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Joe Cahill – Provisional Republican Veteran

Once it’s an extended truce, then it’s detrimental to the Republican Movement. – Joe Cahill

Anthony McIntyre • 26 July 2004

Joe Cahill, who died at the weekend, was the Provisional IRA's second chief of staff. The organisation fielded nine such supremos throughout its 35-year existence and Cahill's incumbency proved to be the shortest but one. With his passing the first four Provisional IRA chiefs of staff are now dead, all from natural causes. Cahill lived longer than the others, succumbing at the age of 84. Although he is noted as saying that he was born in a united Ireland and hoped to die in one, had he lived to be 104 he would not have realised that ambition. His fellow leaders ensured that much by agreeing to the partition principle of consent.

Joe Cahill hailed from West Belfast. That one Westminster constituency alone provided the Provisional IRA with four of its chiefs of staff. The three Belfast Brigade delegates who attended the London talks at the Chelsea home of Paul Channon in July 1972 all went on to hold down the position as did two of the other three London negotiators. Dave O’Conaill alone of the six who made up the IRA talks team never assumed the top spot. Although Cahill, perhaps due to a brief spell of imprisonment in Dublin under the Offences Against The State Act and a subsequent hunger strike, was not at these talks, he twice met with Harold Wilson and Merlyn Rees of the British Labour Party in 1972 as part of an IRA delegation.

Of the five surviving former and current chiefs of staff, none will see 50 again. Consequently, if the organisation dissolves before appointing another ‘C/S’ none of those who commanded the Provisional IRA will live in the united Ireland they waged war to achieve. Testimony in itself to the utter failure of the campaign

Joe Cahill was described by Gerry Adams as ‘the father of this generation of republicans.' This is not a view shared by all those who were contemporaries of the former Crumlin Road Prison condemned cell prisoner. While it would be inaccurate to dismiss the role of Cahill in the formative years of the Provisional IRA including his work in helping to build the organisation up outside the Northern capital, authentic parentage in the eyes of many rests with Billy McKee, the first leader of the Provisional IRA in Belfast – who was succeeded by Cahill after his arrest in March 1971. McKee has stayed robustly loyal to the tenets upon which the Provisionals were founded. This adds a touch of the bizarre to the eulogy to Cahill proffered by Martin McGuinness:

When people look back on his role, they will come to the conclusion that Joe Cahill was rock solid and he will stand alongside the likes of Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, Padraig Pearse, Maire Drumm, Bobby Sands and Mairead Farrell.

Had Joe Cahill died in his 60s and not his 80s this account would have chimed more easily with the trajectory then covered by his republican odyssey. But by the time of his death that trajectory had veered sharply to the point where the politics Cahill embraced resembled nothing of the organisation he helped establish in 1969 and had everything in common with those in the Official IRA from which he broke. It is more straightforward to make the case that he stands alongside Cathal Goulding, Malachy McGurran and Liam McMillan, all whom gave a lifetime of service to their particular brand of republicanism including the peace process they kickstarted in May 1972. This lends a cruel irony to Cahill's role in the IRA split of 1969. The army he built, in sharp opposition to the latter three leaders of the Official IRA, came to embrace everything those ‘hated reformists’ stood for.

The role of Joe Cahill within Provisional republicanism resembled more that of continuity presenter than main anchorman. He provided the veneer of republican continuity that helped mask the ugly joints created by Gerry Adams’ reformist strategy and acceptance of an internal solution. His presence served to disguise what in essence were major strategic departures. A year ago Joe Cahill made the extraordinary comment that the IRA had won the war, leaving his colleagues looking awkward when subsequently pushed by media interviewers to state if the war was indeed won then why could they not say it was over.

Like many youngsters growing up in militarised Belfast streets my first memory of Joe Cahill dates back to August 1971 when he fronted an IRA press conference in Ballymurphy a couple of days after internment to announce that the IRA was intact. My mother’s acerbic intervention on seeing him thwarted any designs I might have had toward lionising him. Although he headed for Dublin once the conference was over, those who remained in Belfast under the command of the late Seamus Twomey proved Cahill’s assessment of the IRA correct. They prosecuted the war with a ferocity that would ultimately help force the British Government to ditch the Stormont parliament.

I last saw Joe Cahill two years ago at a funeral in Belfast. I greeted him but he ignored me. In that he was no different from others in the leadership coterie: willing to direct but never to answer to those fortunate enough to have survived with their lives from the debacle the leadership so ineptly oversaw, and who sought to ask those questions dead volunteers never had the chance to.

Joe Cahill lived a long life. I am glad that he did. His longevity helped compensate for the numerous years taken from him by British and Free State penal systems. So many others didn’t make it out of their teens. They are the real tragedies of the conflict.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Historians and economists {subsidized by governments} are very good at creating and perpetuating myths that justify increasing the power placed in the hands of government.
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Index: Current Articles

26 July 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Joe Cahill - Provisional Republican Veteran
Anthony McIntyre

Meet Sean Keenan
Kathleen O Halloran

Captain James Kelly - A Brief Biography
Members of the Kelly Family

The Kelly Affair
Liam O Comain

Kelly Detractors Challenged
Darinagh Boyle

Hope Floats
Mary La Rosa

23 July 2004

I Once Knew a Boy. . .
Dolours Price

Out of the Ashes Arose the um, ah, Equality Agenda
Mags Glennon

New Sinn Fein and the Schomberg Society
Martin Cunningham

A Few Questions for a Hollowed Guest
John O Farrell

Support the Vacumm
Pauline Hadaway

The Rwandan Holocaust and Western Indifference
Anthony McIntyre

Empire-Speak: A Primer in Practical Translation
Toni Solo


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