Billy McKee obituary: Senior IRA man who crossed swords with Gerry Adams

McKee, a Belfast republican of the old school, mixed ruthlessness and humanity

Billy McKee: his prominence in the IRA ended in 1977 when he was removed as Belfast officer commanding and reduced to the ranks

Billy McKee: his prominence in the IRA ended in 1977 when he was removed as Belfast officer commanding and reduced to the ranks


Billy McKee, who has died in his native Belfast in his 98th year, was an uncompromising physical force republican of the old school.

He was one of the founders of the modern IRA in December 1969, when the organisation split into Provisionals and Officials, and its first commander in Belfast. He was one of the last living links to the republican movement from before the second World War, and was imprisoned in every decade from the 1930s to the 1970s.

At the time of his death, he was outside the organisation he helped bring into being. He felt it had abandoned the republican principles to which he dedicated his life.

He took part in two of the defining actions of the Provisional IRA. In 1970 he led the defence of the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand against loyalist attack. During the confused gun battle he was shot and seriously wounded. After this, many Catholics saw the Provisional IRA as defenders of their community.

In 1972 he led a prison hunger strike that resulted in political status being granted to republican and loyalist prisoners. Its removal four years later resulted in the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.

While he organised the Belfast IRA, he was imprisoned during the most intense period of the Troubles from early 1971 to late 1974. Thus, he bore no responsibility for the Bloody Friday bombings of 1972. After his release he was involved in secret peace talks, first with Protestant clergy and then with British government representatives.

McKee was pragmatic. He had no objection in principle to contesting elections, but did not believe parliamentary politics would deliver a united Ireland. At a time when republicans refused to recognise courts, McKee supported doing so. In 1958 two Tyrone republicans were charged with murdering an RUC sergeant. He used his authority to ensure they recognised the court, and employed good defence lawyers. Both were found not guilty.

Removed as commander

In 1963 he was removed as IRA commander in Belfast because he accepted an RUC demand that the Tricolour not be carried on a commemoration. He believed confrontation would only result in injuries and arrests.

Like many of his generation, he was a daily Mass-goer. He was hostile to mainstream communism because of its attitude to religion, but considered himself a Connolly socialist. He disagreed with the leftward-moving IRA leadership of the 1960s as he felt they had not made preparations for defence of Catholic areas in Belfast, despite signs violence was brewing.

William James McKee was born in Belfast’s Lower Falls in November 1921, second of seven children to Robert McKee and his wife, Elizabeth. As he was born, the Northern Ireland state was coming into being in bloodshed. Although his family was not republican, that background shaped him.

He was educated at Slate Street Primary School, then spent most of his working life as a textile printer.

In 1936 he joined Na Fianna, the youth wing of the IRA, and was first imprisoned in 1938. From 1940 to 1946 he was a sentenced prisoner in Belfast’s Crumlin Road prison.

From 1957 to 1960 he was interned in the same prison. There he showed resourcefulness. He arranged communications between sentenced and interned IRA prisoners on different wings, and in and out of the prison. Only he knew his couriers.

Leaving the IRA in 1963, he became part of a loose network of former IRA prisoners. Fearing sectarian trouble was brewing, he accumulated small quantities of weapons.

When violence erupted in August 1969, he heard Belfast’s Clonard area was under attack. He gathered up a few weapons and some fellow veterans, and improvised defence. That autumn he and others set up their own IRA units. Attempts at unity with the existing Belfast Battalion failed. At the Provisional IRA’s second army convention the following year he was elected to the army council.

His prominence in the IRA ended in 1977 when he was removed as Belfast officer commanding and reduced to the ranks. He had allegedly acted without authorisation from the Army Council. He had certainly crossed swords with the rising Gerry Adams. Many felt that was his real offence.

In 1986 he left Sinn Féin for Republican Sinn Féin. He later parted company because he knew members of the Continuity IRA were involved in criminality, but remained a republican.

He was well-read in Irish history and world politics. Personally, he was austere, more like a headmaster than “one of the boys”. He mixed ruthlessness and humanity, refusing to condemn the killing of police officer Ronan Kerr but saying he would not wish Kerr’s fate on anyone.

Outside of republicanism, greyhound racing was a major interest. Through it he met one of his closest non-republican friends, a Shankill Road Protestant. Before McKee’s friend died, he had declared his wish to be buried in Milltown Cemetery, a Catholic graveyard. McKee used his influence to fulfil that wish.

He is survived by his sister Theresa, nieces and nephews.