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Your assistance, dear reader, is required to help answer this deceptively simple question. How many Jim Gibney’s are there who hailed from the Short Strand district of east Belfast, were members of the IRA and spent time in jail for their paramilitary activities? Were there two of them, or just one?
The question arises out of a Facebook posting from Clifford Peoples in the last day or so in the form of a court report in The Irish News, dated May 23rd, 1972, which details how James Henry Gibney, a 20-year old motor mechanic from the Short Strand was given a 13-year jail term for bombing the Buffs Club in Belfast.
An IRA colleague, Joseph Patrick Surgenor, a 19-year old unemployed man, also from the Strand, was given eight years. James – or should we call him Jim – Gibney’s address was in Seaforde Street; Surgenor’s in Sheriff Street. Gibney’s sentence was to run concurrently with a 10-year term for another undisclosed offence prior to the bombing. Both men accused the RUC Special Branch of beating them to extract confessions.
(The Buffs Club – full name ‘Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffaloes’ – is a charitable outfit with branches throughout Britain and the commonwealth. Although non-political it does require members to be ‘true and loyal supporters of the British Crown and Constitution’ and this along with a structure resembling a mix of the Orange Order and the Freemasons may have made it an IRA target [although its role as a prop of British imperialism In Ireland can only be guessed at!]).
While most commentators on Facebook appear convinced that this is the same Jim Gibney who became one of Sinn Fein’s most loyal acolytes, I am far from sure. The Jim Gibney who gained prominence as an Irish News columnist is also from the Short Strand, was in the IRA and served jail time for the cause. But I was not at all persuaded that he and the Facebook Jim Gibney were the one and same person for this simple reason .
In 1982, the Jim Gibney of Sinn Fein fame was arrested, charged, convicted but subsequently acquitted on appeal, of involvement in some quite disgusting sectarian murders in the Markets district of Belfast on the basis of testimony given by former IRA activist turned evangelical Christian, Kevin McGrady, one of the early ‘supergrasses’.
The killings happened in 1975, during the IRA ceasefire of that time and when the IRA in Belfast was under the leadership of people who believed that the best way to stop the avalanche of Loyalist slaughter of Catholics that had Nationalist Belfast living in terror, was to obey the dictum ‘an eye for an eye’.
But that chronology means that the James Gibney cited in that Irish News report cannot be the same James Gibney we all know – and who some, but not all love. The Irish News Jim Gibney would have been in jail during the killings of 1975.
Not only this, but in 1998 the Sinn Fein Jim Gibney gave a lengthy interview to the US public broadcasting station, PBS in which he said that he had been interned in 1972 and was released in 1974, a chronology which fits the Kevin McGrady episode but not The Irish News clipping.
So dear reader, your help would be appreciated. Were there two Jim Gibneys from the Short Strand active in the IRA?
Here is an important clue, courtesy of S, who emailed this extract which is from, I believe, The Irish People, the US publication associated with the Provos. You can clearly see there are two Gibneys in Long Kesh at Christmas time, 1972. One, Jim Gibney is an internee, in Cage 3 alongside future luminaries like Freddie Scappaticci and someone called Yenard Graughwell (can anyone shed light on this character?). So this syncs well with the story of the Sinn Fein Jim Gibney.
On the left hand side of the extract you can see a list of the sentenced IRA prisoners, i.e. those who have been processed through the courts. It includes, amid some famous characters like Billy McKee, Kieran Conway and Denis Donaldson, one Jimmy Gibney. That must be the character who features in The Irish News article. In other words a different Jim Gibney who, astonishingly, also hails from the Short Strand. Bizarre But mystery solved, methinks.
Angela Nelson on Facebook has suggested that the two Gibneys were in fact cousins, which explains a lot but not why at least one set of parents was totally lacking in imagination!