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