A true legend of the Irish Republican Army, Billy McKee, has passed away at the age of 98.
A founding member and former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), he fought in several eras of the struggle and remained committed to the cause of liberation until his death.
Mr McKee was born in Belfast in 1921. At the age of 18, he joined the anti-treaty Irish Republican Army and took part in the IRA’s campaign north of the border, the Northern Campaign, in the early 1940s.
He was captured and imprisoned in Crumlin Road Gaol until 1946. On his release, he remained a committed Volunteer and took part in the Border Resistance Campaign in the 1950s, when he was again imprisoned.
Upon his release, he became Officer Commanding (OC) of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade.
In the 1960s, he became disillusioned with the IRA’s shift towards Marxism, and following the 1969 burning of Bombay Street in Belfast by loyalists with the support of the RUC, he became a founding member of the breakaway Provisional IRA, becoming its first OC in Belfast.
In 1970, he led a heroic and legendary action to defend St Matthew’s Church in east Belfast from loyalist attack. Captured and imprisoned once again in April 1971, he led a hunger strike protest to win recognition for IRA prisoners as political prisoners. When McKee was close to death, then Home Secretary William Whitelaw conceded the equivalent Special Category Status.
Mr McKee was released in September 1974 and took part in secret peace talks involving the British government in Derry and in County Clare alongside then Sinn Féin leader Ruairi O Bradaigh.
In 1977 amid internal upheaval he was voted off the IRA Army Council and ultimately remained with Republican Sinn Féin following their split with Sinn Féin in 1986. He remained an advocate of armed struggle and continued to support the new breakaway IRA groups following the ceasefire and dissolution of the Provisional IRA.
He continued to attend republican events and took part in occasional media interviews until recent years. Speaking later in life Mr McKee said he had no regrets about his IRA past.
“From I was 15 until 65 I was in some way involved. I have had plenty of time since to think if I was right or I was wrong. I regret nothing,” he said.
“If I was the young man today I would be with the group that would be the proper IRA.
“I would never condemn them in any way, my heart and soul is with them.”
Independent republican Cait Trainor and a friend of Mr McKee said he “was known and loved by many” and “left for us a wonderful legacy that will continue to inspire Republicans for generations to come.”
Republican Sinn Féin paid tribute, sending their “deepest sympathy to the family and comrades” of IRA Volunteer Billy McKee.
Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis.