Belfast Telegraph

Forgotten Official IRA man Joe McCann was part of republican revival in 60s

Malachi O'Doherty

Some people tried to make a legend out of Joe McCann. A song was written and sung every Sunday night in a club in Lagan Street to a hushed and reverent silence in the months after his death.

'They murdered our hero, brave Joseph McCann.'

Some of his photographs show him as lean and handsome enough to be an iconic figure.

He was friendly with the media at the time and he allowed a Pacemaker photographer to photograph him from behind, close to a burning barricade, crouched with his M1 Carbine held out into the light so that there could be no mistaking it.

Many who were alive in 1972, the year he died, will have perked up their ears at the news that two soldiers have been charged with his murder, and reflected on how come the books never came to be written or the movies made that would have cemented the legend in the making.

But essentially McCann was in the wrong IRA to be made famous for long. He was a Stickie, a member of the Official IRA, the group from which the Provisionals broke away in 1970.

Yet he had been part of the republican revival in the mid-1960s. He was recruited by Billy McMillen and sworn in as an IRA volunteer in the old Ard Scoil building in Divis Street, which was at the centre of Irish language teaching and gaelic culture in Belfast at the time.

His closest friend in those days was Gerry Adams, who later wrote that they were conspicuous at riots by their height and were too easily identified for comfort.

McCann was a fighter. In 1965 he was one of a group of republicans who attacked a British Army recruitment meeting at St Gabriel's secondary school.

They smashed a projector with hurley sticks.

The fact that Army recruitment could happen in a Catholic school in Belfast at the time tells you how different the culture then was.

He was arrested later that year and jailed for possession of an Army bayonet and details of police movements.

He was a rebel, but he didn't fit the modern idea of what a rebel would be.

He was, for instance, a lay Franciscan and spent weekends in robed retreat and in silent prayer, something some of his comrades mocked him for.

Some didn't even know that. But that was a period in which a republican might be expected to be a devout Catholic anyway.

He was part of the organisation of riots on Belfast in August 1969.

A plan was hatched to create a massive riot in Divis Street on August 13 and 14 to overstretch the police at a time when they had been losing control of street fighting in Derry, the Battle of the Bogside.

Liam McMillen had called IRA units from around the city to bring their limited stocks of weapons to the Lower Falls and to prepare hundreds of petrol bombs. McCann was at the front of a protest march to Hastings Street RUC station to hand in a letter of protest.

In the second night of rioting, the police and IRA exchanged gunfire, loyalists joined in from the streets adjoining the Shankill, there were several deaths and the city was traumatised by the eruption of warfare.

The IRA would split over its management of that battle.

Nearly all of McMillen's IRA men would stay with him in the Officials.

One would leave and join the Provisionals.

That was Gerry Adams.

He had already had a falling out with them and had been suspended for a time in the autumn of '69.

But two friends, he and McCann, were now on opposite sides of a split, and that split would turn deadly in circumstances that could easily have led to one of them being killed by the other.

A year later, in the Spring of 1971, the feud turned bloody.

The spark was in Adams' territory when a group of Provos shot and wounded a man linked to the Officials.

The Officials retaliated and the quarrel escalated into armed attacks on Official IRA drinking clubs.

A truce was put in place that night but one of the Provos, Charlie Hughes, stayed on the street, armed.

He was attacked and shot dead by two Officials, one of whom was Joe McCann. This was almost certainly the first time that McCann had killed.

The peace between the two sides after that was negotiated on behalf of the Provos by Gerry Adams.

Among the Officials, McCann was seen as an eager militant.

On one occasion he and another man stopped two RUC men on the Ormeau Road and took their guns from them.

In the spring of 1972, after the introduction of Direct Rule, the new secretary of state William Whitelaw was making overtures to the two wings of the IRA to entice them into a ceasefire and talks.

The Officials were initially more interested in this but McCann is remembered as one who opposed the move.

Ostensibly the trigger for the Official IRA ceasefire was the outrage in Derry after they murdered a young soldier, Ranger Best, home on leave.

McCann was sent to Dublin to be out of the way, but he had come back to Belfast against orders in the week that he died.

He was based in a house in Essex Street in the lower Ormeau Road.

He moved about in disguise and he had a young Fianna boy scouting for him, to keep him safe.

That scout was Anthony McIntyre, later sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and later still an academic and an eloquent critic of the Good Friday Agreement and of Gerry Adams.

McIntyre says he had seen two policemen in the area and had gone to McCann's safe house to warn him.

He had walked some distance down the Ormeau Road with him and then parted from him to kick a ball about with a friend.

He heard the shots.

Probably Gerry Adams heard them too from the Maidstone Prison ship docked in Belfast Lough.

Journalists arriving in Kelly's Cellars that Saturday afternoon, where they might have expected to meet McCann, were greeted with the news that he was dead and given an account of how it had happened.

The Official IRA ceasefire went ahead, though it was often lightly broken.

Gerry Adams has written much about his early friendship with Joe McCann.

He must also reflect at times, surely, on how easily he might have met the same fate, died early in his campaign and been forgotten.

And those who knew and revered McCann and sat hushed over their pints through the rendition of his ballad in Lagan Street, might wonder too how the legend died.

It died because the ideology that prevailed from those days was not the militant republican socialism of Joe McCann, it was the reformist politics of the SDLP, adopted and refashioned by his sidekick, Gerry Adams.

Malachi O'Doherty's biography of Gerry Adams will be published by Faber and Faber in September 2017

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph