Searching for the Wee-Man
Remembering Billy McMillen.
I only met him once.
I suppose I was four. Couldn’t have been more than that. And looking back I can’t say for sure that it’s a real memory, or a memory of being told about it later.
This is what I remember: being ushered into the front room of our house in Tallaght. to meet Dad’s best friend Billy. He was standing over by the window. I seem to recall that his wife (or more likely wife-to-be) was with him.
I’m sure as a four year old I wasn’t able to comprehend that Billy was a leader of the Official IRA, commander of the Belfast operation and a marked man. I guess I learned all this later.
I learned that Dad and Billy had been old friends, brought together by republicanism and language activism. I heard how Billy was Dad’s best man at his wedding. And how on 28 April 1975, Billy was murdered outside a hardware shop on Spinner St, west Belfast in front of Mary, who he’d married only weeks previously. Murdered “by one of our own” as I was often told – an INLA gunmen during a nasty, bloody republican feud. It wasn’t even the Brits who killed him.
I’ve been told Dad headed up to the funeral, vanished for 3 days to mourn his pal. I have no memory of this at all.
It’s now 40 years since Billy McMillen was murdered by the young Gerard Steenson. And although I met him just that once, on that half-remembered occasion, he has been a presence in my life ever since. Actually presence is the wrong word. He’s a lacuna. A cypher. A missing part of the story. Someone I can’t know but have struggled to understand.
Over the years I heard stories about Billy from my Dad and from other family members too. He became part of the family folklore. As I got older, I sought mention of Billy in books and articles. The Troubles were all around and ever present, with a cast of larger-than-life characters looming over 1980s Ireland. I would search in vain through the indexes of books about the troubles for mention of Billy. J Bowyer Bell, Tim Pat Coogan only barely mentioned him or omitted him entirely. He seemed to be a minor footnote in bloody war. One death among 3,000.
One day I stumbled on a copy of Rosita Sweetman’s On Our Knees: Ireland in 1972 which had a whole chapter on Billy. I devoured it. But the feeling persisted that this almost mythic figure who loomed large in our family folklore was merely a bit player. I would mention him to friends and comrades and they would shrug.
Dad died in 1997, and the gap grew bigger. And I think searching for Billy became a search for Dad. Perhaps by knowing Billy, I could better understand Dad. It takes a while to dawn on us that our parents had lives before we came along. And in my case, Dad lived more than half his life without me. He had been a cobbler, a bus conductor, a trade unionist and a republican. But most perplexing of all he had been a young man, with cares and interests of his own. A time when he was ‘Sean’ rather than ‘Dad’. And Billy had been a big part of Sean’s life.
As time went on, new sources appeared, not least that wonderful thing called the internet. The historical picture of Billy became clearer, and it was clear this was no bit player.
Billy McMillen was born in 1927, on the Falls Road. His mother was an old Sinn Féiner and trade unionist. He left school at 14 and joined the IRA at 16. I presume it was soon after this that he met and became friends with my Dad, who was active in Fianna Éireann in Dublin at the time.
Billy came from the physical force tradition. He told Rosita Sweetman in 1972 that he “always was a kind of instinctive socialist but it’s only in the last few years that I even read James Connolly and Marx”.
When the border campaign started in 1956, Billy was interned and spent the next 5 years in Crumlin Road jail, emerging in April 1961 to a battererd and broken republican movement. Like many of his comrades he left Belfast and moved to England for a time, presumably plying his trade as a steeplejack on the building sites.
Looking at the photographs of him at my parents’ wedding the following year, he looks ruddy and healthy, an inch or two shorter than Dad, in his tails and pinstripe trousers. The border campaign had now ended and a couple of months later, Cathal Goulding would succeed Ruarí Ó Brádaigh as Chief of Staff of the IRA. Things were about to change.
Billy returned to Belfast and became Adjutant to Billy McKee. He was initially sceptical of the new focus on socialist policies and political involvement.
“We used to spend hours at meetings trying to conjure up ideas and excuses as to why we shouldn’t become involved in this type of political activity, and to tell Dublin GHQ why they were wrong, for the following reasons. The funny part of it was that the more we sat down to try and convince ourselves that GHQ was wrong, the more we saw that their policies in fact were the correct ones!”
In 1963 McKee resigned and Billy McMillen became Officer Commanding of the Belfast IRA.
The following year, Billy contested the Westminister elections as an ‘Independent Republican’ for West Belfast, polling 3,256 votes (6.3% of the vote). During the course of the campaign, a Free Presbyterian Minister by the name of Ian Paisley threatened to march to the campaign headquarters in Divis Street to remove the tricolour hanging there. When the RUC intervened and broke into the offices to remove the flag, the Falls rioted for 3 days. 5,000 people marched down the Falls Road behind the tricolour.
In late 1966 and early 1967, republicans were instrumental in setting up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Billy was elected (effectively as the IRA ‘rep’) onto an organising committee to establish a civil rights organisation and was one of three people involved in drawing up its constitution. However, when NICRA launched in April 1967, Billy stood down, so that his prominent IRA involvement wouldn’t cause problems for the new organisation.
As the political organising continued, so did the military planning. From a low of just 24 volunteers in 1962, Billy had built the Belfast IRA up to around 120 by August 1969.
The events of the next few months are well known. How, McKee, who had walked away 6 years previously returned and demanded control of the Belfast IRA in an effective coup d’état. How McMillen tried to hold it all together between the Dublin leadership and what would become the core of the new provisionals. And how it eventually fell apart, and when it did, McMillen remained loyal – Officer Commanding of the Belfast Officials, facing off against his better-armed former comrades in the rising and growing Provisionals.
Billy managed to escape internment in 1971, and survived a Provo shooting the same year. I’m under no illusions about Billy. He was a commanding officer in a nasty war. While I get the sense that McMillen tried to minimise violence, particularly indiscriminate violence, and was acutely concerned with the danger of growing sectarianism arising from the Provisionals’ tactics, he undoubtedly made decisions and gave orders that resulted in deaths and injuries. He was no constitutionalist. He saw himself as a revolutionary, seeking liberation not just from Britain but also from capitalism. And he saw armed force as having a role to play in those struggles.
“The basic mistake of the past”, he told Sweetman, “was that the Republican movement concentrated on turning out soldiers. Now there’s no reason given the right circumstances why we can’t turn out revolutionaries.”
I do wonder how my Dad and Billy would have got on in later life. On the one side the catholic social democrat, on the other, the secular, socialist revolutionary. I suspect there would have been full and frank exchanges of views, and long discussions into the night.
Billy seems to have been a popular figure, not just within the Officials, but across the spectrum. Rosita Sweetman said of him “there’s something about [his] quick/sharp way of saying things which makes you believe they emanate from worked out and personal considerations of problems – quite a refreshing characteristic when you’ve walked through the quagmire of Republicanism for a few weeks”. Gerry Adams – a protege of his – apparently remained on good terms with him even after they ended up on opposite sides of the split.
He made quite an impression on the Scottish activist and historian Bob Purdie too. Purdie stayed with Billy in 1970 and said “Of all the people I met in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, Billy McMillen was the most likeable and impressive. However foolish I was and however much I regret supporting causes I now think were wrong, I am glad to have had the privilege of knowing Billy as a friend.”
Back in 1970, when Billy had been arrested after the Falls Curfew, he visited UVF leader Gusty Spence in his cell in Crumlin Road jail, a meeting of two working class Belfast lads, who had been divided by sectarianism. It was a meeting that apparently started Spence’s move away from violence.
Billy’s murder in 1975 came in the midst of another bloody schism within republicanism, as the IRSP and what would become the INLA broke away from the Officials. It’s both ironic and tragic that on the day he was killed, Billy had just instructed his colleague Seamus Lynch to inform the IRSP that the Officials were halting all attacks in order to allow peace talks to progress. By the end of the day, Billy would be dead, and hopes of peace in tatters.
Several thousand mourners followed Billy’s coffin down the Falls, a testament to his importance and popularity. At the graveside, Cathal Goulding proclaimed that “our hero, our champion, our shield in battle has fallen”. The “Wee-Man” from the Falls, the republican and revolutionary, had fallen.
I would have loved to have known Billy. To have argued politics and talked history over pints of beer. To have heard his tales about Dad and adventures they shared.
I would also have loved to have more of those moments with Dad. And to have written down and recorded all those stories from when he wasn’t Dad, but just Sean. Perhaps all of us who have lost parents hold those regrets.
Forty years on from Billy’s murder we live in a very different Ireland. On a recent trip to Belfast, I wondered if Billy would recognise his city now. The shining towers along the Lagan and the tourists thronging the Titanic Experience a stark contrast to the run-down red brick terraces and death-filled streets of West Belfast during the troubles. The imperfect but lasting peace turning the war we grew up with into history. The change – like so many of the changes in Ireland – has been dizzying.
The revolutionaries of the Official IRA are no longer revolutionaries. The Provos are no longer terrorists. All is changed. But it’s important that we remember what was and why it was and understand the political positions of the actors in the context of their time, not ours.
And we should remember those who played parts, whether they were heroes or villains or – as most were – simply complicated characters is a drama so much bigger than any of them. Dad used often say that it’s a lot easier to start a war than it is to finish one. As I said, Billy was no saint, but I think he was one of those nudging us towards peace. And he chiselled out a little of the Ireland we now have.
I still think about that visitor in our front room in Tallaght all those years ago. The shady outline of a memory. 40 years after his passing, I think we should remember Billy McMillen.