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Joe McCann – Life & Death

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 shot dead, after being confronted by RUC Special Branch and British paratroopers in 1972.

Early life

Joe McCann

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 IRAMarxist-Leninist-oriented socialists. McCann sided with the Officials. His brothers Dennis, Patrick and Brian, also joined the OIRA.

Personal life

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.

IRA activities

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.

Robert Bankier

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.

Starry Plough flag (1914).svg

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.

See : 15th April – Deaths & Events in Northern Ireland Troubles

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

Joe McCann’s funeral

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.

cathal goulding

Goulding said:

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.

A memorial plaque in the Markets area of Belfast

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

Joe McCann’s widow, Anne, centre, leaves the court in Belfast
Joe McCann’s widow, Anne, centre, leaves the court in Belfast after the case collapsed. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent@rorycarroll72

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.

Joe McCann
Joe McCann. Photograph: PA

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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22nd May – Deaths & Events in Northern Ireland Troubles

Key Events & Deaths on this day in Northern Ireland Troubles

22nd May

Saturday 22 May 1971

Robert Bankier

A British soldier was killed by members of the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) in Belfast.

Monday 22 May 1972

Over 400 women in Derry attacked the offices of Official Sinn Féin (OSF) in Derry following the shooting of William Best by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) on 21 May 1972.

Wednesday 22 May 1974

Day 8 of the UWC strike

In an attempt to resolve the strike the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to postpone certain sections of the Sunningdale Agreement until 1977 and to reduce the size of the ‘Council of Ireland’

. These proposals were rejected by leaders of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) and other Loyalist leaders. The British government repeated their stance on not negotiating with the UWC. John Hume, then Minister of Commerce, worked on a ‘fuel oil plan’.

Saturday 22 May 1976

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) Ceasefire

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) announced the beginning of a three-month ceasefire.

[This ceasefire was, however, broken on a number of occasions the first of which was on 5 June 1976 when five civilians were shot dead.]

Friday 22 May 1981

Henry Duffy (45), a Catholic civilian, was shot dead by a plastic bullet fired by the British Army as he walked through the Bogside area of Derry.

Carol Anne Kelly (12), a Catholic girl, died three days after being shot by a plastic bullet by the British Army as she walked along Cherry Park in the Twinbrook area of Belfast.

Kieran Doherty, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner in the Maze Prison, joined the hunger strike.

 See  1981 Hunger Strike

Thursday 22 May 1986


Andrew French ( BA)  David McBride & William Smyth (RUC)

Two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers and one British soldier were killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) near Crossmaglen, County Armagh.

The three men had been part of a joint RUC / British Army (BA) foot patrol when the IRA detonated a remote controlled bomb hidden in a ditch.

Tuesday 22 May 1990

Peter Brooke, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, held a long meeting with Unionist leaders in London. James Molyneaux, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), announced that they were ‘well satisfied with the results’. The Bank of Ireland published a report which estimated that the cost of ‘the Troubles’ to the British and Irish Governments was £410 million.

Wednesday 22 May 1991

In the political talks (later known as the Brooke / Mayhew talks) the venue for Strand Two (the North-South Stage) of the main talks was agreed by the parties.

Saturday 22 May 1993

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded a bomb, estimated at 1,000 pounds, in Portadown, County Armagh. Six people were injured in the explosion.

[Later estimates put the cost of the damage at £8 million.]

Friday 22 May 1998 Referendum on The Agreement

There was a huge turnout throughout the island of Ireland as people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland voted on the Good Friday Agreement (in the Republic there was a further vote on the Ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty).

This was the first all-Ireland poll since the general election of 1918. It was clear from the number of people going to polling stations across Northern Ireland that there had been a high turnout (the figure was 81.10%).

[When all the votes were counted the results were as follows: Northern Ireland – Yes 71.12%, No 28.88% (turnout 81.10%); Republic of Ireland – Yes 94.39%, No 5.61% (turnout 56.26%); Ireland overall – Yes 85.46%, No 14.54%. While it was not possible to break down the Northern Ireland figures by community an exit poll for the Sunday Times (a British newspaper) found that, of those questioned, the Agreement was supported by 96 per cent of Catholics and 55 per cent of Protestants. In the Republic of Ireland, the Amsterdam Treaty was ratified, with the results as follows: Yes 62%, No 38%.]

Saturday 22 May 1999

Loyalists carried out a petrol-bomb attack on the home of a Catholic family in west Belfast.



Remembering all innocent victims of the Troubles

Today is the anniversary of the death of the following people killed as a results of the conflict in Northern Ireland

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die

– Thomas Campbell

To the innocent on the list – Your memory will live forever

– To the Paramilitaries –

There are many things worth living for, a few things worth dying for, but nothing worth killing for.

11 People lost their lives on the 22nd May between 1971 – 1987


22 May 1971

Robert Bankier   (25)

Status: British Army (BA),

Killed by: Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA)
Shot by sniper as he left British Army (BA) Armoured Personnel Carrier, Cromac Square, Markets, Belfast.


22 May 1972

William Hughes   (54)

Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot while sitting in parked car, Moortown, near Coagh, County Tyrone. Mistaken for civilian-type Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) vehicle.


22 May 1973

Thomas Friel   (21)

Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: British Army (BA)
Died five days after being hit by rubber bullet during street disturbances, Creggan Heights, Creggan, Derry.


22 May 1975
D’Eath   (30)

Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
Killed by booby trap bomb hidden in flask at his workplace, building site, Hightown Road, Glengormley, near Belfast, County Antrim.


22 May 1976

John McCambridge   (21)

Status: Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Off duty. Shot outside his home, Corrainy, near Dungannon, County Tyrone.


22 May 1981

Henry Duffy  (45)

Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: British Army (BA)
Shot by plastic bullet while walking along street, Bogside, Derry


22 May 1981

Carol Ann Kelly   (12)

Status: Civilian (Civ),

Killed by: British Army (BA)
Died three days after being shot by plastic bullet while walking along Cherry Park, Twinbrook, Belfast.


22 May 1986

Andrew French   (35)

Status: British Army (BA),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Killed by remote controlled bomb, hidden in ditch, detonated when joint British Army (BA) / Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) foot patrol passed, Milltown Bridge, near Crossmaglen, County Armagh.


22 May 1986

David McBride  (27)

Status: Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Killed by remote controlled bomb, hidden in ditch, detonated when joint British Army (BA) / Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) foot patrol passed, Milltown Bridge, near Crossmaglen, County Armagh


22 May 1986

William Smyth  (25)

Status: Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Killed by remote controlled bomb, hidden in ditch, detonated when joint British Army (BA) / Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) foot patrol passed, Milltown Bridge, near Crossmaglen, County Armagh.


22 May 1987

Charles Watson   (35)

Status: Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF),

Killed by: Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Shot at his home, Downpatrick Road, Clough, County Down.