Ireland’s Wars: The IRA “Northern Campaign”

It is fair to say that, by 1942 anyway, the IRA were running out of road in Ireland. The organisation was shattered, losing Volunteers, officers and leaders at a frightful rate, whether it was by arrest and detention, or just by disillusionment. Supplies were at a premium, and more importantly the same could be said for the will do undertake any actions. Through the end of 1942 and to an extent on into 1943, a loosely cobbled together campaign of actions would take place in Northern Ireland, though even dubbing it as such is to aggrandise the amount of organisation that was behind it. In many respects it was one last throw of the dice by the IRA, before the predations of law enforcement on either side of the border left them as neutered and ineffective as they had ever been.

The situation in the North was not good for the IRA. Despite the pivot towards Northern officers leading the organisation in the aftermath of the Stephen Hayes affair, the IRA had not been able to effectively operate any better than it had before, with the Belfast government and its police force as good or better than Dublin and the Garda at finding what they deemed as subversives and detaining them. The North had recovered from the shock of the Belfast Blitz and was now as pro-active a part of the UK’s war effort as it could be, hosting an increasing number of American servicemen from 1942 onwards: in such circumstances a pro-active effort to eliminate the presence of the potential fifth column that the IRA represented were deemed a necessity. The American presence was just another way to inflame some nationalist tensions in the North – they seemed as much an extension of the British military presence as anything else, and more than one republican would deem the US an occupying force – but the question remained as to just what the IRA was actually going to do about it. Much of the debate within the IRA at the time revolved around whether the focus should be on actions in the south or the north of the island. With a more Northern focus in its command, IRA units had already begun moving staches of guns and ammunition closer to the border in 1942, but a coordinated plan to use them was yet to come to light.

Much of what followed later in the year got its impetus from the events of Easter Sunday in 1942. Commemorations of the Easter Rising were banned by the Belfast government, and attempts to hold such things were often the focus of violence between nationalists and the RUC. Efforts to get around the prohibition often took the form of nationalist entities, including the IRA, announcing incorrect days and times for commemorations, in efforts to mislead the RUC. Sometimes this was enough. Other times, the IRA would go further. 1942 was one of those years.

The plan that year was for a small group of IRA Volunteers in Belfast to actually attack an RUC vehicle – a so-called “cage car”, essentially a rudimentary APC – and thus lead the police into an extended search of that particular area, leaving IRA units elsewhere free to hold a planned commemoration. The attack went ahead in the city’s Kashmir Street with Tom Williams leading his company of Volunteers in firing at the vehicle. They then fled down Cawnpore Street, but were forced to turn and engage in a brief firefight with the car when it pursued more actively than had been expected. In the fire, an RUC Constable – Patrick Murphy, somewhat ironically one of the few Catholics serving with the RUC – was shot and killed, more than likely by 21-year-old Volunteer Joe Cahill, later to be a figure of significant prominence in militant republican circles.. The six Volunteers, including a wounded Williams, were captured. All six would be tried and sentenced to death, five of them would see the sentence commuted owing to Williams’ decision, allegedly taken as he felt at the time that his wounds would be fatal, to claim sole responsibility for the shot that killed Murphy. His execution was scheduled for the 2nd September 1942.

If there was a “Northern Campaign” that began that year, it was as a direct result of the situation involving Williams, who naturally became something of a cause celebre on either side of the border. I say “if there was” because what has come to be known as the “Northern Campaign” is something of a nebulous concept, a term that has been used to describe all manner of IRA operations within Northern Ireland during the Second World War. There appears to have been no formally arranged or declared campaign of action during this time, though there were certainly discussions about such a thing. Readers may recall Tom Barry’s plans to launch an invasion over the border into Northern Ireland, and as stated arms and ammunition had been moved close to the border in preparation for action. But in terms of their being something along the lines of the S-Plan, with declared motivations, strategy and expected outcomes, the Northern Campaign largely does not exist. Instead, it is a catch-all term to describe a serious of somewhat inter-connected but mostly wildcat minor actions that took place through the latter part of 1942 and into 1943, with a particular emphasis on the early days of September 1942. A “Special Manifesto” issued by the IRA in late August makes no mention of any specific planned campaign, and instead merely served to restate “national principles” on a larger level. It is simply put then that the idea of a “Northern Campaign” is an aggrandisement.

It was shortly after the publication of that manifesto that orders were issued for the arms at the border to be transported over it. In most cases this was undertaken successfully using a variety of vehicles, and often through lackadaisical RUC checkpoints at the border. The guns were then stored in awaiting dumps. There was one major exception to the smooth transfer, at Hannahstown, Co Antrim. Shortly after the Volunteer charged with overseeing the operation there, Daragh O’Donovan, had sent a signal that it had been carried out successfully, an RUC patrol attacked the farmhouse where he had been stationed, killing him and recovering several tonnes worth of material, including copious amounts of explosives.

The day before Tom Williams’ execution, IRA GHQ issued orders for all available O/Cs to take whatever actions they could in retaliation. Williams was hung on the morning of the 2nd September, with some limited moments of civil unrest in Belfast. Over the course of the following week a number of actions were undertaken by the IRA against RUC targets, with Dinny O’Brien also killed in Dublin in the same timeframe. It is these actions that are most often described with the term “Northern Campaign” but to call them so seems an exaggeration. That same day a group of 20 Volunteers attempted to attack the British Army barracks at Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, near the border, but were discovered in the approach and put to flight after a brief exchange of gunfire: their plan to capture and execute an officer as revenge for Williams came to nought. On the 3rd the RUC barracks in Randalstown, Co Antrim, saw its front wall collapsed by a mine that injured a Sergeant. On the 4th, a similar attack on a barracks in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, failed when the mine didn’t explode. On the same day an exchange of fire between units of the Belfast IRA and B Specials in the streets of the city left a Volunteer wounded. The following day, a similar exchange of fire saw Volunteer Gerry Adams, six years ahead of fathering a son of the same name, suffer a similar fate, and he would serve five years in prison in the aftermath. The most successful attack, for the IRA anyway, in this period was in Clady, Co Tyrone, when two RUC constables were shot dead by Volunteers who subsequently fled over the nearby border into Donegal.

A number of other events after this period are also sometimes roped in as part of popular remembrance of the Northern Campaign, though they were more ancillary than anything. They include the death of Volunteer Patrick Dermody at the end of September in a shoot-out with the Garda during a raid, where a member of the police was killed via friendly-fire; the death of Garda George Mordant in a raid in Donneycarney, Dublin that was carried out with the intention of capturing IRA quartermaster Harry White, who escaped; the execution of Maurice O’Neill, captured in that raid and found guilty of murder despite a defence from Sean McBride; the death of an RUC Constable in an IRA attack on the Donegall Pass barracks in Belfast, which consisted of a thrown bomb and a brief exchange of gunfire; the previously discussed escape of Hugh McAteer from prison in Belfast, and his actions during his time at large; and a number of other incidents that took place throughout 1943 and 1944. The reality behind most of these incidents is that they were reactive events that happened because of IRA or RUC action to detain or otherwise harm the IRA, and not the pro-active measures taken as part of an organised military campaign.

The campaign, if it can even be called that, petered out after these incidents. Indeed, IRA activity within Ireland petered out for the rest of the war, the organisation gutted in so many respects. Huge swaths of its membership, on either side of the border, were imprisoned. Access to guns, ammunition and funds were at dramatically low levels. And pro-active, inspired leadership was lacking everywhere. Charlie Kerins’ tenure as Chief-of-Staff had brought hope of greater stabilisation, but Kerins’ involvement in events like the killing of Dinny O’Brien kept him living on the run for the better part of two years. He was finally discovered and arrested in June 1944 and faced murder charges that same month. Refusing to partake in the procedures of a court he did not recognise, Kerins was found guilty and sentenced to hang, the execution carried out despite plenty of opposition. He would be the last IRA man executed in Ireland during the Second World War. His death only piled on the pressure for the IRA, whose leadership structures in the aftermath exist in something of a haze: for at least some amount of time the IRA essentially had no-one at the top, and it would take a while before it was again in a position to be considered a viable threat in Ireland or Northern Ireland.

If there was a concerted organised military operation in the Northern Campaign, then it must be deemed a failure. The IRA was able to inflict a few deaths and a small amount of damage on the institutions of Northern Ireland, and in exchange continued to leak men and supplies. They were unable to prevent the deaths of Tom Williams through any action, and if what occurred in the aftermath was the limit of their capability, then it could be said that they were not very capable of much at all. Of course, the evidence suggests that there was no Northern Campaign really, just a number of small-scale operations that occurred in a tight space of time that has subsequently gained the moniker. The truth is that the IRA had done as much as it could do in the Second World War, and for the remainder of my coverage of Ireland in that war we will discuss them less and less: the organisation now lacked the numbers, the firepower, the leadership and the will to be able to do much, other than to continue existing at a very basic level. Certainly the idea that the IRA could enforce some manner of political change on the island of Ireland seemed as remote as it had ever been by the time one gets to 1944.

So successful did the Dublin government feel it had been regards the IRA that Gerard Boland, the Minister of Justice, was allegedly heard to claim that “the IRA was dead and he had killed it”. He was, of course, incorrect, and we will return to discuss the IRA in time. For now, we move on. The war was ongoing, and in 1943 the Allies would attempt to take total control of its momentum, and propel their cause towards what now seemed more and more to be an likely victory. The Irish named regiments, for both the British and American militaries, would be there when they did.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The IRA “Northern Campaign”

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Final Thoughts On The Second World War | Never Felt Better

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