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'Northern Campaign'
Date2 September 1942 – December 1944
LocationMainly the Irish border area
Result British victory
IRA campaign fails
Republic of Ireland Irish Republican Army United Kingdom Royal Ulster Constabulary Republic of Ireland Garda Síochána
Commanders and leaders
Northern Command unknown unknown
~300 volunteers unknown unknown
Casualties and losses
3 killed
unknown wounded
4 killed
unknown wounded
2 killed
unknown wounded

The Northern Campaign was the series of attacks involving volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Second World War between September 1942 and December 1944. It was a plan conceived by the then IRA Northern Command to launch attacks within Northern Ireland during this period. The plan, however, did not translate into tangible or co-ordinated action on the part of IRA units during the time frame. The title "Campaign" can largely be interpreted as having meaning only to the IRA Army Council of the period and later generations of IRA volunteers and Irish republicans.

This was the second republican campaign against the Northern Ireland polity. The first took place during the Irish War of Independence, the third took place from 1956–1962, the fourth took place from 1969–1997 and fifth from 1997 - present.

Context of the campaign[edit | edit source]

February 1941 saw non-interned members of the IRA Northern Command meeting at an Army Conference in Belfast. The IRA Northern Command controlled IRA operations and issued orders to IRA volunteers in Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Derry, along with major population centres such as Derry and Belfast. The chairman of the meeting was Hugh McAteer, then Commanding Officer (CO) of the IRA in Belfast. McAteer presided over a meeting involving more than thirty men, with the most notable figures of IRA Northern Command being:

At this meeting, McAteer took over as CO of Northern Command with O'Reilly assuming the role of his Adjutant and John Graham becoming IO and Director of Publicity. Discussions at the meeting focused on a campaign against the government of Northern Ireland and forces acting under its control including the British Army. It was hoped that the promise of a new IRA campaign to end partition would help galvanise a weakened IRA throughout the entire island.

The meeting saw a decision whereby IRA Northern Command was to elect a new IRA Army Executive to oversee this campaign. It was felt that since the 1938 IRA Army Executive had largely been interned, imprisoned upon conviction, or died, between the period 1938–1941, new leadership was needed—a leadership that would carry on what they understood to be the "struggle against occupation" in Ireland.

The Northern Command and IRA volunteers based in Northern Ireland had been largely more successful in evading detention and arrest than their counterparts in Éire, (the region formerly known as the Irish Free State). IRA volunteers in Northern Ireland had never enjoyed the freedom of movement and association enjoyed by IRA volunteers in the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1936. It is also worth mentioning that these men had not felt contaminated by the actions of disgraced former IRA Chief of Staff (CS) Stephen Hayes, the "Hayes Affair" being an episode widely seen[by whom?] as damaging morale within the IRA.[citation needed] Hayes was believed at the time to have been an informer on, and traitor to, the IRA. The IRA Northern Command and units acting under it had also suffered from detection, arrest and internment during the period but had not suffered the problems of enemy infiltration now endemic to the IRA south of the border.

Strength of the IRA[edit | edit source]

The IRA was literally split during the period between those held in places like "K-Lines" (No.1 Internment camp) Curragh, County Kildare, and those IRA volunteers still at liberty. Added to this were a series of political splits pivoting on which the direction the IRA should take at this juncture. The as yet unannounced, but widely accepted, failure of the S-Plan campaign, ongoing IRA collusion with the Abwehr, (German Intelligence), and the landing of American troops within Northern Ireland on 26 January 1942 all combined to form a crisis for the IRA. While the British Government had decided not to conscript in Northern Ireland following mass protests in 1941, a large number of citizens from Northern Ireland and Éire had joined the British Army to fight in World War II—decreasing the potential recruitment base of the IRA.[1]

Legislative changes in both Éire, and Britain c. 1940 had seen internment and harsher laws introduced to combat the IRA's activity during the S-Plan campaign. Internment had been introduced by the Government of Northern Ireland in 1938.[2] Detentions arising from these moves, combined with executions of IRA volunteers in Britain and Éire, had weakened IRA morale and structure. The IRA response, hunger strikes conducted languishing in prisons in Britain, Northern Ireland, and Éire, weakened the organisation still further. It fell to IRA volunteers still at liberty to attempt to reorganise the IRA and any IRA military action that could be mustered.

Bowyer Bell, in his history of the IRA, states that at the beginning of 1942 there were over 300 IRA volunteers in four companies constituting the Belfast unit. These men were led by the small group calling itself Northern Command.[3] Compared to the IRA that remained active/available in population centres such as Dublin, the Northern Command was by far the strongest remaining hub of IRA volunteers left at liberty in Ireland. In attempting to organise the "Northern Campaign", the Northern Command enlisted the help of Patrick Dermody, CO. of IRA Eastern Command, the CO. of IRA Western Command, Tommy Farrell, and the remaining productive elements of IRA Dublin centre including Charlie Kerins and Mick Quill.

IRA arms caches did still exist. They were largely scattered throughout inaccessible, rural areas of Ireland, and usually only known to only one or two volunteers from the surrounding area. Many IRA units in rural areas had received little attention from the General Headquarters of the IRA, (GHQ), in sometime and they had also not seen active duty in over a decade. After election in April 1942, the new IRA Army Council began to make attempts to reach out to them and to gather up the arms they watched over.

The basic plan of the IRA Army Council, as explained by Bowyer Bell, was to:

"collect the contents of the Twenty-six County [Éire] dumps, move the stuff close to the border [with Northern Ireland], and then just before operations were initiated, smuggle it over".

By August this movement of arms had taken place, Tommy Farrell and Patrick Dermody reported that combined, they had accumulated a total of over twelve tons of arms, munitions, and explosives, without alerting the authorities in Éire or Northern Ireland.

The campaign plan envisioned that once the arms were assembled and smuggled into Northern Ireland they would be distributed to waiting IRA units described as:

..."commando-type units, forty or fifty men all told, striking up from the South across the border to open up operations.[4]

This tactic, (the flying column), was still to be found in use 20 years later during the Border Campaign when it was discovered in a captured copy of the IRA's training manual The Green Book.[5]

Chronology of the "Northern Campaign"[edit | edit source]

1942[edit | edit source]

Easter Rising commemoration weekend April—the IRA had three clashes with their enemies in Northern Ireland and Éire. In Belfast the Northern Command authorised a "diversion" in the Belfast C company area by which the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) would be distracted enough to allow a large meeting of the Command to take place. The operation went wrong and in the ensuring gun battle at Cawnpore Street in Belfast, one RUC member was killed and the entire IRA unit of six men were captured. The captured unit included Joe Cahill. All six were put on trial for murder but five later had their sentences commuted to life, leaving Tom Williams facing the hangman.[6][7]

"Use it, use it. Give it to me and I will shoot the bastards."

Behan was later arrested in Dublin and received fourteen years in prison.

The third incident in the time line involved Frank Morris, who began shooting when detained at a RUC border checkpoint in Strabane. He was captured 10 hours later that day, found hiding, immersed up to his neck in river water.

  • 20 April – A new IRA Army Council was elected in the wake of these incidents. At this time it is known that Eoin McNamee in his capacity as Adjutant General met with German agent Günther Schütz shortly before this.
  • 19 July – Hugh McAteer is confirmed by the IRA Army Council as new CS. with Kerins as the new Deputy CS. With McAteer already presiding as CO. of Northern Command, his newest appointment further increased his power within the organisation. It marked a shift of Executive power within what remained of the IRA, from Dublin to Belfast.
  • 15 August – IRA Army Council meets to confirm the details of the Northern Campaign and to draw up a Campaign Proclamation. By this stage the arms and munitions from the IRA's Western and Eastern Command areas had been assembled on the border ready for transport into Northern Ireland.
  • 30 August – IRA GHQ sends word to waiting units to begin the transfer of arms into Northern Ireland. That night three tons of material were transported over the border into Newry, County Down. Two lorries were used to transport the material through RUC checkpoints without incident. The arms were then stored in a barn attached to McCafferty's farm outside Hannahstown, County Antrim. The volunteer overseeing the operation on the ground, Jerry O'Callaghan, reported back to GHQ Belfast in person. His message was that the operation had been successful, and distribution of the material could now begin. Unfortunately for the IRA, a volunteer sent to help O'Callaghan, was followed to the farm by members of the RUC who proceeded to raid the building. In the ensuing gun battle O'Callaghan was shot dead and 3 tons of arms seized. This however, was not the only shipment of arms into Northern Ireland the IRA had made, and the others were to remain, as yet, undetected.
  • 1 September – The Army Council issued a General Army Order that in the event of the execution of Tommy Williams, all CO's were to take aggressive action.
  • 2 September – Tom Williams' execution that morning, a first attack of the campaign was scheduled to take place against a British Army barracks in Crossmaglen, County Armagh. Twenty IRA volunteers were led by Patrick Demody in a commandeered lorry and accompanying car. According to IRA member Harry White, who wrote about the raid in his book of memoirs "Harry", they hoped to capture a British officer and hang him – as the Irgun was to do in similar circumstances in Palestine, a few years later.

A passing RUC patrol, however, noticed the IRA convoy as it moved through Cullaville, Co. Armagh. In the ensuing gun battle, one IRA man was injured along with one RUC member. Conflicting accounts exist of the outcome. It was claimed that the IRA unit surrendered and was released, all survivors being allowed to return to Dublin; however, the aforementioned White claims that it was the RUC men (there were only two of them) who surrendered to the IRA and were later released. In any case, the element of surprise was lost and the intention to attack the barracks was abandoned.

The raid caused alarm for the authorities in Éire, who up until then had believed the IRA was crushed south of the border and incapable of preparing or launching attacks of this scale. Volunteers Liam Cotter and Jerry Mahoney, both from Listowel, Co. Kerry were arrested by Irish police.

There was no declaration of war as for the S-Plan Campaign. The IRA was much more muted when they issued a "special manifesto". The contents of this manifesto were reported in "The Times" as:

"The present moment is opportune to declare the attitude of the IRA to the present world situation. The IRA cannot recognize the right of England or and other Power to maintain her forces in or base them on any part of the Irish territory without the free consent of the Irish people. The IRA therefore reserves the right to use whatever measures present themselves to clear this territory of such forces."

The Times goes on to say that the manifesto indicated the IRA's intention to, "avail themselves of the darkest moment in England's history to strike", and continues:

"It will be undoubtedly part of Britain's tactics to provoke conflict between American troops and Irish guerrilla forces. If in the event of a resumption of hostilities between Great Britain and the Irish Republic the American troops are drawn into conflict with Irish soldiers, the responsibility must rest with those who presumed to use north-east Ireland as a military base without the free consent of the Irish people."[8]

  • 3 September – The front of a police barracks in Randalstown, Co. Antrim, was demolished by a mine and a RUC sergeant was injured.
  • 4 September – The ambush of an IRA patrol in Belfast resulted in James Bannon being wounded. The same day a mine failed to detonated during the attack on Belleek, RUC barracks, Co. Fermanagh.
  • 5 September – Two RUC were killed in Clady, County Tyrone. While a failed attack in Belfast saw Gerry Adams Sr. wounded by the RUC.
  • 9 September – Sergeant Dennis O'Brien, a serving Irish Special Branch officer and himself a former IRA member, was shot dead by 3 IRA volunteers outside his home in Ballyboden, Rathfarnham, County Dublin. This action was directly against IRA Army Council orders which forbade any operations of a military nature in Éire. Notice of a five thousand pound reward was issued for information leading to the apprehension of O'Brien's killers along with a list of men wanted in connection with the incident. Michael Quill was later apprehended by the RUC and turned over to Irish Special Branch in connection with the incident. This led to his internment in January 1943.

Following the initial raid in September, the RUC and Irish Special Branch stepped up their efforts against the IRA. A series of arms finds and arrests were made.

  • 10 September – Belfast IRA lost two volunteers when they were surrounded in a house and captured.
  • 30 September – Patrick Dermody was killed by Irish Special Branch following a gun battle in County Cavan. A member of Garda Síochána (Irish Police) also died due to friendly fire from his colleagues.
  • 12 October – McAteer and his Director of Intelligence, O'Reilly, were arrested in Northern Ireland by the RUC Criminal Investigation Department (CID). McAteer was later sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for treason. His position of responsibility within the IRA as OC. Northern Command was immediately assumed by Kerins, who was later relieved by Harry White in late October.
  • 19 October – Maurice O'Neill, was captured by Garda Síochána during a raid on a safe house in Holly Road, Donnycarney, County Dublin. A detective died during the raid. Harry White escaped and travelled to Belfast to take over as OC for Northern Command. During his trial by Military Tribunal in Éire, O'Neill was represented by Seán MacBride. MacBride failed however, to win O'Neill a reprieve and he was executed by the Irish Government on 12 November 1942.
  • October – An RUC member was killed in an IRA attack on Donegall Pass, RUC station in Belfast.

Despite increased pressure on the IRA, Bowyer-Bell reports a total of 60 armed attacks by the IRA in the 3 months up to December 1942. He estimates that these attacks would've been carried out by the remaining fifty to sixty IRA volunteers that still remained at large in Northern Ireland. Units in South Derry, and South Armagh that previously could be relied on to engage in operations were no longer able to function as IRA GHQ required. IRA GHQ also began to lose contact with units in Counties Cavan and Monaghan and within the Western Command area. Bowyer-Bell states of the late-1943 to mid-1943 period:

"The local C/Os had no intention of risking arrest to keep up a good front. Even the relatively innocuous Republican "political" activity that had been tolerated in the past now might lead to the Curragh. Parades ended. Training ended. Often even meetings of the IRA people ended. The intricate and long-lived infrastructure of the IRA in the country began to fray and break. The leaders and the best men were in prison."[9]

1943[edit | edit source]

  • 15 January – along with Patrick Donnelly, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele, Hugh McAteer escaped over the wall of Crumlin Road Prison, Belfast.
  • 14 February – IRA Army Council meets to assess the progress of the organisation despite it being clear that the IRA had lost the means and most importantly the will to conduct further operations under the auspices of the "Northern Campaign". The order forbidding all operations of a military nature in Éire was continued and although no order to abandon the Northern Campaign was made, the Army Council did make 1 important resolution which was to resurface within the strategy of the IRA after World War II ended. The resolution called for:

"A political arm be formed representative of the whole country, whose constitution shall be based on the Constitution of the Republic proclaimed in arms in 1916 and ratified by the free vote of the Irish people in 1918."[10]

This indicated a growing realisation within the then IRA Army Council that the failure of campaigns like the 1939–1940 S-Plan, and the ongoing "Northern Campaign" could not be sustained without political support from the IRA's base- the people. This view was to fully mature within the IRA during the period 1948–1950.

  • 21 March – 21 IRA prisoners escape from Magilligan prison in Londonderry. Jim Toner from Tyrone and his adjutant Joe Carant were put in charge of moving the escapees out of Northern Ireland. Notice of a 3000 pounds (sterling) reward was issued for information on the whereabouts of the escapees.
  • 24 April 1943– McAteer was personally involved when the IRA took over the Broadway cinema, Falls Road, Belfast, (a strongly republican area), as part of their Easter Rising commemorations. A Proclamation of the 1916 Easter Rising was read out to the audience along with the IRA Army Council's annual statement. The statement denounced the American military presence in Northern Ireland as an:

"..invasion of our rights..."

and warned that US troops could expect to be targeted in any,

"..resumption of hostilities between the Irish Republic [as invested in the IRA] and Great Britain."

The statement hints at a "lack" of hostilities between the IRA and British Forces at the time. In fact, the IRA had declared war on Britain in 1939 via the S-Plan Campaign, only to see it peter out after 15 months. Then the IRA decided on the "Northern Campaign" in 1942. Both campaigns appear to have ground to a halt by the time this statement was issued. However, no declaration of ceasefire or the campaigns ending had yet been made. From this it could appear that the IRA Army Council was not able to accept the reality of the situation—the total collapse of the IRA throughout the island, and the utter failure of both campaigns. The statement continued in optimistic manner:

"Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity."

  • May – IRA GHQ members who had escaped from Magilligan Prison were re-arrested. Jimmy Steele, then Burke.
  • October – McAteer arrested again. Kerins assumed command again.
  • 4 July – Jackie Griffith shot dead in Dublin by Garda Síochána detectives.
  • unknown date – RUC constable shot dead during an attempted robbery at Ross's Mill, Clonard. Belfast.[11]

1944[edit | edit source]

  • 11 February – Seamus "Rocky" Burns was mortally wounded during a gun battle with RUC in Derry city.
  • 15 June – Kerins was arrested at 50 Rathmines Road in Dublin. He was tried by Military Tribunal in Éire and found guilty on 9 October 1944 of involvement in the death of Detective O'Brien on 9 September 1942. Kerins was hanged on 1 December 1944.

1945[edit | edit source]

  • 1 March – The last elected IRA Army Executive had been the one chosen by the 1938 Army Convention at the time of Seán Russell's takeover in 1938. In 1945, only five men from this Executive remained alive, (listed below with the area they represented in brackets);
Ned Carrington (Clonmel & Tipperary),
Ted Moore (Mooncin & Kilkenny),
Charlie Dolan (Sligo),
Larry Grogan (Drogheda) and,
Peadar O'Flaherty.
This body now moved in an attempt to resurrect the IRA. The new Army Executive appointed an Army Council, which included:
Michael Conway,
Charlie McGuinness,
Seán Ashe, and
Mick McCarthy.
The new council appointed Patrick Fleming, (more commonly called 'Paddy'), as Chief of Staff.
  • 10 March – Paddy Fleming orders a ceasefire with Britain, ending the S-Plan campaign and terminating the IRA's 1939 declaration of war. No mention was made of the episode dubbed the "Northern Campaign."[12]

Significance of the IRA's activities in the period[edit | edit source]

The events labelled the Northern Campaign 1942–1944 can only be called a 'campaign' within the context of a republican interpretation of the IRA's activities. The statements emanating from the IRA Army Council during the period seek to portray the IRA as protector of the Irish Republic from 1922 onwards. In the mind of IRA volunteers, the Irish Republic was yet to be established. The IRA would use this reasoning to justify future efforts to destabilise and launch attacks within the United Kingdom.

Additionally, the IRA was seen by many of the base community as operating in league with the Axis (see below). This was seen by the nationalists in Ulster as abetting the enemy who bombed Ireland. In the republic, this was seen as a violation of Éamon de Valera's rigorous adherence to neutrality.

With the death of Kerins in June 1944, the IRA no longer had a Chief of Staff, there was no longer a GHQ, or even an IRA Army Council, there wasn't even a band of men to lead and call the IRA. Internment by the Government of Éire had almost wiped out the organisation both as an effective fighting force, and as an organisation willing and able to fight. The IRA was to come to see this as a bitter betrayal by their fellow countrymen.

The Irish Minister of Justice, Gerald Boland, was heard to boast during the period that "the IRA was dead and he had killed it".[13]

Naturally the IRA had assisted in its own near extinction—as late as 1947, 25 IRA "lifers", (prisoners serving life sentences), remained in British prisons. Until 1950, 12 IRA volunteers remained in Crumlin Road Prison, Belfast, serving sentences for IRA involvement, and it wasn't until the change of Government in Éire in 1948 that the last IRA internee's were released from Portlaoise Prison.

Under this climate of fierce scrutiny by the authorities, and without increases in IRA recruitment to offset losses, the series of attacks labelled the Northern Campaign died in the winter of 1942 within three months of it beginning. The first attack, a failure even before reaching the objective, had not been followed up with anything substantive or spectacular. IRA units along the border who were meant to wage a series of sporadic attacks against border targets found they could no longer operate. The IRA Army Council, lacking imagination and room for manoeuvre, found itself isolated from its base community and volunteers. The IRA was entirely crippled.

IRA involvement with Nazi Intelligence[edit | edit source]

The minutes of the IRA Army Council's meeting on 20 April 1942 made it clear that they were convinced the Government of Nazi Germany would be prepared to install the IRA into Government should the Nazis win the war. This Army Council, nearly composed entirely of IRA Northern Command, seemed unaware to the full extent of IRA contact with the German Government via Abwehr and Foreign Ministry agents since before 1938. A resolution captured in the minutes states the objective:

"That as a prelude to any co-operation between Óglaigh Na hÉireann [the IRA] and the German Government, the German government explicitly declare its intention of recognizing the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic as the Government of Ireland in all post-war negotiations affecting Ireland."

The minutes go on to say that GHQ assumes the authority:

"..to give military information to powers at war with England, which would not endanger civilian lives, even before any definite contacts have been established with these powers."[14]

Despite the rhetoric, the IRA during the period, while capable of keeping links with Nazi Intelligence alive was incapable of doing much about any plans they or the German government may have wished them to undertake. The Abwehr and Foreign Ministry had appeared to realise the same fact by late 1943.

When the Allies found out the extent of the IRA's involvement of with the Nazis through review of German records, this led to a loss of credibility that was only overcome at the start of the "Troubles" in 1969. It also put de Valera under suspicion in the American and Canadian public's minds when his message of condolence to the German Minister upon Hitler's death in 1945 was made public. It helped delay a lot of investment in Ireland from the Irish-American and Irish-Canadian communities well until the 1970s.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Northern Ireland at War
  3. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 220. 1997 3rd Edition.
  4. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 225. 1997 3rd Edition".
  5. IRA flying column.
  6. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 222, 1997 3rd Edition.
  7. Joe Cahill in IRA Unit
  8. The Times 2 September 1942.
  9. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 229. 1997 3rd Edition.
  10. Report of the General Headquarters Staff Council, Sunday 14 February, Northern Command Area.
  11. A View North History comes to life in Republican News by Jack Holland
  12. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 240. 1997 3rd Edition. There is a discussion about why the campaign was not mentioned as "ended" in Bowyer Bell at Talk:Irish Republican Army (1922–1969).
    However, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, IRA chief of staff on two occasions in the 1950s, has written that: "The Sabotage Campaign in England, 1939–40 and the Northern Campaign in the Six Counties 1942–44 were both declared officially to have ceased in early 1945."[1]
  13. Bowyer Bell, J. – The Secret Army – The IRA, page 235. 1997 3rd Edition.
  14. Minutes of the meeting of the Army Council April 20, 1942)

Sources/Further Information[edit | edit source]

The Secret Army – The IRA J Bowyer Bell 1997 3rd Edition, ISBN 1-85371-813-0

External links[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

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