BELFAST BATTALION: A HISTORY OF THE BELFAST IRA 1922–1969

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Volume 27

JOHN O’NEILL
Litter Press
£15
ISBN 9781999300814

Reviewed by Fergus Whelan

Fergus Whelan is the author of Dissent into treason (Brandon, 2010) and God-provoking democrat (New Island, 2015).

John O’Neill’s book sets out a chronology of the activities of the Belfast IRA from November 1922 to September 1969, relying for the most part on newspaper coverage and official records such as court reports. He breaks down his history into several phases. The first follows on from the intense violence of 1919–22, when he tells us that the Belfast IRA was ‘paralysed by the vortex of civil war in the south’. He next describes a period of reorganisation following the reburial of the executed IRA leader Joe McKelvey in Belfast in 1924. He goes on to describe ‘the confusing era following the de Valera split of 1926’. In the 1930s Belfast IRA members fought for and against fascism in Spain. There follows an account of how in 1941 the Belfast IRA ousted the remnants of Seán Russell’s Dublin-based leadership and relocated GHQ to Belfast. Another phase identified by O’Neill followed the declaration of the 26-county republic in 1948, which he suggests was the impetus for the armed campaign that finally began in 1956. O’Neill admits that ‘the Belfast IRA’s contribution to this campaign was to supply internees to Crumlin Road jail’.

The majority of Belfast’s IRA supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The pro-Treaty faction ousted the anti-Treaty Joe McKelvey as divisional O/C and were ordered to Dublin, where at least 366 joined the Free State Army. Back in Belfast, however, in May 1922 the pro- and anti-Treaty factions began a joint offensive in the city. They launched attacks on the Special Constabulary and on police barracks and arson attacks against businesses, ‘all with the intention of demonstrating the inability of the Unionists to control Belfast’. O’Neill tells us that ‘Nationalist districts were subjected to intense assaults by unionists [O’Neill’s term for Protestant paramilitaries, the RIC and Specials] in order to pin down the IRA into defensive actions’. The IRA factions would have known from their experience of the previous three years the likely impact of their offensive on civilians. By the middle of 1922 around 25% of all fatalities in the violent conflict around Irish independence had occurred in Belfast. O’Neill’s total figure for fatalities throughout Ireland was c. 2,000, and therefore c. 500 people must have died in Belfast between 1919 and 1922. He tells us that the IRA dead during that period stood at 30, while he estimates RIC, British Army and unionist losses at 40. This suggests that c. 430 who died in Belfast were non-combatants. O’Neill tells us that ‘the experience of intense violence very much shaped the attitudes of the Belfast IRA into the 1920s and much later’. If this is the case, the Belfast IRA never allowed the likelihood of high numbers of civilian dead to deter it from launching an offensive whenever it felt able to do so.

Joe McKelvey was among four leading anti-Treaty IRA leaders executed by the Free State government in the infamous reprisal for the assassination of Seán Hales TD in December 1922. When McKelvey’s body was released for burial in 1924 the Belfast IRA saw ‘its own particular O’Donovan Rossa moment’. The coffin, draped in a tricolour, was paraded through the streets of Belfast to St Mary’s Chapel, followed by ‘Volunteers of the IRA, Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan, members of Sinn Féin, the clergy and the public’. The coffin was placed before the high altar at St Mary’s. The funeral the next day was marred by ugly scenes arising from RUC attempts to remove the tricolour from the coffin. Seán Lemass gave a graveside oration at Milltown and ‘the crowd sang Faith of our Fathers and the Soldier’s Song’. The McKelvey funeral led to the restoration of contact between the Belfast IRA and Dublin GHQ.

There is an interesting account of the Belfast IRA’s hostility to both wings of the Dublin leadership in the early 1930s. Belfast activists were hostile to the left, led by Peader O’Donnell and Frank Ryan, but were also suspicious of the more conservative section led by Seán Russell, who O’Neill alleges was trying to ally with the Fianna Fáil government. O’Neill also describes how hostilities developed between the communists and the Belfast IRA as its terror attacks were continued in late 1942. O’Neill does not refer to the fact that at this time the Red Army was engaged in a desperate defence of Stalingrad.

The book is filled with facts. There are many accounts of bombings, shootings, weapons seizures, punishment beatings, informers, court martials, hunger strikes, jail breaks and ‘daring armed raids’, often on unarmed civilians. It is an unashamedly partisan account of a group who were prepared to kill and be killed. Members of the Belfast IRA were prepared to inflict and endure great cruelties in pursuit of their objective. This book leaves one wondering what that objective was.

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