Northern Ireland

Billy McKee: Provisional IRA founding member dies

Billy McKee
Image caption Billy McKee was a founding member of the Provisional IRA

Belfast republican Billy McKee, a founding member of the Provisional IRA, has died.

McKee, 97, is believed to have been a former officer commanding of the IRA in Belfast and a member of its "army council".

He was born in 1921 and is believed to have joined the IRA in the 1930s.

In 1972, McKee led a hunger strike in an effort to win recognition of IRA prisoners as political prisoners.

He later left the Provisional IRA and joined Republican Sinn Féin in the 1980s.

Journalist Peter Taylor, who interviewed Mr McKee on a number of occasions during the Troubles, described him as "effectively the last of the old-style physical force IRA republicans".

He said Mr McKee had gained "a legendary status in the history of the IRA" for his role in driving off "loyalist mobs in a ferocious gun battle" at St Matthew's Church in east Belfast in 1970.

"Billy McKee historically played a key role both in the military sense, because of the defence of St Matthew's Church and also because of his hunger strike which results in effectively what became political status," said Mr Taylor.

Mr Taylor said Mr McKee had disagreed with the IRA's decision to enter politics.

"He would have gone to his grave feeling bitter that the IRA never achieved what its long term goal was, and remains, which was the reunification of Ireland.

"That would have been his great disappointment on his death bed," added Mr Taylor.

In a 2011 interview published in the Irish News, McKee said he would not condemn the 1972 Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast in which nine people were killed and 130 injured.

He also refused to condemn the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville and said he had no regrets about his life.