By Jack Holland
For almost a century, Belfast was the key to the success or failure of the IRA in the North. The IRA had to show that it could attack the citadel of Unionism from within. What was true of the armed struggle is now true of the peace process. For republicans, it will be won or lost in Belfast.
Raymond J. Quinn, a Belfast historian, has attempted to trace the history of Irish republicanism in Belfast from the years 1925-72 with his book "A Rebel Voice: A History of Belfast Republicanism."
Quinn’s account begins in the aftermath of the Civil War, with a demoralized and decimated organization setting out to rebuild its bases in the city where during the early 1920s it had been engaged in a bloody and frequently sectarian conflict. Those bases of support would remain over the decades.
According to Quinn, the rebuilding of the Belfast battalion got under way in 1925 in a small bookshop at the corner of Castle Street and Marquis Street on the fringe of the old Pound Loaney. It was only a few streets away from where, 44 years later, the IRA would be forced to reorganize as the city again tottered on the verge of civil war.
The historical consistency is noticeable. Areas like North Queen Street, the Ardoyne, the Oldpark, and the Short Strand in East Belfast, would join the Falls in providing the handful of volunteers who kept the IRA alive in the1920s and the lean years that followed. They were motivated not only by a commitment to republicanism, but also by the fact that they belonged to an embattled community, a minority surrounded by a largely hostile majority. The Belfast IRA has never lost the defender’s mentality. Today, it is perhaps the last strand of old-style Belfast republicanism that has yet to unravel.
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Among the men who made up the Belfast IRA were Jimmy Steele, who would live to take part in the birth of the Provisionals, Liam Mulholland, Tony Lavery, Liam Rice, Arthur Thornbury, Jimmy Connelly and Bob Bradshaw. They were a tough, dedicated breed, accustomed to isolation and hardship, men for whom the grim streets of Victorian row houses and the factory chimneys were home. None of the frothy Southern Irish romanticism there.
Bradshaw, from Divis Street, joined the Fianna (or junior) wing of the IRA aged 12. Years later, when I first got to know him in Dublin, he put his decision to become an IRA man with his usual Belfast terseness.
"The place," he said, "was so awful you had to shoot your way out."
He did, in 1933. The Belfast IRA had been asked by a group of striking Protestant railway workers to help stop blacklegs from driving trucks full of coal into the city. Bradshaw and his unit intercepted a convoy of trucks near the Grosvenor Road, only to be surprised by a patrol of RUC men. A gun battle ensued, with one RUC officer being shot dead. Bradshaw made good his escape and fled south, never to return to his native city. (In one of those sad ironies, the officer who died, the first RUC man to be killed in Northern Ireland, was John Ryan, a Tipperary man.)
The Belfast IRA’s intervention in the railway strike was part of a 1930s pattern, when left-wing influences were trying to reshape the organization. Belfast republicans even managed to recruit a few Protestants from the Shankill Road. But sectarianism was never far from the surface. Following Orange parades in July 1935, widespread rioting broke out, with fierce gun battles flaring in the Short Strand and North Belfast. Four hundred and thirty-nine Catholic homes were destroyed and 2,241 Catholics forced to flee as Belfast endured another bout of ethnic cleansing. Jimmy Steele and the legendary Harry White — a sort of IRA Scarlet Pimpernel — were among those who became involved in the defense of vulnerable districts.
There was a surge in IRA activities in Belfast throughout the 1930s, which Quinn covers. But the organization soon suffered a devastating blow. An ambitious arms raid on an officers’ training facility in Campbell College was compromised and half of the eight-man active service unit were arrested in an RUC ambush. The Belfast O/C, Tony Lavery, gave permission for the volunteers who had been lifted to recognize the court at their trial. Lavery, according to Quinn, broke with republican precedent in order to flush out a suspected informer, who Lavery thought was responsible for the arms-raid debacle.
The Dublin leadership was outraged and called Lavery to a court-martial, which took place in the Crown Entry, off Ann Street in central Belfast. As Quinn points out, this was a serious mistake, considering that there might be an informer in the ranks. So it proved. The RUC swooped, arresting 12 of the IRA’s most prominent leaders, including two members of the GHQ staff. All were jailed. The Belfast IRA was effectively decapitated. Two IRA men, Dan Turley and Joe Hanna of the Belfast Brigade staff, were subsequently shot dead as suspected informers, but doubt still hangs over this old episode, and some suspect the real culprit was never uncovered.
It was a demoralizing time for the IRA in Belfast and elsewhere. In 1941, Sean Hayes, who had replaced Sean Russell as chief of staff, was suspected of being an informer. At the instigation mainly of the new Belfast leadership, Hayes was arrested in June and court-martialed. Hayes confessed, but managed to escape his captors and deliver himself into the hands of the Garda in Dublin. (He later retracted his confession. Whether he was guilty or not has remained a matter of controversy.)
In the 1930s and ’40s, the Belfast IRA remained on the defensive. Any fatalities it inflicted on the police mainly occurred because operations had gone wrong. In the post-war era, the organization went dormant, and took almost no part in the 1950s border campaign. It was not until the sectarian turmoil of the late 1960s that it came back to life.
Quinn’s account of the Belfast IRA includes the story of the service many of its members undertook in Spain fighting against Franco, and details many of the most famous raids and escapes. The portrait that emerges is of an organization forged in the furnace of Belfast’s bitter sectarian battles but still capable of producing idealists uncompromisingly devoted to the republican cause.
("A Rebel Voice: A History of Belfast Republicanism" is published by the Belfast Cultural and Local History Group and can be obtained from the author at 537 Antrim Rd., Belfast BT 15 3BU.)