Cleric: IRA man I knew probably sanctioned attempt to kill me

Official IRA gunman Joe McCann is silhouetted by flames during anti-internment rioting in Belfasts Markets district in August 1971
Official IRA gunman Joe McCann is silhouetted by flames during anti-internment rioting in Belfasts Markets district in August 1971

A retired Free Presbyterian cleric has unwrapped more details of how his life intertwined with that of an IRA commander, whose 1972 killing has seen two English soldiers charged with his murder.

Rev Ivan Foster from Kilcreevy Free Presbyterian Church befriended Official IRA man Joe McCann in jail in Belfast in 1966.

Rev Ivan Foster befriended Joe McCann when they were in prison together in 1966

Rev Ivan Foster befriended Joe McCann when they were in prison together in 1966

In July the cleric admitted that he wept tears of sorrow in 1972 when he heard Mr McCann had been shot dead by soldiers.

Rev Foster was serving a jail term in 1966 after a protest parade with Rev Ian Paisley in Belfast. Subsequently he ended up in jail with McCann, then just 18, but who would go on to become an Official IRA (OIRA) commander in Belfast by the time he died six years later.

It emerged last week – to unionist anger – that two elderly ex-paratroopers are to be prosecuted for his murder. Mr McCann, 24, was shot dead in disputed circumstances in Belfast on April 15 1972.

Rev Foster said that he had engaged in frank discussions on politics and religion with Mr McCann, who told the cleric he would shoot him, when released, if given the order.

But when contacted by the News Letter this week, Rev Foster has now also revealed that an Official IRA unit made an attempt on his life shortly before Mr McCann died – and that he suspects his former jail mate may well have had a hand in sanctioning the attack.

A police officer who visited his church 25 years after McCann’s death expressed anger to the cleric that nobody had ever told him how close he had been to death at the hands of the Official IRA.

“He then began to tell how he had been informed by a Special Branch officer, some time after the event, of an attempt by Official IRA members to shoot me. Well, that is what they set out to do, but they ran out of petrol and were intercepted by the police and weapons were recovered and a confession was obtained.”

The gang was arrested near Derrygonnelly in Fermanagh, near the Co Donegal border, he said.

His contact did not suggest Joe McCann was personally involved but Rev Foster “speculated that it was very possible”.

The former DUP Assembly member and ex-Third Force commander added: “I don’t say Joe would necessarily have been involved as one of the shooters but if these things are sanctioned by leadership he could well have been involved to that degree.”

Given Mr McCann’s prominence and given it was an attempt by the OIRA, Rev Foster said that it is “more than likely” he was involved in sanctioning the attack “since these things have to be sanctioned by the chiefs, in theory”.

Mr McCann would have risen to such a position so quickly because the OIRA was in decline at the time, he added.

“Joe McCann indicated even as an 18-year-old that he was a dedicated terrorist. He told me that if he had to, he would shoot me,” Rev Foster said.

“He was quite open, candid, unhesitating in that declaration.”

Asked about the recent news that the two ex-paratroopers who shot him will be prosecuted, he added: “I think it is scandalous. We were in a war situation back then.”

The cleric stands by his admission that he wept upon hearing of Mr McCann’s death in 1972, saying he grieved at a human level for the loss of a life. However, he also believes that his killing was “justice”.

“Some people find it difficult to understand how you can grieve at that level and yet see the justice in [him] being killed in the circumstances in which he was killed,” he said.

“Joe McCann reaped what he sowed – he brought it upon himself. That is the long and the short of it. He brought it upon his own head.”

However, he added that the apparent contradiction in his view of the matter was entirely Christian.

“Jesus wept over Jerusalem. That means he would weep over those that would rise up and crucify him on the cross.”