john kelly

Kelly was part of the nucleus of the 1969 Provisional leadership. Like Billy McKee, he was one of the street fighters who defended Catholic areas like the Lower Falls. Kelly was part of the team responsible for more seriously arming the IRA; weapons became a priority for the new strategy. In 1969, John Kelly and Sean Keenan went to the Bronx in New York City for money and arms and then travelled to England for more...

q: Why did the border campaign fail?
kelly: The campaign failed because of lack of support from the local population. Without that support you cannot survive. It's like any guerrilla organisation, unless you have the water in which to swim you can't survive.

q: What was the lesson of the border campaign for the IRA?
a: I think the lesson for those who returned to the Republican movement, coming out of prison after the ceasefire, after the releases in '63, '64 and '65, was that perhaps the Republican movement should take a more political line rather than a militaristic line. By getting involved in civil rights, in trade unions, in all political actions like housing.

q: What was your view of that line?
a: Well, like many people coming out of prison we were trying to make a life for ourselves, so we didn't sort of have any particular view, I suppose. And thinking about it as you went along, particularly when '69 came, one saw that the military line had been neglected in favor of a more socialist, Marxist-Leninist approach with which most traditional Republicans disagreed, which had led to the rancour within the Republican movement, the disaffection of many of the traditionalists within the movement.

q: When you came out of jail in 1963, what was the state of the IRA?
a: The IRA was in a state of reorganization. It had been in disarray after the campaign having been defeated. The only thing that had been achieved was that the Republican movement had struck a blow as they had done in every generation, and so that was the only achievement, the only thing that had been achieved.

q: Was it thought, at the time, that what the IRA called the arms struggle was dead?
a: I think there was a process of rethinking within the movement, that perhaps the arms struggle was not the way forward on its own. That an arms struggle, on its own, was getting nowhere unless you had the political support of the population. That is why, basically, the '56 campaign failed, because there was no political foundation for sustaining an armed struggle.

q: But was the military campaign dead and buried forever?
a: No, it wasn't dead and buried forever, no. That was never part of Republican philosophy that the armed element would be dead for ever.

q: It was still there?
a: It was still there. On the back burner.

q: To be brought out when necessary?
a: To be used when necessary, yes.

q: What was the significance of the 50th Anniversary of the Easter rising?
a: It meant that the Republican movement was still alive, that the sacrifice of 1916 had not been forgotten, that it was being commemorated 50 years later, not only by Republicans but by the state. It meant a reaffirmation of the whole Republican ethos, the whole Republican tradition of Catholic, Protestant in the center.

q: And Nelson's Column was blown up.
a: Well, Nelson's Column was blown up and I think, you know, that great mystery surrounds that, as to who did it and there are many stories surrounding that. I think the blowing up of Nelson's Column was symbolic, that I think state agencies within the government didn't want Nelson's Column to be there when the 1916 50th Anniversary was being celebrated. One can go no further than that I think.

q: In 1966 at the commemoration, was there a feeling that the day would come when the IRA would be seen on the streets again, or was the IRA simply a thing of the past then?
a: No, I don't think it was seen then that the IRA would be on the streets again. I think nevertheless it was always that the IRA was never thought of as being dead and buried, it was always going to be there as long as partition existed.

q: What was the influence of the IRA on the civil rights campaign?
a: I don't think that the IRA directly had any influence on the civil rights campaign.

q: But it was IRA people, was it not, that did most of the stewarding of the marches?
a: Of course, it would have been Republican people who would have done most of the stewarding of the marches, yes.

q: And there were senior IRA people, senior Republican leaders in leadership positions within the civil rights movement, weren't there?
a: There was of course, but never in control of the civil rights movement. Certainly, as I say, the political tactic was to get in to get involved in all political organizations, in so far as possible, and NICRA was an obvious organization to be involved in.

q: But the tactic was to get involved and then use them, manipulate them for the ends of the movement, wasn't it?
a: The strategy would have been, yes, to be a part of a populist movement, you know, with which Republicans would have agreed, equal rights, one man, one vote and that kind of thing, certainly, yes.

q: The unionists said that the IRA was really the hand behind civil rights.
a: I would have to say they were wrong, because, you know, if you consider Bernard Devlin, John Hume, O'Boyle, people like that, they would not have been sympathetic to the arms struggle or to the militant republican ideal.

q: What were your feelings at the time of the civil rights movement?
a: I thought for the first time in the history of the six counties that you had people from all walks of life on the Nationalist side who were participating in a a mass movement that was directed against the injustices of Stormont, whereas, in the past the only people who who stood up, if you like, to Stormont were Republicans and the Republican movement in the IRA. Now you had people, professional people, educated people, school teachers who were going on to the streets and protesting in a major way against Stormont regime.

q: What was the significance of the reburial of Barnes and McCormick?
a: I think the main significance was the fact that they were allowed to be reinterred in their own country after so many years, that was the first significance. The second significance was the speech of Jimmy Steele which reiterated the traditional Republican attitude towards the physical movement struggle within the Republican movement, as opposed to, as they saw it, the leftward trend of Golding, Garland, Seamus Costell and people like that, and I think that it was a watershed in that sense that the Jimmy Steele speech then, at the Barnes and McCormick memorial, was a reiteration of the traditional Republican attitude to the physical force movement.

q: You were in the crowd listening to him. Can you remember what went through your head when you heard what he was saying?

a: That here was a man who was putting his head on the chopping block, because obviously what he was saying was running contrary to the trend within the Republican movement at that time. But I think Jimmy Steele was quite well aware of that and was putting down a benchmark for the more traditional Republicans to rally around, and I think that was the main purpose of what he said on that occasion, and that's what went through my mind, that there was going to be trouble following what Jimmy Steele had said.

q: Were you glad he said it?
a: I was glad, in the sense, that he was reaffirming the more traditional Republican line. I think it was quite right for the Republican movement to get involved in political issues on the ground and to get involved in a major way. I think the more traditional Republicans were more apprehensive of the fact that things were being carried on outside the country rather than internally. Most traditional Republicans would have said, "OK let us settle the Irish question first and then if you want to get involved in left wing politics, socialism, communism, whatever, that's fine, go your own way. But let us get the national question solved first and nothing else should interfere with that."

q: Where were you in August '69 when the Nationalist areas in Belfast were subjected to Loyalist attack?
a: I was in Belfast at that time, living in Glengormly.

q: What do you remember about that time? What did you see?
a: I remember everyone was apprehensive and then when it came to Belfast everything just went up in flames, literally and metaphorically. And people like myself who had been involved in the Republican movement over the years found ourselves being asked to get involved again in the defensive Nationalist areas, since we were the only people who had knowledge of how to use weapons and how to organise defenses within those areas.

q: What weapons did you have?
a: We had literally no weapons. Shotguns, hand guns, very, very few weapons.

q: Why were there no weapons?
a: Well, again, that goes back to the whole argument that existed within the Republican movement, that the demilitarization of the IRA ... with which the more traditional Republican disagreed, that's basically why there were no weapons available for the defense of Nationalist areas in '69.

q: Wasn't the other reason why there were no weapons available was that it was against the IRA ideology, because they would have been used against Loyalist attack and that would have been a Sectarian use?
a: I think that that was another factor within it, yes. No, but one has to balance that against the kind of doomsday situation that existed within the North of Ireland at that time when Catholic areas believed that they were under threat of total annihilation. So one has got to balance the defensive attitude towards anything that might appear to be a Sectarian offensive action. I don't think there was any intention certainly on the part of the Republican movement to be offensively Sectarian, because the attacks were coming from the Unionist side, not certainly from the Nationalist side. I would agree that the more left wing people within the Republican movement then would have said, "No, lets try and sort of put the lid on this and let it simmer, let it settle down," rather than get involved in a Sectarian conflict.

q: Did you help defend the area?
a: I did, yes.

q: With what?
a: Oh, shotgun, hand gun, whatever was available.

q: And how effective was it?
a: Well, it was effective in the sense that it gave people encouragement within those areas to know that there was someone there. I also think that it, on the Unionist side, on the special side, on the RUC side perhaps they were not aware just of how bereft Republicans were in terms of weaponry, so therefore it might have steered their hand to some extend.

q: Describe the scene.
a: Well, the scenes in Belfast were utter desolation. I remember walking up the Falls Road and places, mills on fire, glass littering the road, a deadly silence, an unearthly silence. Streets deserted, people cowering in their homes. A total anticipation of disaster, you know.

q: How did people regard the IRA after they had failed to do what people had expected them to do?
a: Well, it's a peculiar situation because while the Nationalist population, by and large, did not support the IRA down the years in the physical force tradition. They always expected that they would be there for the defense of Nationalist areas. So when '69 came along and the areas were under attack and there was no IRA, they turned on the Republicans, and the IRA, 'I Ran Away' syndrome became very vocal and written on walls, and, I suppose, most IRA people felt a degree of guilt, a degree of shame even, ... and at the same time, a degree of anger that why the people had suffered over the years without the support of the very people who are now asking and wondering why they were not there to offer the defense. So there were many contradictions.

q: What was your reaction to the arrival of British troops?
a: I think most people saw the arrival of British troops on the ground in Derry and in Belfast as an indication that the British were going to do something about the situation in Northern Ireland. That there was going to be a change and that perhaps it was the precursor to a withdrawal, even though they had arrived, but a withdrawal of British influence within the six counties. And that was reaffirmed with the abolition of Stormont. People felt that on the Nationalist side, certainly, that at last the British were going to confront Unionism, and sort of say, "Well, this cannot continue." I think that would be the main attitude of Republicans then.

There was also the attitude that that having seen British troops on the ground, that if they remained and that if they became overtly anti-Nationalist, that was going to be a resurrection of the whole Republican ethos of the whole physical force movement, then that they were going to come into conflict with the British Army at some stage.

q: When the troops first arrived on the streets they were welcomed.
a: They were welcomed, absolutely, yes.

q: As saviors.
a: As saviors, yes.

q: By the majority of the Nationalists.
a: There's no question about that, you know. And I know that Republicans on barricades were dealing at a senior level with British Army commanders, majors, colonels and whatever on the ground, so there was that kind of of communication and relationship with the British on the ground. And the British commanders on the ground knew with whom they were dealing, and so there was no problem, which again gave hope--hope perhaps isn't the correct word--but sort of arose in Republicans the concept that at last there was going to be a change in the whole attitude from Britain, towards the national question in Ireland.

q: Did you have dialogue with British Army commanders?
a: Oh, yes. Yes.

q: Face to face dialogue?
a: Face to face dialogue, yes.

q: So the British Army was talking to the IRA?
a: They were talking to the IRA, of course. In fact, Brigadier Kitsem requested a meeting with senior IRA people in Belfast when he was there and the meeting was turned down by IRA people.

q: What was the message from the Brigadier?
a: The Brigadier said that he wished to meet senior people within the IRA in the Belfast area to discuss with them the ongoing situation and how it should be resolved.

q: Why wouldn't the IRA meet him?
a: Because they felt that Kitsem's record and his involvement in Kenya and other places, that he was merely there to pick the brains of the people that he would be meeting to see what way they were thinking, because he was a very clever, devious man. And so they felt that in some ways they would be showing their hand to him, that he would sit back and see exactly the type of people he would be dealing with and working with and would know how to combat them, you know. And that was the main reason, not to let your enemy know what you were thinking, and that was the reason for not meeting Kitsem.

q: But the IRA could also have learnt from Brigadier Kitsem.
a: Oh, yes, of course.

q: Did you have dialogue with army officers on a regular basis?
a: We did, of course, yes. We had on one occasion a gun lecture from an army officer in Belfast.

q: A gun lecture?
a: A gun lecture, yes, in September of 1969, where he stripped down a ... machine gun and demonstrated how we should put it together again ... he did that to ascertain how much we knew about the weaponry as another question because he was an intelligence officer, so one just wasn't quite sure as to what his motives were.

q: Weren't you a little surprised at that?
a: Surprised, yes, but the relationship had become a kind of one-to-one relationship that we took it as a matter of course.

q: But at that time the army didn't see the IRA as the enemy and the IRA didn't see the army as the enemy.
a: They did not, no. Exactly, yes.

q: Who was the officer, can you remember?
a: I can, but I prefer not to use his name.

q: What regiment was he?
a: I don't know.

q: Just over a week after the arrival of British troops, there was a meeting in Belfast of senior IRA people, and you were one of them. What was discussed? Why was that meeting held?
a: That meeting was held primarily to depose the existing leadership of the IRA in Belfast, whom the more traditional Republicans felt had let down the Republican movement, had let down the Nationalist community by not providing the weaponry to defend Nationalist areas.

q: Were you planning a coup?
a: One could say it was a coup, yes.

q: And then a few weeks later a group of senior IRA people in Belfast met Billy Macmillan, who was then the OC of Belfast. What did you say to Mr. Macmillan?
a: Well, it was a confrontational meeting rather than a sort of meeting, and ...

q: Confrontational, in what sense?
a: Well, confrontational in the sense that the purpose of going to meeting Billy Macmillan was to tell him that he was no longer in charge of the IRA in Belfast and that the leadership was no longer welcome in Belfast and that the people taking over would be the more traditional Republicans like Jimmy Steele, Billy Mackay, Joe Carr.

q: Did you take guns along to the meeting?
a: There were guns present at the meeting, yes.

q: So he didn't really have a lot of choice?
a: Well, I think he, himself, would have known that people were coming and that he would have anticipated that there would be a confrontation at some stage, and so he would have had the choice of saying yes or saying no. A compromise was eventually arrived at and things diffused.

q: What was the atmosphere at that meeting?
a: Very tense. I think you've got to remember too, that people at that meeting had been comrades and there were people who served time together in prison and, in that sense, it was a difficult confrontation, but having said that there was the kind of realistic approach from the traditional elements that something had to be done and that those whom they perceived to be disarming the IRA had to be put to one side.

q: Was that the beginning of the split?
a: Well, the split was there from 1963. The split was there from the reorganization of the IRA, after the the border campaign of '56. After that ended, the split was there. It hadn't been spelt out in any detail, but all the elements were there within the Republican movement. The O'connell, MacStiofan, Jimmy Steele, Mackay, Kerr, who opposed the leftward trend, as they saw it, within the Republican movement. That was ongoing. I suppose '69 was the catalyst for the split.

q: The issue on which the split came was ideological, the issue of abstentionism, about taking seats or not taking seats in the Irish Parliament.
a: And in Westminster, yes.

q: Why was it that issue? Why was that so important?
a: Well, I think it was important because it was an ideological issue, which the ordinary volunteer could identify rather than go into the whole morass of political theory and Marxist Leninism, of trying to explain all that to the ordinary volunteer, that was a much clearer attitude to put to the meeting that that we were splitting on the traditional line of abstentionism, because that was traditional within the Republican movement from 1921 onwards.

q: But was abstentionism the real reason for the split?
a: No it wasn't, no, no. As was demonstrated later because people who were involved in the split, at that time, later accepted that abstentionism should go. Gerry Adams, for example, and Joe Carr, Jake O'Hagan, John Joe Magarill who would have been considered very traditional Republicans.

So, no, abstentionism was not the crux issue. It would have been the crux issue perhaps for, let us say, Southern Republicans, who would have taken a more civil war attitude towards this date than Northern Republicans would have done. It was perhaps more an issue for them, but certainly not for Northern Republicans it would not have been a major issue.

q: You made it your business to go out and get guns, to get arms.
a: Well, it's not so much that I made it my business, other people made it my business for me because that was considered to be essential. And that wasn't just coming from Republican elements within the North of Ireland, that was coming from all people across the National, the Nationalist population, provisional people. It affected all classes within the Nationalist population because they all felt under threat and they felt that this was a doomsday situation and therefore that they turned, as I said, to the IRA to provide the means of defense and they were approached by all classes within the Nationalist community. And to go back to your question that I made it my business, it was made our business, it was made the business of the Republican movement to go out and procure arms, yes.

q: And how did you go about doing that?
a: Well, as you can recall, that the Irish government had made a commitment, as we understood it, to providing arms for the defense of the Nationalist population, and approaches had been made. And we followed up on those approaches.

q: Where did you go looking for arms?
a: Well, we went initially to England and then to America, and then back to the continent.

q: Where did you go looking for arms in England?
a: We went to London, initially.

q: To see who? Talk to who?
a: We had been advised to meet a fellow called Captain Markham-Randall, whom we met in London, who we were told was an arms dealer and could provide arms. As it turned out he was not an arms dealer and was not providing arms.

q: What was he?
a: Well, we believe that he was working for British security.

q: And you went to America?
a: We went to America subsequent to that, myself and John Keenan, in December of 1969, yes. And we met several of the Irish-American Republicans who were residing in New York at that time, in the Bronx, and we met them there and we discussed with them the possibility of they procuring arms for us.

q: What did you tell them you needed?
a: We told them we needed any kind of arms that they could suss out for us in their way through their own contacts in America for the defense of the Nationalist population.

q: How were you going to pay for these arms?
a: Well, as I say, we had been told by the Irish government that money was available for the procurement of arms, and we had told them at that meeting that that was where the money was coming from. Surprise, surprise, some of them were rather aghast at the notion of taking money from a free state government to procure arms, the more traditional Republicans in New York, you know. So we had a problem convincing them that if they couldn't provide the money then we weren't going to be arguing or quibbling about where the money was coming from.

q: And then you went to Europe?
a: Then we went to Europe then on Neil Blaney advice, having gone back from America, having set up the channels of communication and the channels of procurement in America, and came back and Neil Blaney told us that there was a much quicker route from Europe. So we were then diverted to Europe.

q: Neil Blaney was a Cabinet Minister at the time?
a: He was a Cabinet Minister at the time, yes.

q: Although no arms came in from America at that time, were the channels that you set up, the channels that were subsequently used to bring in arms?
a: I don't know that either.

q: Why was the Falls curfew a turning point?
a: I think because of the severity, ferocity in which the British Army attacked the Nationalist population within that area. They just cut them off ... for 48 hours, they went in with weapons, they shot people, they ransacked houses, and I think that the whole episode really soured the Nationalist population and discouraged them and sort of made them feel again that they were defenseless, that here the British Army was, they were perceived to be the saviors of the situation, were now turning against them in a most savage kind of way. And again they turned to the IRA as as their protectors.

q: The army found lots of weapons.
a: They did, but, I mean, no one was surprised at that given the situation that existed within the six counties then and existed within Belfast. The whole feeling of being under seige, that attacks were going to be imminent. So no one in the Nationalist population were surprised. Disappointed that they were discovered and and that they were taken away from them. They would have seen that as being a betrayal, you know, of their position.

q: Were you on the Falls at the time?
a: I was, yes.

q: What's your most vivid memory being there?
a: On the seige? ... of almost despair and anger and resentment at the fact that the British were turning once again against the Nationalist population. The main emotion was one of anger against the British.

q: Did you defend the area during the curfew?
a: No I didn't, because the people involved there were the people within the curfew area. And who, incidentally, were mostly official IRA people.

q: Not provisionals?
a: Not provisionals.


home .  the conflict .  inside the ira .  readings .  poems & songs .  special reports .  chronology .  map .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline
PBS Online