If there is one repeating trait down the entire history of Irish militant republicanism, it is the tendency for the movement to factionalise. The bigger organisations, not least the Irish Republican Army, have always tended to have within their number different camps and outlooks, which frequently become semi-formalised, sometimes in truly ridiculous circumstances. There is also the recurring issue of breakaways and rival groupings being set-up, ones that might carry the same general aims, but which disagree with the other organisations in terms of how to exactly achieve them. Going forward, the topic of breakaways, splits and spin-offs from the IRA will come up again and again, and today we will focus in on that which existed for a few years around the time that the Three Macs were attempting to re-arm.
The man who will be the focal point for this entry was Liam Kelly. Kelly, from Dungannon, Tyrone, came from a republican family and joined the IRA when he was just 18, spending the majority of the Second World War in prison and then in internment after being found carrying IRA documents. In the late 1940’s he was one of those tasked with re-vitalising the IRA’s fortunes in Tyrone, doing so with vigour and a noted charm, but Kelly clashed repeatedly with the nominal IRA leadership in Dublin. In 1951, having been found to have carried out a small-scale armed raid in Derry without authorisation from GHQ, Kelly was thrown out of the IRA, and most of the Tyrone Brigade, who seemingly had far more loyalty to their commander than to the larger organisation, went with him.
The result was Saor Uladh, “Free Ulster”, Kelly’s own paramilitary group formed out of the former Tyrone IRA. The entity would never be able to extend its range of operations much beyond Tyrone, but were surprisingly efficient within that space, thanks in large parts to productive contacts between Kelly and sympathetic figures in America. Through them Kelly got funds, arms and explosives, and unlike the IRA in Dublin would show that he was not afraid to use them. In many resects this constituted the only key operational difference between Saor Uladh and the IRA as it existed at the time, with the two organisations maintaining the same faith in physical force militant republicanism: Kelly was just more pro-active and desiring of immediate action, and chafed at the alleged authority of more cautious men in Dublin.
But there were significant differences on a political level, where Saor Uladh were represented by an entity dubbed Fianna Uladh, or “Warrior/Soldiers of Ulster”, though it was perhaps better known for close informal ties with Sean MacBride’s Clann na Pobhlachta. It was those ties that would help get Kelly elected to the Seanad in 1954 – after he had been elected to the Northern Irish Parliament, though he refused to take up the seat – where he would make speeches making clear his and Saor Uladh’s acceptance of Bunreacht na hEireann and the legitimacy of the Dublin government, something very much at odds with the IRA, which continued to maintain that it was the only legitimate governing body in Ireland. At the same time, Kelly would also maintain that his mission was to expand the remit of the Irish Constitution to cover the entire island of Ireland, and he was more than willing to use force to achieve this: but only in the North. It was there that Kelly would be arrested for making seditionist speeches in 1953, for which he would spend a year in prison.
Saor Uladh’s military activities would not make an enormous impact on Northern Ireland, but are notable for the period nonetheless. There were three main ones, that took place between 1955 and 1957. The first was an attack on the RUC barracks in Roslea, Fermanagh, in November 1955. Early in the morning on the 26th of that month, Kelly led a party that placed a mine up against the barracks, and after detonating it several of his men entered the building, spraying fire from Thompson submachine guns. The surprised occupants fired back after the initial shock had worn off, and in the course of the exchange one member of Saor Uladh, Kelly’s right hand man Connie Green, was hit. He would die the following day. The affair caused great annoyance to the IRA, whose then leadership felt such a gesture was not worth any loss of life, and they would go as far as issuing a public denial of any involvement. Despite the loss, Kelly’s local popularity was seemingly unaffected, though Saor Uladh’s capability must have been.
Saor Uladh’s next major splash involved cooperation with another splinter group, this one under the leadership of Joe Christle. Christle was a fascinating man in his own right: a Dubliner, he was known for his work with trade unions, later worked as a lecturer in constitutional law, founded An Rás Tailteann and was an active member of the Dublin IRA from the early 1950s. He took part in more than one of the arms raids that took place in the 1950s, and was wounded at Omagh in 1954. Christle attracted a huge popularity from the younger elements of the rank-and-file for his verve, charisma and pro-active attitude, but had a fractious relationship with the IRA leadership, who chafed at Christle’s perceived insubordination and ill discipline. He sometimes undertook his own operations without instructions or authorisation, such as the theft of a painting from the Hugh Lane collection in London’s Tate Gallery in 1956: Christle meant for it to draw attention to an Irish claim on the paintings, but his act led to a British police raid on an IRA safehouse in London, to the anger of GHQ. Christle was expelled from the IRA in the Summer of 1956, for the formal reason of addressing Sinn Fein meetings without authorisation. Much like as had occurred with Kelly, a large proportion of the Dublin IRA went with him.
It didn’t take long for Kelly and Christle to reach out to the other, finding much to bind them, and an agreement was made that saw both groupings work together, with perhaps 70 effectives between them. On the 11th November 1956 – Armistice Day, always likely to be a sensitive time for those of a unionist persuasion – combined units from the two groups attacked and burned a series of custom posts along the Irish border. The custom posts had always been especially hated by the IRA as a key sign of the border infrastructure, and thus an especially official symbol of the reality of partition. No one was killed, but the burnings made an impact, and probably accelerated the IRA’s own plans for Northern Ireland, that went into operation within a month. Kelly and Christle’s groups would continue to co-operate with each other in matters such as the finding of arms or explosives, but Christle would eventually turn more to politics than physical force.
Saor Uladh’s last major action was the following year. In May, a combined unit of men from Saor Uladh and the Christle group were able to use stolen gelignite to blow the locks off the gates of Newry Canal, causing a great deal of damage in the initial explosion and in the disruption to trade that followed. In terms of impact married to the cost of materials used and men employed, it had to be said that the attack was a great success, and came without any loss of life. But by then the IRA Border Campaign was well underway, and Saor Uladh’s time in the spotlight was already coming to an end.
The group would disintegrate over the following years, with many of those involved in the Newry Canal attack arrested and interned that same year: in internment they were the subject of an ostracisation campaign by IRA internees. In 1958 another Saor Uladh member was killed after an encounter with the RUC turned violent, and Kelly was arrested again. His activities, especially a fundraising tour to the United States, continued to enrage the IRA, though there does appear to have been some low-level informal cooperation between the two entities at times. Kelly and Christle’s erstwhile union also fizzled out, reducing the possibility of military operations. Kelly emigrated permanently to the United States in 1961. Saor Uladh trundled on in a fashion for at least another decade, but by the mid-70’s most of its limited membership had been subsumed into the Provisional IRA.
The effectiveness of Saor Uladh, Christle’s group or any of the others that appeared in this time is debatable. At best they were responsible for some small bits of damage to the Northern Irish state and raised the profile of militant republicanism at home and abroad. The latter especially should be considered no small thing really. But the cost was in two men dead, and the consequences of that raised profile: the theft of explosives in the south especially would for, the Irish government, justify a return to the kind of security options that had been in use during the Second World War when it came to republicans deemed a threat to the state.
For the IRA, entities like Saor Uladh were a sideshow to their own endeavours, and unwelcome ones at that. In the next entry we will begin our examination of what the post-Second World War IRA had been building towards for several years now, the culmination of the planning of the Three Macs, and the biggest sustained campaign for militant republicanism since the S-Plan. This was to be the Border Campaign, also known as Operation Harvest: as before it was a wildly ambitious affair, and as before it was going to end in failure.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.