Belfast Telegraph

Republican Billy McKee whose 'heart and soul was with the IRA' dies aged 97

Veteran republican Billy McKee
Veteran republican Billy McKee
Richard O'Rawe
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Former IRA leader Billy McKee has been described as an "old-style" republican who never believed Irish unity would be achieved through political means.

McKee passed away on Tuesday, June 11, aged 97. Richard O'Rawe (65), a former IRA prisoner and Provisional IRA press officer turned best-selling author, said the fact he never swayed in his beliefs stood him up as a man of honour to be revered in years to come by Irish republicans.

"I knew him all my life," Mr O'Rawe told the Belfast Telegraph.

"He stood for me at my confirmation. He was a great friend of my father and I will remember him as a man of honour.

"He was an old-style republican, an old-style IRA man, an armed struggle man. In all his days he never changed.

"He always felt the political process would never deliver Irish unity. For him, physical violence was the only way he saw of opposing Britain's presence in Ireland.

"He saw things in black and white and as such I had a lot of respect for him.

"He always kept true to himself and never once swayed from what he believed in."

Born in Belfast in 1921, McKee first joined the IRA in the 1930s.

Imprisoned numerous times for IRA activity, he was involved in the border campaign during the 1950s before drifting away from the movement.

When the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s, McKee returned to the IRA as officer commanding of the Belfast brigade.

He was a founding member of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s and felt the IRA was not doing enough to protect Catholics from loyalist violence.

McKee was the IRA commander during a 1970 gun battle at St Matthew's Church in the Short Strand.

Two Protestants and a Catholic were killed. McKee was shot five times during the trouble.

Jailed in 1971 after being found in possession of a handgun, McKee was imprisoned in Crumlin Road Gaol.

A year later he led a hunger strike in an effort to win recognition of IRA prisoners as political prisoners.

After his release McKee returned to the IRA before being forced out of the organisation in 1977. It is believed he left the army council after a disagreement with the leadership.

He spent his remaining years in Belfast as a fierce critic of Sinn Fein and sent a message of support to dissident republican group Saoradh when they were founded in 2016.

Mr O'Rawe added: "History will judge what his legacy for Ireland is but I know a lot of people will always have a great reverence for him.

"Unlike the French he never got to see his revolution in his lifetime.

"However, I will remember him as the Robespierre of Irish republicanism.

"He certainly had no time for Sinn Fein going down the political route and made that clear.

"Yes, he supported small republican groups who remained physically opposed to British rule, but he always felt it was his duty to uphold the values of 1918, his duty to deliver reunification."

Mr McKee always 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 previously said.

"If I was a young man today I would be with the group that would be the proper IRA.

"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 the murder of Jean McConville was justified, claiming he knew she was working as a British informer.

A constant critic of the Sinn Fein leadership, McKee also dismissed as "a joke" ex-Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams' continued denials that he was ever a member of the IRA.

"He was chief of staff, army council and OC Belfast yet he says he was never in the IRA, for him to get up and say that was the daftest thing I have ever heard," McKee always insisted.

McKee believed Sinn Fein "betrayed the republican movement" by signing up to the Good Friday Agreement and allowing decommissioning.

Troubles journalist Peter Taylor, who interviewed McKee on several occasions, described him as "effectively the last of the old-style physical force IRA republicans".

He said McKee had gained "a legendary status in the history of the IRA" for his role in driving off "loyalist mobs in a ferocious gun battle" at St Matthew's.

"Billy McKee historically played a key role both in the military sense, because of the defence of St Matthew's Church and also because of his hunger strike which resulted in what effectively became political status," said Mr Taylor.

"He will have gone to his grave feeling bitter that the IRA never achieved its long-term goal, the reunification of Ireland.

"That would have been his great disappointment on his death bed."

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