Northern Ireland news

Provisional IRA founder Billy McKee defends its worst atrocities including murder of Jean McConville

Veteran republican Billy McKee
Diana Rusk

A FOUNDER of the Provisional IRA has defended some of its worst atrocities including Bloody Friday and the murder of mother-of-10 Jean McConville. 

Billy McKee, who was the paramilitary group's first leader in Belfast, claimed that Mrs McConville was an informer who ignored repeated warnings to stop. 

The widow was dragged from her home weeks before Christmas 1972 as her children looked on. 

She was driven over the border and shot in the head before being buried on a beach in Co Louth. 

Her orphaned children were never told what happened. Mr McKee, who was in jail at the time, claims the IRA was right to do what it did. 

"All I know is that Mrs McConville was found out... working for the Brits," he said. 

"She was warned to stop it. She persisted and carried on working for the Brits. It left the people outside with no alternative. 

"If there was some reason to hand her body over at the time then all right but if there was some reason to bury her somewhere then I'd have done that too. 

"I never queried it. I never would query anybody about operations that went on." 

The republican hardliner was the first 'officer commanding' of the Belfast brigade of the Provisional IRA but split from the organisation in 1977 and says he has "no regrets" about his bloody past. He joined Republican Sinn Fein in the mid-1980s. 

In a letter published on page 14 of The Irish News today Mr McKee and Laurence O'Neill - who was jailed for 15 years in the 1970s for weapons offences - accuse Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of "manipulating and hijacking the republican cause" and aiding the arrest of republicans. 

In an interview with the Irish News Mr McKee also criticised the Sinn Féin leadership for "demonising" anyone who would not condemn the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr.

"Ronan Kerr knew when he donned that uniform what was in front of him," Mr McKee said. 

"I didn't wish it on him or wish it on anyone but I can't come along and condemn the lads who done it. No way will I condemn anybody who is taking part in the armed struggle. 

"The experience we have had with the RUC goes beyond that. You can't expect us to go down and start shed-ding tears for some of them. Not me." 

He claimed Sinn Féin has "betrayed the republican movement" by signing the Good Friday Agreement and allowing decommissioning. 

Mr McKee earned his place in republican folklore after taking to the streets of Belfast when loyalists attacked the lower Falls and burned Catholic homes in the Clonard area in August 1969. 

He helped the IRA gain a reputation as defenders of the nationalist community after he was involved in a five-hour gun battle with loyalists attacking a Catholic enclave in Short Strand in east Belfast. 

A plaque from the "grateful community of Ballymacarret" still adorns his west Belfast home for his part in what became known as the 'Battle of St Matthew's' in 1970. 

Mr McKee said he was no longer connected to Republican Sinn Féin - which has links to the Continuity IRA - because, he said, of its links to drug dealing and tiger kidnappings. But he remains wedded to militant republicanism. 

"I'm not involved in any group at this time. I don't know who they are or what they are up to or what their real idea is," Mr McKee said. 

"If there was a genuine group that I thought was following the footsteps I did, I would give them my blessing. 

"I can do nothing for them. I'm [approaching] 90 years of age but I would give them my blessing." 

Despite his age, Mr McKee's voice rises in anger when asked if he believes violence could still help achieve a united Ireland, particularly during a time of peace. 

"There'll never be peace in this country until that Union jack comes down and the British Army get the hell out of here and anything connected with Downing Street gets the hell out of his country," he said. 

Asked how that can be achieved, he answered: "I don't know." 

Mr McKee criticised the party for "demonising" republicans opposed to its policy. He ridiculed Gerry Adams's repeated denials that he was ever a member of the IRA, describing it as "a joke".

The veteran republican even listed a series of positions he claims the Louth TD had held in his lifetime at the helm of the republican movement. While Mr McKee was close to Mr Adams's father and uncles, the pair have been bitter enemies for decades.

It has been suggested that Mr Adams ousted Mr McKee from the IRA 'army council' even though the veteran republican said he left because of ill health. Mr McKee described the repeated denials by Mr Adams of being an IRA member as "the joke of the year".

"He was chief of staff, army council and OC Belfast yet he says he was never in the IRA," Mr McKee said. "For him to get up and say that was the daftest thing I have ever heard. There were people who hadn't laughed for years that enjoyed that joke." 

Mr McKee said Mr Adams had betrayed the republican movement by agreeing to the decommissioning of IRA arms and by signing the Good Friday Agreement.

"Gerry Adams? Don't mention that name in front of me," Mr McKee said. "His father and I were in prison together during the war. His uncles were great friends of mine.

"They were stalwart republicans but when Gerry Adams came in to the republican movement he came in to promote his own political future."

Mr McKee said he was close to securing peace in the 1970s when he took part in negotiations in Feakle, Co Clare.

"The thing is that there is such a thing as peace at any price. I didn't want peace at any price. I wanted a guarantee that the British government would withdraw form the six counties and that a 32-county Irish republic would be established.

"That's what I wanted and at the '75 talks all we asked for was a guarantee that they would leave and when. The British government were willing to do it." 

Last night Helen McKendry, a daughter of Jean McConville, hit back at Mr McKee's claims. 

She said her mother was "no informer" but was murdered "to protect someone else". 

Ms McKendry (53) said Mr McKee was relying on "other people's information". 

"He was in prison when my mother was murdered. He was only getting second-hand news. He doesn't know what happened," she said. 

"My mother was taken out and buried to protect someone who was an informer. She was sacrificed for someone else." 

She added: "There was a time when these types of comments would have made me angry but they don't annoy me any more. They're not true." 

Last night a Sinn Féin spokesman declined to comment on Mr McKee's attack on the party's leadership. 

"Sinn Féin may take the opportunity to comment on these remarks once we have had the opportunity to read them," he said. 

From our archives: Political process will not deliver a united Ireland - Billy McKee (2016) 

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