Joe McCann – Life & Death
Joe McCann (2 November 1947 – 15 April 1972) was an Irish republican volunteer. A member of the Irish Republican Army and later the Official Irish Republican Army, he was active in politics from the early 1960s and participated in the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
He was born in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, and spent most of his life there and in the nearby Markets area of the city. His mother died when he was four years old leaving, four children. His father remarried. He was educated at the Christian Brothers school on Barrack Street in Belfast, where he developed an interest in the Irish language. A bricklayer by trade, he joined the Fianna Éireann at age 14 and the IRA in the early 1960s.
In 1964 he was involved in a riot on Divis Street in Belfast in opposition to the threat from loyalist leader Ian Paisley to march on the area and remove an Irish tricolour flying over the election office of Billy McMillen. In 1965 he was arrested for the possession of bayonets with five other men. They served nine months in Crumlin Road jail. He had expressed an interest in the priesthood while a teenager. He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis in his later teens.
McCann was active in the IRA’s involvement in the civil rights activism, protesting against the development of the Divis Flats. McCann became Officer Commanding of the IRA in the Markets, involved in housing issues and any matters which related to local government.
In 1969, after sectarian rioting in Belfast, the IRA split into two factions: the newly created Provisional Irish Republican Army, traditionalist militarists, and the existing organisation, which became known as the Official IRA, Marxist-Leninist-oriented socialists. McCann sided with the Officials. His brothers Dennis, Patrick and Brian, also joined the OIRA.
McCann married Anne McKnight who hailed from a strong republican family in the Markets area in Belfast. Anne’s older brother, Bobby, was part of the 1956–62 border campaign and was arrested and jailed, as well as later being interned. Anne’s brother Seán sided with the Provisionals after the 1969 split, and went on to represent South Belfast for Sinn Féin.
McCann was appointed commander of the OIRA’s Third Belfast Battalion. By 1970, violence in Northern Ireland had escalated to the point where British soldiers were deployed there in large numbers. From 3–5 July 1970, McCann was involved in gun battles during the Falls Curfew between the Official IRA and up to 3,000 British soldiers in the Lower Falls area that left four civilians dead from gunshot wounds, another killed after being hit by an armoured car and 60 injured.
On 22 May 1971, the first British soldier to die at the hands of the Official IRA, Robert Bankier of the Royal Green Jackets was killed by a unit led by McCann. McCann’s unit opened fire on a passing British mobile patrol near Cromac Square, hitting the patrol from both sides. He was the fourth British soldier to die on active service & the seventh overall since the conflict began.
In another incident, McCann led a unit which captured three UVF members in Sandy Row. The UVF had raided an OIRA arms dump earlier that day and the OIRA announced they would execute the three prisoners if the weapons were not returned. McCann eventually released the three UVF members, allegedly because they were “working class men”.
On 9 August 1971, his unit took over the Inglis bakery in the Markets area and fortified it, following the introduction of internment without trial by the Northern Ireland authorities. They defended it throughout the night from 600 British soldiers who were seeking to arrest paramilitary suspects.
The action allowed other IRA members to slip out of the area and avoid arrest. He was photographed during the incident, holding an M1 carbine, against the background of a burning building and the Starry Plough flag.
In early February 1972, he was involved in the attempted assassination of Ulster Unionist politician and Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs John Taylor in Armagh City, outside the then Hibernian Bank on Russell Street. McCann and another gunman fired on Taylor’s car with Thompson submachine guns, hitting him five times in the neck and head; he survived, though he was badly injured. In another incident MaCann and another man were standing outside a Belfast cinema to purchase tickets for the film Soldier Blue when McCann spotted a British Army checkpoint.
McCann was killed on 15 April 1972 in Joy Street in The Markets, in disputed circumstances. He had been sent to Belfast by a member of the Dublin command as he was at the top of the RUC Special Branch wanted list. He was told by the Official IRA Belfast command to return for his own safety to Dublin. However he ignored their requests and remained in Belfast.
The RUC Special Branch was aware of his presence in Belfast and were on the look out for him. On the morning of his death, he was spotted by an RUC officer who reported his whereabouts to the British Parachute Regiment, who were carrying out a road block in the immediate area at the time. McCann was approached by the RUC officer who informed him that he was under arrest. McCann was unarmed and tried to run to evade arrest when confronted by the soldiers. He was shot dead at the corner of Joy Street and Hamilton Street after a chase on foot through the Markets.
McCann was hit 3 times according to the pathology report, the fatal shot hitting him in the buttock and passing up through his internal organs. Ten cartridge cases were found close to his body, indicating that he had been shot repeatedly at close range. Bullet holes were also visible in the walls of nearby houses.
McCann was the leader of the most militant of the OIRA’s members in Belfast and was much more enthusiastic about the use of “armed struggle” in Northern Ireland than the OIRA leadership. His killing was closely followed by the organisation calling a ceasefire. As a result, it was rumoured that the reason that McCann was unarmed when he was killed was that the Official leadership had confiscated his personal weapon, a .38 pistol.
Some former OIRA members have even alleged that McCann’s killing was set up by their Dublin leadership.
Five days of rioting followed his death. Turf Lodge, where McCann lived, was a no-go area and was openly patrolled by an OIRA land rover with the words “Official IRA – Mobile Patrol” emblazoned on the side. The OIRA shot five British soldiers, killing three, in revenge for McCann’s killing, in different incidents the following day in Belfast, Derry and Newry.
Funeral and tributes
McCann’s funeral on 18 April 1972 was attended by thousands of mourners. A guard of honour was provided by 20 OIRA volunteers and a further 200 women followed carrying flowers and wreaths. Four MPs including Bernadette Devlin were also in attendance. Cathal Goulding the Official IRA Chief of Staff, provided the graveside oration in Milltown Cemetery.
By shooting Joe McCann [the British government’s] Whitelaws and their Heaths and their Tuzos have shown the colour of their so called peace initiatives. They have re-declared war on the people…We have given notice, by action that no words can now efface, that those who are responsible for the terrorism that is Britain’s age old reaction to Irish demands will be the victim of that terrorism, paying richly in their own red blood for their crimes and the crimes of their imperial masters.
In spite of this hardline rhetoric, however, Goulding called a ceasefire just six weeks later, on 29 May 1972. One of the more surprising tributes to McCann came from Gusty Spence, leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force loyalist group. Spence wrote a letter of sympathy to McCann’s widow, expressing his, “deepest and profoundest sympathy” on the death of her husband.
“He was a soldier of the Republic and I a Volunteer of Ulster and we made no apology for being what we were or are…Joe once did me a good turn indirectly and I never forgot him for his humanity”.
This is thought to refer to an incident in which three UVF men wandered into the Lower Falls, were captured by OIRA men, but were released unharmed on McCann’s orders.
In 1997, a plaque was unveiled at the spot on Joy street in the Markets where McCann was killed. Members of the various republican factions, the Workers’ Party of Ireland (ex Official IRA), Sinn Féin (political wing of the Provisional IRA) and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (a splinter, along with the Irish National Liberation Army from the Official republican movement in 1974) were all in attendance.
A ballad about Joe McCann has been authored in tribute by Eamon O’Doherty.
Inquiry and trial
In 2010, the Historical Enquiries Team investigation into the killing of Joe McCann found it was unjustified.
In December 2016, two British soldiers, known as Soldier A and Soldier C, were arrested and charged with murder. The trial commenced in Belfast April 2021. In May 2021, the trial collapsed and the two soldiers were acquitted. The judge found, amongst other things, that the soldiers’ statements given in 1972 to the Royal Military Police, on which the prosecution was based, were inadmissible because the statements were provided without the soldiers being under caution.
The family are set to apply to the Attorney General to request an inquest
Trial of ex-soldiers over 1972 killing of Official IRA member collapses
Two army veterans acquitted of Joe McCann’s murder after judge ruled some evidence inadmissible
Tue 4 May 2021 19.16 BST
Two former British army paratroopers accused of murdering an Official IRA commander during the Troubles have been acquitted after their trial in Northern Ireland collapsed.
The two veterans, known as soldiers A and C, had been accused of murdering Joe McCann on 15 April 1972, in a closely watched trial with political ramifications.
The case collapsed when the Public Prosecution Service decided not to appeal against a decision by Mr Justice O’Hara to exclude some evidence as inadmissible.
The result delighted army veterans’ groups and their supporters, who said the case was the latest example of old soldiers being subjected to a politically motivated witch-hunt. McCann’s family said justice had been denied.
McCann was a member not of the Provisional IRA but its republican Marxist rival, the Official IRA. He was photographed in 1971 holding a rifle beside the Starry Plough, the flag of the Irish labour movement.
A year later when a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer tried to arrest McCann, he fled, prompting soldiers A and C and a now deceased paratrooper, soldier B, to open fire, hitting the 24-year-old in the back. The case hinged on whether the force used was reasonable.
Prosecutors said soldiers A and C believed McCann was armed but they found no weapon. A defence lawyer said McCann was suspected of murders and could have committed more if he had evaded arrest, leaving the soldiers with a “binary choice” of shooting to effect the arrest or letting him escape.
See Guardian for full story : Trial of ex-soldiers over 1972 killing of Official IRA member collapses
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