By Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell
On April 15, 1972 the Official IRA legend, Joe McCann was shot dead by British paratroopers near Joy Street in his native Markets district of Belfast as he fled a joint RUC Special Branch and military patrol attempting to arrest him.
Controversy surrounded his death with allegations quickly following that he had been finished off after being wounded. The alleged presence of ten empty shell cases lying on the street around his remains was cited as evidence. Conspiracy theorists also speculated that since pro-ceasefire elements in the OIRA leadership would gain by the death of this strongly militant leader, they had somehow had a hand in his death. The fact that OIRA called a ceasefire a few weeks later added weight to this theory.
Whatever the truth McCann was a popular figure throughout the then fractured republican community. He had joined the IRA, reputedly along with Gerry Adams and Denis Donaldson, in the mid-1960’s and thus spanned the breach that came with the Provisional-Official split in December 1969 and January 1970.
Some believe that if he had lived he would have sided with Seamus Costello when the Officials split, essentially over resuming armed struggle, in the mid-1970’s and so the British paratroopers who gunned him down arguably denied the resulting INLA a potentially influential and charismatic leader.
Anger at McCann’s death, and especially the manner of it, united the two wings of the IRA and they launched fierce attacks on the British military in the following days which cost at least three soldiers their lives.
A letter discovered by Bob Mitchell in the Irish national archives – correspondence between the Irish ambassador in London, Donal O’Sullivan to the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, Hugh McCann – reveals the concern of the then NI Secretary, William Whitelaw that killing Joe McCann made him a martyr and led to an upsurge in IRA violence.
The letter also demonstrates an abiding feature of British policy in Northern Ireland, a stubborn adherence to the ‘wishful thinking’ school of policymaking. Whitelaw wrote that McCann’s death came at a time “….when support for (the IRA) is, according to all his information, noticeably on the wane”.
Remember this is just three months or so since Bloody Sunday when anger at the British throughout Ireland reached unprecedented levels. How Whitelaw or his intelligence officials could reach such a contrary conclusion defies understanding. The prevalence of such attitudes probably explains why and how the British kept screwing things up in NI.
Two other interesting points: the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt told Whitelaw that there were some IRA gunmen in Long Kesh who should never be released from jail. And British concern at Unionist reaction to a proposed dinner between Whitelaw and his opposite number from Dublin, Foreign Affairs minister Patrick Hillery to be held at the Irish embassy in London led to the encounter being downgraded to a meeting in Whitelaw’s office.
Here’s the letter: