumann na mBán, the Fianna, the Irish Labour Defence League, the Worker’s Revolutionary PartyIrish Working Farmers’ Committee, Worker’s Defence Corps, Workers Research BureauIrish Tribute League and The Friends of Soviet Russia.  Saor Éire had held its first congress in October 1931 (see below), with no sense of irony Fianna Fáil was to immediately claim it was the real target of the bans.

Official notice of proscription of various republican and left organisations by Free State government in October 1931.

Official notice of proscription of various republican and left organisations by Free State government in October 1931.

First Saor Éire congress, October 1931.

First Saor Éire congress, October 1931.

Irish Republican Brotherhood: This is the name of a group formed in Dublin in 1950-51 and disbanded by Cathal Goulding (see Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army).

Saor Uladh: Liam Kelly’s organisation Fianna Uladh, founded in Tyrone in March 1952 and it’s military grouping, Saor Uladh, active from 1954. Kelly had been expelled from the IRA for mounting unofficial operations. He was elected to Stormont and was appointed to a Seanad seat at the behest of Sean McBride, flagging support for Fianna Uladh/Saor Uladh from Clann na Poblachta (and hinting at a previous McBride project, Saor Éire). Joe Christle’s group that broke from the Dublin IRA in 1955 also aligned itself with Saor Uladh. Gerry Lawless had founded a group calling itself the Irish National Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, been absorbed into the IRA and then broke alongside Christle. The Christle-Lawless group began mounting operations on the border to try and force the IRA and Saor Uladh into action. In the end, a composite Saor Uladh-Christle-Lawless group mounted attacks along the border. In the north, relations between imprisoned and interned members of these groups and the IRA remained largely amicable. In the Curragh, they were tense. Echoes of these difference were to continue throughout the 1960s (see Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army).

Wolfe Tone Societies: The bicentenary of Wolfe Tones birth saw the founding of the Wolfe Tone Societies to try and find support among parts of the working class community, including those in the north that traditionally voted for unionist candidates. It was initiated from within the republican movement late in 1962. According to Roy Johnston, it seems to have been more likely from the IRA than Sinn Féin, although those involved at an early stage, like Uinsean Mac Eoin, Harry White, Lorcan Leonard and Richard Roche don’t appear to have still been active within the IRA. Known as the Wolfe Tone Bi-Centenary Directories, it was a political project supported by the IRA and Sinn Féin becoming the Wolfe Tone Society in 1964 with a role in the emerging Civil Rights movement (see Johnston, Century of Endeavour). The idea of the Wolfe Tone Society displacing Sinn Féin as the political ally of the IRA was being mooted by 1966 (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962-72). Instead the Republican Clubs were formed in 1967, while they are seen as the predecessor of the Workers Party, their history appears more complex as the chair of the Belfast Directorate of Republican Clubs was Jimmy Steele, who was prominent on the Provisional Army Council side of the IRA split in 1969-70.