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7 August 2003 Edition

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Joe Cahill: A lifetime in struggle

Last week, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN interviewed Joe Cahill, lifelong republican and honorary vice-president of Sinn Féin. In his sitting room, enjoying the warm hospitality of himself and his wife Annie - we were never short of tea and sandwiches - Joe told us about his life. Most interviewers ask Joe about his involvement in the gunrunning on the Claudia, the ship that was captured with a cargo from Libya, or Tom Williams, the man Joe shared a cell with when the two were sentenced to death, and who, unfortunately, had his sentence carried through. But we wanted to hear something different from Joe - what it was like to grow up in the aftermath of Partition, what had happened to split the IRA in 1969 and other aspects of his involvement in all aspects of republican struggle over the decades.

Joe answered all our questions, throwing in amusing yarns he recalled as he delved deep into a mind that has, literally, seen it all. What follows is a glimpse into the life of Joe Cahill.

An Phoblacht: What was it like growing up in Belfast right after partition had taken place?

Joe Cahill: I was born in 1920, and partition happened in 1921, so it didn't hit me until I was about nine or ten.

What first struck me about partition was the amount of unemployment. Nobody had any work. So the government set up this scheme, unemployment relief they called it, and it involved getting people to dig up the streets. It was very heavy work and only paid about 15 shillings a week. That wasn't too much then, I can tell you.

Anyway, Labour was very strong then, and they wanted to bring people together through work. The bitterness and sectarianism of the 1920s seemed to have disappeared by the time this was happening, although there had been some bigotry at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. Well, Labour got active and got people motivated, got them protesting, and they were successful enough. They got the wages raised to 30 shillings a week.

The beauty of this was to see Catholics and Protestants fighting together for their rights. The problem was that when Catholics tried to improve their standards of living, then sectarianism was brought into it, and brought in mostly by the unionist government.

I also remember that housing conditions were very bad.

I joined na Fianna Éireann, when I was about 16. I couldn't join the IRA because you had to be 18, but I wanted to.

You see, Catholics up the North felt let down by the government in the 26 Counties. They looked to them for support and help, and it wasn't forthcoming. Then when Fianna Fáil came to power, they thought things would improve. Obviously it didn't. So the IRA were the only support for the people.

The campaigns the IRA ran weren't all that successful. They didn't have any political backing, and that meant less support from the people. It was the same throughout the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I still believe that unless you have some political backup, you will never be successful in the campaigns that you run.

AP: What was it like working in Harland and Wolffe in the early '50s? Was the company as sectarian as it is made out to be?

JC: It was alright, but people thought I was mad to work there!

I'll give you some background on this. I had come out of prison in October of '49 and I went for a few weeks' holidays before I started looking for a job. I had done a course as a joiner, and I assumed, big-headedly, of course, that because I'd served part of a life sentence, I'd get a job with any of the Catholic builders.

But none of them wanted to have me, because they said I'd be an embarrassment to them because they were all doing government work. One foreman asked me would I do a job in Cork, and I said, "No way, Joe Cahill isn't going to work in Cork".

So anyway, that guy went on to own his company, and he got in touch with me, and said he'd give me a job no problem as a foreman. I told him I'd skills as a joiner, but he said, you'll probably be a bit rusty after eight years in prison, so take this job. He offered me great wages, a trade union card and everything, but then I heard him sacking two lads, without even giving them money they were owed, and his attitude turned me right off him. So I stayed away from him and kept looking.

A while after that I met this friend, and he said to me why don't you try the shipyard. I said to him "are you mad?" But he told me that it wasn't as bad as it used to be, so I thought about it, and said, well okay, I need a job, I'll go down.

So I went down on the Friday and they offered me a job starting on the Monday.

I was there for two periods altogether, nine months and then eleven months, and both times nobody ever said as much as boo to me. We worked in pairs then, and I worked with a Protestant and told him all about my background. He said that made no odds to him, and that we were workmates anyway.

Then one Easter I went to Milltown cemetery, and the paper carried a report about it that weekend. That Monday in work my mate heard something said at lunch and he told me that it was probably only gossip but I wasn't to go about the ship without him, or without my hammer and belt. That was the first time anything was strange, but most of the workers were friendly. There was one other incident, when I was promoted to this job that paid an extra £3, and one day the foreman said to me, "Back to the tools, Joe". I said "Why, are you not happy with my work?" and he said he was very happy and that it wasn't his decision. He told me that the problem was I "kicked with the wrong foot".

They were the only two times I had any trouble. You could do manual labour, but if you tried to rise, you'd always meet difficulty.

AP: What led to the split in 1969?

JC: Well I wasn't a member of the IRA then, I had resigned. It was obvious to everyone that something was going to happen. I was a member of the Civil Rights movement at the time; I did stewarding and the like, but I didn't think it was going anywhere. It was obvious to everyone that there were never going to be many benefits to Catholics.

Terence O'Neill was the PM then, and he was probably the most forward thinking of all the unionist PMs, but even then, he'd no desire to give the Catholics too much. He did have this idea that he could pacify them, though, by giving them a little. Well, he gave a little and the unionists weren't happy, so we knew there'd be a kickback and that came in him getting the push and Chichester Clarke being put in.

We had a feeling pogroms were about to start. You didn't have the British Army then, but you had something worse, the B-Specials. The IRA weren't doing anything to defend the people. They were making no preparations, because they had been getting more political and had been running down the military machine.

A lot of older hands could see what was happening, and they decided to start some training. That was doing okay but they didn't have long enough and eventually '69 came and there really was nobody there to stand up for the people.

Those of us who had been out of the IRA, and there were a lot of us, reported back, in the hope that we could do something. The feeling, particularly in Belfast, was that there should be a break with Dublin, and many of the rural areas thought the same.

I remember going to Lurgan and saying the North should break away and there was mostly agreement. There was a lot of opposition to the leadership in Dublin. So anyway, we decided to have this meeting on a Sunday in the International Hotel in Belfast. Representatives came from the south and the north and the purpose was to set up a separate command. We made a lot of progress at it, and shortly after we were drawing up plans, and some more people arrived from Dublin, among them Seán Mac Stiofáin. He was aware of what we were doing and supported it. He said that on the Saturday night there had been a meeting and the IRA had split, and the people who'd left Cathal Goulding's crowd had decided to set up their own army council.

Then we discussed how things should be developed and it was agreed that there should actually be an all-island body. So another convention was held, with the Provisionals, a temporary name that had been given at the first army council meeting, and the officials. It was planned that we would go away over six months and see where people's loyalty lay around the country, and that was the split. It was fairly bitter, but nobody was killed. And in the end the name the 'provisionals' stuck.

AP: What was the reaction to Bloody Sunday in the South?

JC: Prior to Bloody Sunday, you had internment, one of the biggest mistakes of the British. I've often said that much of our success was down to the Brits' mistakes, as well as our own hard work. Lots of meetings about internment had been taking place, and then on that Sunday they decided to have a massive march and meeting. What happened then is well documented. The Paras came in and got stuck into the people, and there were the murders.

Then of course there was the aftermath. Many have said that if we had had the political strength then, we could have unified the country and defeated the British. All over the South they were protesting. I never witnessed anything like the protests I saw in Dublin. Workers downed tools and came onto the streets to protest, it was amazing. People were furious. They wanted to show their sympathy for the people in the North.

The British Embassy was burned down, and I was there. Some people argued it was a bad thing, because what happened was many people felt that they had vented their anger, and then they went off satisfied. I thought it was a good thing, though.

But it was the same when Jack Lynch called a day of mourning. For many, that was the climax to the whole thing. People in the South walked away from the problem, feeling like they'd done something.

It wasn't the same for us in the North. We were left with the bitterness. Of course, everyone knows the story then of how volunteers flocked to the IRA and it didn't have the capacity to take them all in.

AP: You've been on several hunger strikes in your life. Each time, did you feel that this was the time you were going to die?

JC: Every time you went on a hunger strike, you always thought "I could die now". There was no point on going on it if you didn't. My first one was in Crumlin Road prison. It started off that lots of us were on it and then it was called off because there were only five of us left, and if we all died there would have been nobody left to take over. One of the senior figures, who had been taken to the hospital wing, gave the order and the message was brought to us. We got improvements but not immediately. That was the way it was with hunger strikes - if you lived, you got your demands, but later.

AP: Having been on hunger strike yourself, how did you feel about the 1981 Hunger Strike?

Joe: I remember how the leadership felt at the time. We knew they were going to die. We didn't want them to go on with it.

When they were conned into coming off the one in 1980, we felt that their demands were going to be met, eventually. I felt that if another one started they would die. I never anticipated that ten would die.

No amount of talking would make them come off it, though. I talked to Bobby Sands and I pointed out to him that they were going to die. Bobby said he couldn't see a way out of it. He thought if one died, then that would be the end of it. That didn't happen though. I'll never forget that conversation. The worst thing about that hunger strike as well was that it was one of those where one lad goes on it, and then another, then another, and it meant it stretched out for such a long time.

Next week: Joe discusses his adventures in America, his brother Frank and the role of An Phoblacht

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