Monthly Archives: June 2019

Highlight Of Kevin McKenna’s IRA Leadership Was Feud With Martin McGuinness

The death yesterday (Tuesday) in a Monaghan hospital of former IRA Northern Commander and Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna marks the end of an era in the history of Irish republicanism, one which saw the first seeds of the peace process sprout into a faltering but ultimately permanent ceasefire that led, eventually, to the disbandment and disarming of much (if not all) of the Provisional  organisation.

McKenna was the longest serving of the Provo Chiefs of Staff, succeeding Ivor Bell in September 1983 – who was court-martialed and expelled for plotting against Gerry Adams. McKenna remained Chief of Staff until October 1997 when Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy replaced him.


Kevin McKenna – IRA Chief of Staff between September 1983 to October 1997

During his reign as IRA supremo, the Provos imported hundred of tons of weaponry from Libya but lost the biggest shipment of all, on the Eksund, thanks to leaks from the highest levels of the organisation to British intelligence.

That loss scuppered plans to launch a surprise military offensive, nicknamed ‘the Tet’ after the North Vietnamese campaign against US and South Vietnamese forces in 1968.

He also led the IRA into the 1994 ceasefire – voting against it himself at a special Army Council meeting – but lost his position in the wake of the collapse of that cessation when a new Army Council emerged from the October 1997 Convention. That gathering saw the Adams leadership narrowly escape defeat at the hands of opponents of the peace process strategy.

Within the upper echelons of the Provisionals, however, he will be best remembered for a tumultuous feud with the former Chief of Staff, Martin McGuinness from which he ultimately emerged victorious.

The episode at the centre of their feud concerned an informer from Derry called Frank Hegarty, who had been expelled from the IRA some years previously but allowed back, apparently at McGuinness’ behest, and had subsequently risen in the Quarter-Master’s department, perilously close to the Libyan shipments.

Much controversy surrounds Hegarty’s death. Exposed as a spy working for the British Army’s Force Research Unit, he fled to England where he was in the care of British intelligence. But he was homesick and when McGuinness gave him assurances that he would be safe, he decided to return home.

McGuinness’ guarantee proved to be worthless. Hegarty was dead within hours of returning to Derry, leaving unanswered and dark questions about McGuinness’ motives.

McGuinness’ decision to allow Frank Hegarty back into the IRA ultimately led to his death amid accusations that he was an informer for the British Army. McGuinness’ role in the affair was at the centre of a feud with Kevin McKenna

I wrote about that episode in ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘ and below is the relevant section (pp 384-389, second edition):

The IRA’s military commander at the time of the 1994 cease-fire was the Tyrone man Kevin McKenna. Appointed chief of staff after the fall of Ivor Bell, McKenna became the longest-serving of all the IRA’s chiefs of staff, and his period at the top of the IRA encompassed the crucial transition from war to peace. Born on the family farm near Aughnacloy on the Tyrone-Monaghan Border in 1945, McKenna had been in the IRA briefly before the Troubles erupted in 1969 but had emigrated to Canada and missed key moments, such as the split between the Officials and the Provisionals. The introduction of internment in 1971 brought him back to Ireland and to the IRA, as it did scores of other young Northerners made angry at the turn of events and eager to help strike back. McKenna quickly made his mark and was soon a leading figure in the Tyrone organization, as a contemporary recalled:

His rise in the IRA was accounted for by the fact that back in those days there would have been three types of IRA men, the bulk were eighteen-to nineteen-year-olds, some in their fifties and sixties who were veterans of the ’56–’62 campaign and a small number like Kevin in their mid-twenties who were the right age to take the lead. He had come back from Canada with a bit of money, enough to buy a car. He was mobile, the right age, single and willing to work, and away he went.

McKenna helped form an IRA unit around the Eglish-Aughnacloy area of Tyrone and afterward rose through the Tyrone Brigade. Kevin Mallon, the first OC of Tyrone, was succeeded by another figure known for his operational daring, Brendan Hughes, who was no relation to the Belfast figure of the same name. At the end of 1972, after Hughes’s departure, McKenna became commander of Tyrone but within eighteen months had been arrested and interned. Released in early 1975, he again assumed command of Tyrone, this time running the brigade from the distance of Monaghan, where he has lived ever since. The Northern commander immediately prior to Slab Murphy, McKenna was eventually elevated to the Army Council, and there was little doubt that, whatever his military skills, he was also put there to placate a Tyrone IRA made uneasy by Adams’s routing of Kevin Mallon in the wake of the disastrous Tidey kidnapping.

“McKenna would have been seen as keeping Tyrone out of politicking and troublemaking,” said one IRA veteran. “He’d be there to keep Tyrone happy, so they could say that their man was chief of staff. He would also empathize with the South Armagh men; he knew the price of cows and was happy wearing wellies.”

The chief of staff was liked by his men even if his political analysis, like that of the other “soldiers” on the Army Council, was less than sophisticated, as the same IRA source recalled:

“He is a very pleasant man to talk to, thoughtful, hospitable, and affable. He wasn’t a superior type nor stern, more an avuncular figure. While Twomey would be full of rage and almost physical retribution if you failed to carry out a mission, McKenna was more tolerant and understanding. If a unit was operating well, he would make sure it was well equipped. The fighting men had time for him; he was always there for them.

“He had no well-defined politics as far as I could remember, and he was confused about the movement’s support for socialism. I remember at the time of the 1972 cease-fire him saying to me that he wanted the Brits out but he was not sure whether we needed socialism. I then saw him at a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in the mid-seventies wandering around. A Portuguese army colonel had just spoken, and McKenna was in a daze saying this really is a revolutionary party. He was lost in terms of economics. He knew how to buy and sell cattle and would have made a good small businessman, but the macro stuff left him trailing.”

McGuinness’ feud with McKenna was thought to have roots in the Derry man’s ambition to be Chief of Staff again

The Army Council was never an entirely united body, and personality clashes often soured its meetings. The squabbling between McGuinness and McKenna, a product of deep personal rivalry, was particularly serious. McKenna, who managed to be a most secretive and publicity-shy commander, resented constant media reports that McGuinness was the real chief of staff, and he suspected that the Derry man had done little to discourage them. There was a widespread suspicion that McGuinness desperately wanted his old job back and in particular to be chief of staff when the Libyan-resourced “Tet offensive” began. Before the Libyan weapons arrived, he launched a torrent of criticism at McKenna’s handling of the IRA’s campaign and, but for the support of Slab Murphy, the chief of staff might have succumbed. “Everything was thrown at him except a vote of no confidence,” recalled one source. Adams, by contrast, generally stayed above their conflict and refused to take sides, waiting to see who emerged victorious.

After the Libyan weaponry started to arrive, the rows between the two men worsened. As Northern commander, McGuinness and his staff had the final say on which units were to receive the new weaponry. But when it was discovered that arms were being sent to areas with inactive or small IRA units, such as Lurgan in County Armagh, or where training in the new equipment had yet to be given while other well-trained areas were ignored, McKenna angrily intervened. The problem was that the weapons were being lost by inexperienced units almost as quickly as they arrived, and the drain on the Libyan stores became so great that by the early 1990s McKenna gave an order to cease replacing lost weapons and issued instructions that existing stocks in Northern Command be moved around internally, with a consequent risk that guns and equipment would be bugged by the British. There were accusations that McGuinness was either attempting to curry favor with the rank and file or was just incompetent; relations between the pair became icy.

McGuinness and McKenna clashed again when more precious Libyan weapons were lost. This time the trouble broke out after Gardai discovered two plastic tanks full of automatic rifles, Semtex explosives, and ammunition hastily buried in the beach at Five Fingers Strand near Malin Head in north Donegal in January 1988. The weapons had been moved to Donegal on the basis of assurances from McGuinness’s right-hand man, an activist from the Inishowen peninsula, that the appropriate dumps had been located and readied. The assurance was bogus, and the arms had to be quickly buried on the nearest available beach as soon as they arrived. The van carrying the load was stopped by alert Gardai, who realized that the driver and passenger had republican records. The van was empty but there were traces of sand inside. On a hunch, a search of beaches near the driver’s home on Malin Head was ordered, and the weapons were duly uncovered. The Inishowen activist was sacked from the IRA at McKenna’s insistence, the episode being recorded as another black eye for McGuinness.

The biggest row between the pair, however, was over the activities of a well-placed IRA informer in the Derry Brigade, Frank Hegarty, who was attached to the quartermaster’s department. Hegarty had been seconded to work with Northern Command staff to help move part of the first Libyan shipment to dumps in the west of Ireland. The consignment, some eighty AK-47s that had come to Ireland as part of the Kula’s cargo in August 1985, was being moved by stages when in January 1986 the Gardai swooped. Two transitional dumps, one in Roscommon and one in Sligo, were raided and the weapons seized. The next day Hegarty disappeared from Derry, and it soon became clear not only that he had given the dumps away but that he had been working for MI5, the British Security Service, which had spirited him away, and that he was being kept in a safe house somewhere in the north of England.

Hegarty’s forced flight was a disaster for the intelligence community. An IRA member from the 1970s, Hegarty was Northern Command QM in 1982, when it was discovered that he was having an affair with the wife of a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. His case went as high as the then chief of staff, Ivor Bell, who dismissed him from the IRA. Not long afterward Hegarty was approached by an arm of British military intelligence called the Force Research Unit who persuaded him to return to the IRA and work as a double agent. Inexplicably, Hegarty was allowed back into the IRA in Derry and made his way once again into the QM’s department with a brief from British intelligence to rise as far as he could, even as high as QMG. His handlers assured him that his IRA bosses would be removed one by one to smooth his way. British intelligence’s ambitious plans for Hegarty were, however, frustrated by the Special Branch in the Republic’s police, who insisted on moving in on the IRA dumps in Roscommon and Sligo as soon as the weapons arrived. Eager to strike a damaging propaganda blow against the IRA, the Gardai vetoed a British plan to bug and follow the weapons, and they moved to seize them. Fortunately for the IRA, Hegarty had been given a false story about where the weapons had come from; he was told that they had originated in Europe, and this, together with the fact that some Belgian FN rifles had been mixed in with the AK-47s, satisfied British intelligence. Nevertheless, the British had lost a potentially priceless agent as well as an opportunity to track the progress of the weapons.

The British had, though, come perilously close to discovering the Libyan link. Since most of the remaining Libyan shipments were still being awaited, including the Eksund’s 120 tons, the episode gave the IRA leadership a bad fright, and a high-level investigation was ordered. The first question to be resolved was how Hegarty had been allowed back into the IRA. Since McGuinness was Northern commander, it stood to reason that he must have known of Hegarty’s return, but he denied this and argued that the real informer had to be someone other than Hegarty.

During Hegarty’s period in hiding in England he was in regular contact by phone with his family in Derry. A month after his sudden disappearance Hegarty just as unexpectedly returned to Ireland, and so began one of the most controversial chapters in McGuinness’s republican career. Hegarty’s family would later insist that he had agreed to come back only after they passed on to him an assurance from McGuinness that he would not be touched. McGuinness has always denied this, but sources familiar with Hegarty’s subsequent interrogation at the hands of the IRA say that the informer repeated the claim while in the organization’s custody.

Hegarty also told his questioners that McGuinness had known and approved of his return to the IRA’s ranks, an admission that sparked a blazing row between the Northern commander and the chief of staff. Behind the row lay an unanswered question: why had McGuinness advanced Hegarty’s second career in the IRA’s quartermaster’s department when there had been so much doubt about his loyalty that he had previously been thrown out of the organization? In May 1986, just four months after the Gardai seized the Roscommon and Sligo arms dumps, Hegarty’s body was found on the outskirts of Castlederg near the Tyrone–Donegal Border. His eyes had been taped over, his hands tied behind his back, and a bullet wound to the back of his head indicated that he had received the punishment customary for those judged guilty of informing. The rivalry between McGuinness and McKenna would simmer on for years to come, but Hegarty’s death effectively marked the end of the Derry man’s ambitions to take over the chief of staff’s job.

Jean McConville Book Wins Orwell Prize Despite Faked Marian Price Claim

On October 31st last year, myself and Nuala Cunningham, in our capacity as co-producers of the documentary film ‘I, Dolours‘, issued the following statement in response to a claim from the author and New Yorker writer, Patrick Keefe, in his book, ‘Say Nothing‘, that a redaction in an interview with Dolours Price which we had allowed him to read, had named her sister, Marian Price as the third member of the IRA team which had ‘disappeared’ Belfast housewife, Jean McConville:

Marian Price: The Truth About New Book’s Allegation

Statement by Ed Moloney and Nuala Cunningham, producers of ‘I, Dolours’:

The American author Patrick Radden Keefe has made a major error in his new book on the IRA disappearance of Jean McConville. He claims that part of a transcript of an interview with Dolours Price which we allowed him to see was redacted because it named Marian Price, her sister, as one of the three people who took Jean McConville across the Border to her death. This is not true. The redaction contained no name at all, least of all that of Marian Price.

Mr Keefe failed to ask a couple of simple questions of Ed Moloney: ‘Was Marian Price named in the redaction?’ Or: ‘Was anyone named by Dolours Price as the third person?’ Instead he just seems to have assumed that she did name her sister. In fact, in her interviews with Ed Moloney, Dolours Price never named the third person.

Unlike Gerry Adams, who was named by Dolours Price in an interview, Marian Price has never been arrested or questioned by the PSNI about the disappearance of Jean McConville. Had she been named it is more than likely she would have been.

The statement was posted on my blog on October 31st, 2018, the day before ‘Say Nothing‘ was published in Ireland and the UK.

To repeat: Patrick Keefe had never asked Moloney whether the redaction had named anyone, much less Marian Price. All that Ed Moloney told him about the redaction was that it was made to honour a promise to Dolours Price that we would not identify, or help to identify in any way the remaining living member of the three-member IRA team which abducted and disappeared Mrs McConville.

We can also say that the redaction was made out of an abundance of caution, i.e. that it could have been left in without identifying the person.

The leader of the trio, Belfast Brigade intelligence officer Pat McClure emigrated to Connecticut in the USA in the early 1980’s where he became a prison warder. He died of cancer not long afterwards.

We repeat today that the redaction named no person, nor did it identify who the third member of the IRA team was. The claim by Patrick Keefe that it did is false. Had he asked whether Marian Price was named or identified we would have told him clearly that she was not. But he did not ask.

The central claim of his book, that he had identified the third member of the IRA team, was thus based not on fact but on a supposition by him that proved to be false. We suspect that he took a gamble that Marian Price had been named but it was a foolish wager on his part.

We are re-issuing this statement today in the light of the award to Patrick Keefe of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

A copy of an article in the online magazine, Counterpunch, written by Moloney, was sent to the Orwell jury. Ed Moloney received an assurance from The Orwell Foundation that the judges would be made aware of the article, although whether the judges read it is an unknown.

The Counterpunch article dealt not only with Patrick Keefe’s false claim about Marian Price but also showed how Keefe had used information previously published by Moloney in such a way as it appeared to have been the product of his own research.

For example, chapters dealing with the life of the Belfast IRA leader Brendan Hughes were said by him to have been based on his interviews with Boston College, which I gave him. Technically that is correct, but he did not mention  that these accounts had already been published, in my book  ‘Voices From The Grave‘, or had been featured in a prize-winning documentary film of the same name.

This part of his work, in other words, was not original, a fact which he did not admit.

All these and other matters were laid before the Orwell prize jury but if they were taken into consideration or not is not known. What can be said with certainty however is that apart from an acknowledgement of receipt, no effort was made by the jury to contact either of us for further information.

230,000 RTE Viewers Watched ‘I, Dolours’

Figures just supplied to New Decade production company by RTE show that the station’s screening of ‘I, Dolours’ a week ago attracted a 24 per cent share. I don’t pretend to know what that means, but I am told that it translates into a total of 230,000 viewers. RTE bosses are apparently delighted – and perhaps that might persuade them to commission or screen more ambitious programmes on the Northern conflict.

The Irish Independent published this review:

Irish Independent – The testimony of Dolours Price turns out to be priceless –


Lessons From The Oil Tanker Bombings In The Gulf

It is quite remarkable how the US claim, supported by allies in Europe, that Iran was behind last week’s bomb attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman has been greeted with so much public scepticism, not just in Europe but also in America.

Part of that is due to the less than persuasive video evidence provided by the US State Department which showed alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing what was claimed to be an unexploded Iranian limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers.

The world was asked to believe that removing the mine was evidence of having planted it in the first place when it might also have been consistent with Iranian claims that its forces had arrived to help the tanker crews escape. Removing the unexploded mine might therefore have been a legitimate part of that rescue mission.

The other reason of course is that the claims of Iranian responsibility came from the Trump administration and it just so happens that a few days before the Gulf bombing CNN published an analysis of Trump’s fibs which concluded that the US president lies more often each day than most people wash their hands.

The report claimed: ‘In his first 869 days as President, Donald Trump said 10,796 things that were either misleading or outright false, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Do the math and you get this: The President of the United States is saying 12 untrue things a day.’

So by this point the Trump White House has less than zero credibility with many Americans and even less amongst Europeans.

Deeper down in the psyche of many people on either side of the Atlantic is a scepticism born of the lies told to justify and launch the US invasion of Iraq. Readers will, hopefully, remember that the Iraq war was premised on the claim from the George W Bush White House that Saddam Hussein was secretly manufacturing ‘weapons of mass destruction’, i.e. nuclear bombs, and had to be stopped before he killed millions.

That was, of course, a lie and the damage to American credibility when that became clear was immense. It was compounded by the fact that Iraq was not the first deception played on the world to justify US warmongering.

Way back in the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson invented North Vietnamese attacks on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate the war in Vietnam. It took years, and the leak of the Pentagon Papers, to reveal the truth and raise the suspicion that dissembling in high places to justify war was by this point institutional.

So there is a history – a tradition if you like – of American administrations lying to spark or intensify wars. Thankfully, the sceptical reception given to the Gulf of Oman incidents suggests that we may have reached a point where that sort of thing no longer works as well.

Bush’s adventure in Iraq was in no small measure facilitated by the American media, The New York Times in particular. This time round there has been some flag-waving by my American colleagues but also a healthy dose of scepticism as well.

The Irish Times And Billy McKee

I notice that The Irish Times’ report on the death of Provisional IRA founder Billy McKee, who passed away at his West Belfast home today (Wednesday) was supplied by the Press Association (PA) and not by one of the paper’s own journalists, much less any of its Northern staff (assuming they, he or she still exist).

Is this The Irish Times’ way of saying ‘we do not wish to soil our hands by asking one of our own to compose a story about such an awful person’ – an attitude that too often characterised the paper when I worked there – or is it just a reflection a) of a general staff shortage/financial hardship in the paper, or b) a manifestation of the  reality is that there really is no-one on the staff knowledgeable enough to write more than half a sentence about the man?

Bill McKee – a founder member of the Provisional IRA who died today

Whether or not you regard Billy McKee as an antedeluvian Catholic reactionary or an Irish freedom fighter in the tradition of Dan Breen, there is no getting away from the fact that he was an enormously significant figure in the early phase of one of the most traumatic and impactful periods ever in Irish history. And that Ireland’s paper of record should reflect that by at least assigning one of its own reporters to cover his demise.

Ivor Bell Trial Secretly Gagged As ‘Critical’ Gov’t Witness Drops Out

An unprecedented gagging order banning the media in Northern Ireland and Britain from reporting any aspect of the prosecution or trial of former Belfast republican leader, Ivor Bell on charges connected to the IRA disappearance of Jean McConville – including the trial date or any of the evidence presented in court – was imposed secretly by the Belfast courts last December, can reveal (see court documents below).

This disclosure comes as a ‘critical’ witness in the Bell prosecution has withdrawn from the proceedings because of a serious and apparently irreversible medical condition.

Ivor Bell, former IRA Chief of Staff and ally of Gerry Adams

Lawyers for Dr Bob O’Neill, the librarian at Boston College and the custodian of the Boston oral history archive upon which the prosecution is based, applied to the US District Court in Boston recently to excuse O’Neill from giving evidence and this request was granted (see court documents below).

The precise reasons for Dr O’Neill’s withdrawal were outlined in a memorandum presented to the presiding judge, William G Young, but the contents were not publicly disclosed to interested parties.

Dr O’Neill’s evidence was considered vital for the prosecution because Boston College had lost Bell’s alleged contract with the college, the only piece of paper which identified participants in the project by name. The prosecuting authorities claim that the interviews by a participant known only as ‘Z’ were given by Bell while Bell and his defence team deny this.

Jean McConville – Disappeared by IRA in 1972, now the evidence in her case will be hidden

Dr O’Neill was likely to have given evidence about the chain of custody of Z’s interviews which the prosecution hoped would strengthen their claim that ‘Z’ was Bell.

At a secret court hearing in April this year, which mentioned Dr O’Neill’s illness, the presiding judge, Mr Justice O’Hara, remarked: ‘…Mr O’Neill is not a secondary witness in the proceedings, but critical to the issues before the court’.

The Bell ‘trial of the facts’ was supposed to have started on April 29th, but this was called off when the prosecution were notified by the US authorities of Dr O’Neill’s health problems.

Bob O’Neill – former librarian at Boston College, will not give evidence at Bell trial

It is understood that Dr O’Neill’s medical difficulty is one that develops and gets progressively worse over time. Usually the symptoms take months if not years to worsen to the point where the victim becomes incapable of coherent intellectual activity.

In a document endorsed by the US court, Judge William J Young noted that O’Neill’s condition ‘…appears to have begun in the past year’.

The obvious question arises: how long ago did the prosecution know that Dr O’Neill had a potentially serious condition that could inhibit his ability to give rational evidence? Was this before or after last December’s court order?

Under the terms of the order, the media has been banned from mentioning any aspect of the Bell prosecution ‘until the completion of the proceedings or further order of the court’. It is not clear whether this means that the gagging order can be extended after the trial has ended.

The gagging order applies only within the UK jurisdiction and since is published in the United States, this site is free to make the order’s existence known. believes an important principle is at stake in this story: that is the public’s right to know and the media’s right to publish.

Mr Justice Adrian Colton, former SDLP ‘Young Turk’, imposed gagging order on Ivor Bell trial

The order was imposed by Mr Justice Adrian Colton on December 19th last year at the conclusion of a hearing of the Ivor Bell prosecution in the Belfast Crown Court.

This decided that the former IRA Chief of Staff, who is 82-years-old, was mentally unfit to take part in a normal criminal prosecution. Instead Judge Colton ordered that he face a so-called ‘trial of the facts’, in which a jury will be asked to decide whether the facts of the case suggest guilt or innocence. He cannot face a prison sentence if found guilty.

While some legal sources suggest that Mr Justice Colton, a former SDLP activist and election candidate from Mid-Ulster who was once regarded as one of the party’s so-called ‘Young Turks’, may have acted to mitigate the embarrassment all this caused to Ivor Bell, the media was nonetheless permitted to publish his decision that Bell would face a ‘trial of facts’ because of his mental deterioration. Any embarrassment caused to Bell came with that publicised decision.

Here are the relevant documents, beginning with the court order:

Here is a copy of an article written and distributed to the media by one of the Belfast court reporters who normally files for most of the local media. It is dated April 29th this year, the date on which Bell’s trial of the facts was supposed to commence. It makes reference to Dr O’Neill’s health difficulties but warns the media not to publish the article:

Here are the US District Court documents distributed recently to attorneys of record in the case. These include an unsigned order from the judge excusing Dr O’Neill from giving evidence:

RTE Promo For ‘I, Dolours’, To Be Broadcast June 10th, 9:35pm