The death of a legendary IRA chief from Belfast who sought a socialist Ireland and died under suspicious circumstances in 1972 is now being treated as murder by British authorities.
Joe McCann – known as “Big Joe” – was shot to death in Belfast, said The Irish Times.
Prosecutors are now accusing two former soldiers – now ages 67 and 65 – of murdering McCann in a surprise turn of events decades after McCann’s death. The soldiers have not been identified.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. McCann’s Family Asked for the Prosecution, Arguing He Was Unarmed & ‘Executed’
McCann’s son, Feargal, told the Irish Times that the family believed that McCann was “executed.”
“He was unarmed when he was shot and the soldiers admitted that they knew him and knew him to be wanted. This was one of the first shoot-to-kill incidents in our opinion,” he said, according to the newspaper.
McCann was an “official IRA man,” said the UK Telegraph.
The McCann website says he is survived by his wife Anne, his children Feargal, Áine, Fionnuala and Ciaran. History Ireland says “local legend” that had “flourished after he was gunned down on the streets of Belfast grew out of the reputation he achieved in life.”
In 2013, a Historical Enquiries Team issued a report that found “Joe’s actions did not amount to the level of specific threat which could have justified the soldiers opening fire in accordance with the Army rules of engagement,” said BBC, adding, “Members of the Parachute Regiment shot Joe McCann several times as he ran.”
2. McCann Was One of the IRA’s ‘Most Prominent Activists’ in the 1970s
The UK Telegraph called McCann one of the Irish Republican Army’s “most prominent activists” during the 1970s.
His family has said he “believed in creating a socialist Ireland,” the Telegraph said, adding that McCann “took part in Northern Ireland’s first civil rights march for equal rights for Catholics in 1968 and supported an ‘Army of the People’ involved in social struggle.”
McCann was part of a branch of the IRA pursuing the creation of a socialist Ireland “through largely peaceful means,” said the news site.
The McCann website says, “Through his readings, of James Connolly in particular, Joe developed a strong belief in the establishment of a Socialist Republic and the liberation of working classes, both Protestant and Catholic (sectarianism was not in Joe’s vocabulary).”
The site adds, “To this end Joe joined The Fianna and eventually the IRA proper. He went on, not only to become a great Commander in the OIRA, but a great organiser and inspiration to the working-class people he worked with on a daily basis. Even to this day he is still highly regarded by those who knew and worked with him, and the pain of his loss is keenly felt.”
According to History Ireland, “McCann, who joined the Republican movement as a teenager in 1963, was known both for his physical bravado and for his quick intelligence. Stories circulated of his exploits during the set-piece Official IRA gun-battles during the Falls Road curfew in July 1970 and at Inglis’s bakery in the Markets district of south Belfast in August the following year.”
3. McCann Was Gunned Down by an Army Patrol in Belfast
The Guardian said McCann was killed nine months after he became legendary for organizing the “Battle of Inglis’ Bakery” in Belfast’s Market district in August 1971. He was shot in central Belfast in the same area as that battle, said the news site.
Specifically, he was gunned down by an Army patrol on Saturday, April 15, 1972 on Joy Street, said the news site. The McCann website contends he was “murdered by members of The First Parachute Regiment and RUC Special Branch in Joy Street on the 15th of April 1972.”
The McCann website says, “Born on 2nd November 1947 into a working-class family in Belfast, Joe McCann was an intelligent, self-educated young man with a keen interest in Irish language and culture.”
The website provides a detailed account of how it alleges the shooting happened, saying, “Two plain clothes members of RUC Special Branch in an unmarked car claim to have spotted Joe crossing Cromac Square that afternoon. They then claim that they drove into May St where they encountered a patrol of the Parachute Regiment, 1 Para, at the junction of May St and Joy St. One of the Special Branch officers admits that he then briefed the ‘Para’ patrol that Joe was in the area. The version of events that unfolded – as contained in the statements of the Branch men and the Para’s who opened fire – are totally contradictory and self –serving, in terms of times, distances and whether warning shots were fired. Policeman B…claims to have stopped Joe at the corner of Little May St and Joy St, to have identified himself as a police officer and to have then told Joe to take his hands out of his pockets. He claims that Joe pushed him away, turned and ran down Joy St. At this point all three soldiers, A, B and C opened fire and Joe fell, having been struck by three high velocity bullets. He was unarmed.”
Others have called McCann a “terrorist.” He was captured in an iconic image with a rifle on his knee.
4. The Prosecution is the First Over ‘British Army Killings’ in Northern Ireland
The Guardian news site said that the prosecution of the two retired soldiers makes them “the first members of the military to be prosecuted for murder in relation to British army killings in Northern Ireland.”
The prosecution decision was announced December 16 by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland, said The Guardian.
At a press conference in Belfast in 2013, McCann supporters contended, “In the Belfast of the early 1970’s the British Army and RUC made no secret of their intent toward Joe McCann. Death threats were issued on a regular basis through family and friends,” the McCann website says.
5. McCann Was Known as a ‘Working Class Hero’ & the Soldiers Are Known Only as ‘A’ & ‘C’
There is a website devoted to the life of “Big Joe McCann.” It says, “Joe was a true Republican Socialist and a genuine ‘Working Class Hero’ who encapsulated all aspects of the Republican ideal. Joe led from the front on every occassion whether it was empowering people, organising deomonstrations or taking direct action against British forces. He was no ‘armchair general’.”
The McCann website says McCann “was involved in numerous civil-rights marches, campaigned for better housing and set up co-ops.”
The identities of the two soldiers being prosecuted have not been released. The Guardian said they are being identified as Soldier A and Soldier C.
A third soldier involved in the shooting of McCann previously died, said the news site.