Former IRA leader Billy McKee dies aged 97
Former IRA leader Billy McKee has passed away at the age of 97.
McKee died at his Belfast home on Tuesday morning.
He was a key figure in the establishment of the Provisional IRA in Belfast in the 1970s before reportedly leaving the IRA Army Council in the late 1970s after a disagreement with the leadership.
McKee first joined the IRA in the 1930s and was imprisoned numerous times over the years for IRA activity.
He was involved in the IRA's border campaign during the 1950s before drifting away from the movement in the 1960s.
When the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s McKee returned to the IRA as OC of the IRA's Belfast Brigade.
He was one of the founders of the Provisional IRA alongside Joe Cahill and other republicans who felt that the IRA at the time were not doing enough to protect Catholics from loyalist violence.
The veteran republican was IRA commander during a gun battle at St Matthew's Church in Short Strand in which two Protestants were killed alongside a Catholic civillian. McKee was shot five times during the fighting but survived.
McKee was jailed in 1971 after being found in possession of a handgun.
He was imprisoned in Crumlin Road and led a hunger strike in 1972 in an effort to win political prisoner status for republicans convicted of crimes.
McKee was close to death when the hunger strike was called off after Secretary of State William Whitelaw agreed to give republican prisoners special category status.
After his release McKee returned to the IRA before being forced out of the organisation in 1977.
He spent his remaining years in his native Belfast as a fierce critic of Sinn Fein, joining Republican Sinn Fein in 1986.
McKee sent a message of support to dissident republican group Saoradh when they were founded in 2016.
Speaking later in life Mr McKee said he had no regrets about his IRA past.
“From I was 15 until 65 I was in some way involved. I have had plenty of time since to think if I was right or I was wrong. I regret nothing," he said.
"If I was the young man today I would be with the group that would be the proper IRA.
"I would never condemn them in any way, my heart and soul is with them."
McKee refused to condemn the Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast that led to the deaths of nine people and said that the murder of Jean McConville was justified and claimed that she was working as British informer at the time.
Following McKee's death Republican Sinn Fein paid tribute on Twitter.
"Republican Sinn Fein send its deepest sympathy to the family and comrades of IRA Volunteer Billy McKee who died this morning," their post read.
Belfast Telegraph Digital