Northern Ireland news

Profile: Provisional IRA leader Billy McKee

Provision IRA founder Billy McKee has died aged 98. Picture by Mal McCann.
Connla Young

Viewed as an uncompromising physical force republican Billy McKee was a significant figure in the formation and development of the Provisional IRA.

He died after a short illness in a nursing home in west Belfast in the early hours of Tuesday, aged 97.

Born months after partition in 1921, Mr McKee had been an active republican since the 1930s.

He joined the IRA’s youth wing, Na Fianna hÉireann in 1936 at the age of 15.

He was imprisoned in every decade between the 1930s and the 1970s, with his first spell behind bars coming in the late 30’s.

Veteran republican Billy McKee. Picture by Mal McCann.

Although well-known in republican circles he came to public prominence in 1970 when he was one of several republicans who defended St Matthew's Church in the Short Strand area of east Belfast from a loyalist mob.

Two loyalists and one republican were killed during what became known as the ‘Battle of St Matthews’.

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It is said Mr McKee was also injured.

The gun battle, which took place over the course of several hours, was the Provisional IRA’s first major engagement since its formation in late 1969.

Prior to the ’69 split the IRA had been criticised over its response to attacks from loyalists.

Mr McKee was the Provisionals first ‘Officer Commanding’ in Belfast and helped reorganise the organisation in the city.

Under his leadership three battalions were formed into a brigade there for the first time since 1921.

Undated picture of Billy McKee and other republicans possibly taken at Ballykinlar camp in the1940s

Some estimates suggest that ‘The Belfast Brigade’ had up to 1,000 volunteers by early in 1971.

He returned to jail in 1971 on an arms charge and a year later led a hunger strike to demand political status for republican prisoners.

Released in 1974 he was reappointed Belfast OC, a position he held until 1977.

During his time in leadership he took part in secret peace talks involving the British government alongside then Sinn Féin leader Ruairí Ó Brádaigh before he was eventually sidelined from the IRA top table.

He was opposed to Sinn Féin’s 1986 decision to take their seats in the Dail and has been critical of the party’s political strategy in subsequent years.

Billy McKee and other republicans pictured in jail in the 1970s

He was also critical of the Provisional IRA’s decision to decommission its weapons which was completed in 2005.

He regularly defended the IRA's activities including the killing of nine civilians on Bloody Friday in 1972 and the killing of mother-of-10 Jean McConville in the same year, claimed she was an informer who ignored repeated warnings to stop. In 2006 the then Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan said she found no evidence that Ms McConville had ever passed information to the security service

Republican Nuala Perry paid tribute to Mr McKee last night, describing him as "fiercely loyal."

“If Billy committed himself to something he was committed, which is why I think he found it so hard to reconcile with what is unfolding now,” she said.

She said his personal standards were admired by others.

“Right across the board he was clean cut, you could dig around for ever and Billy was as clean as a whistle,” she said.

Billy McKee's travel card dated 1948

Ms Perry said that Mr McKee was in jail at the same time as her father Jimmy Perry and IRA man Tom Williams who was executed in 1942.

“He told me about the morning Tom Williams’ execution and about standing at the cell window,” she said.

“He said he actually looked out and saw the doctor and executioner and said he never forgot how that felt.”

“These experiences shaped him, all these experiences lived through just added more to the man.

“I could not imagine meeting a man like that again.”

Ms Perry said Mr McKee always took an interest in republican prisoners.

A deeply religious man he attended Mass every day until his final months.

In recent years Mr McKee claimed that a paramilitary campaign is justified.

"England had to get out of different countries so they have to get out of Ireland too," he said.

"She took it by force and we have to use force to get it back."

Requiem Mass for Mr McKee will be held at 11am on Saturday with burial later at Milltown Cemetery.

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