Thousands lined the streets of west Belfast today as republicans from across Ireland gathered to pay tribute to Provisional IRA founder Billy McKee, a man who dedicated most of his life to the cause of freedom and lead the defence of the nationalist people at a time of their greatest need.
The funeral of the veteran republican was held at St Peter’s Cathedral this Saturday morning. He died on Tuesday aged 98.
Mr McKee was a former Officer Commanding of IRA D Company in Belfast. He organised the historic defence of the Short Strand 49 years ago, a famously brave and seminal action which brought the Provisional IRA into being,
Last night, draped in the Irish national flag, his coffin was brought to the cathedral.
Led by a bagpiper under grey skies, the coffin was carried from the church in a gun carriage accompanied by an honour guard of men wearing berets and ‘D Company’ jackets. Draped in the traditional ‘Erin go Bragh’ flag of Irish republicanism, it also bore the beret and gloves associated with Vol. McKee’s membership of the IRA.
A eulogy was read at a memorial garden on the Falls Road, a short distance from the church. The veteran republican died with the same conviction he displayed throughout his life, mourners were told.
“Billy remained steadfast to the end and had no regrets, despite all the hardship that he endured for his republicanism. For him it was not for a new Ireland or an agreed Ireland, it was for a 32-county independent republic that was declared at the front of the General Post Office in 1916.
“We will remember you with pride. You were one in a million and a true republican to the end - unbowed, unbroken, and most of all - unrepentant.”
Crown force helicopters monitored both the funeral and the removal.
Republican Sinn Féin said its activists were stopped and one was arrested by the PSNI after attending the wake at the McKee’s family home on Thursday night.
Representatives from a number of republican organisations were present at the funeral and paid tribute.
Former RSF President Des Dalton said Mr McKee’s passing marked the final breaking of the link with the generation of Irish Republicans of the 1940s. “He was a faithful soldier of the All-Ireland Republic,” he said.
Saoradh in Derry also paid tribute. “The contribution Billy made to Republicanism cannot and should not be underestimated.”