Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Billy McKee was a fanatic who realised his goal was unachievable

Billy McKee
Billy McKee

By Malachi O'Doherty

Billy McKee was an ardent republican. He was ready to sacrifice his life for the cause.

Arrested in 1972, he went on hunger strike to demand political status and few if any doubt that he would have taken it to the end.

He was spared that when his concerns were put at the heart of negotiations between the IRA leadership and British diplomats to arrange a ceasefire.

The delegates to those negotiations were Gerry Adams and Daithi O Conaill.

They met at the Derry home of Colonel Sir Michael McCorkell and the first item on the agenda was to confirm that Billy McKee had come off his hunger strike, having been notified that IRA prisoners would receive a special category status.

The British will have had several reasons later to regret this, not least that they had spared the life of a fanatic. They had also conceded the main objective of the IRA in the negotiations before having exacted anything in return.

And when a future British Government would try to abolish special category status it would trigger years of prison protest, more hunger strikes and the rise of Sinn Fein.

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The diplomats, Philip Woodfield and Frank Steele, must have wondered then if they would have done more for long-term peace if they had let McKee die.

McKee was an important figure back then. He was one of the founding members of the Provisional IRA.

He had been outside the movement for some years, apparently disillusioned by the shift to the left and an apparent willingness to work for progressive political change through the civil rights campaign.

But traditional republicans always believed that their moment would come and McKee's came after the eruption of violence in August 1969.

McKee and splitters on the army council argued that people in Catholic areas had been left defenceless and that the IRA had to be reshaped and put back on a war footing.

A legend has been built around a gun battle in which he was wounded. This was at St Matthew's Chapel in the Short Strand area of east Belfast in June 1970.

The story is that McKee and a few other plucky gunmen held back the loyalist hordes intent on overwhelming the beleaguered little ghetto. It is diminished, however, by the fact that the families of the Protestant victims were compensated on the understanding that none were armed activists.

The Catholic who died in that battle had actually been shot accidentally by the IRA, so the quality of defence offered by Billy McKee remains questionable.

McKee, as Belfast officer commanding, was a moralistic Catholic chauvinist who had no difficulty reconciling murder with religious faith.

Some of the reform minded socialists went with the Provisionals too, notably Gerry Adams.

When the two wings of the IRA clashed with each other in the spring of 1971, McKee delegated Adams to negotiate a truce between them.

McKee obviously had a high regard for Adams and gave him substantial responsibility in the movement but he appears to have disengaged himself from the IRA in the mid 1970s.

Some say he saw no point in people getting killed or going to jail for a cause that had so obviously failed to achieve its aims.

The IRA had been wooed into a ceasefire in the expectation that the British were planning to withdraw and needed only a little time to do it with dignity and without the appearance of being forced to go.

McKee was one of those who fell for that ruse.

Others swore to fight on, until the British made a clear commitment to leave within the lifetime of a single parliament, on a maximum of five years notice.

McKee was removed from the army council. He claimed he remained active in some way for another 10 years, but he was too traditional in his thinking for the evolving Provos.

Belfast Telegraph

From Belfast Telegraph