Billy McKee, a founding member and former officer commanding of the IRA in Belfast and a member of its Army Council, died on Wednesday aged 97.
In recent years he defended some of the worst IRA atrocities which took place during his time of leadership, including the disappearance and murder of mother-of-10 Mrs McConville in west Belfast.
He also defended ‘Bloody Friday’ in 1972, when the IRA detonated 20 bombs in Belfast city centre in just over an hour, killing nine people, injuring 130 others and causing widespread terror.
Seamus McKendry, son-in-law of the late Mrs McConville, said of Mr McKee yesterday: “I think he said he would have shot her himself. He was not a nice person to be honest. I would have lived beside him for quite a few years in Andersonstown. He was one of those shady characters that you knew to avoid.
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“I just wish he could have found a wee bit of decency in his heart before he popped his clogs. But them boys are so inured to stuff that I don’t think it affects their sleep anyway.”
Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was shot dead by the IRA as she left mass in west Belfast, said: “It is so sad that a man goes to his grave, justifying murder, all for what?”
Ms Travers noted that the Catholic church they belonged to teaches ‘thou shalt not kill’.
“In 1979, I went to see his Holiness Pope John Paul II in Drogheda with my parents and my sister Mary,” she said. “I was 10-years-old and ringing in my ears I remember the Pope stating ‘Murder is murder, let it not be called by any other name’.”
PIRA killed almost 900 people during his leadership. He left it for the anti-peace process Republican Sinn Fein (RSF) in the 1980s. Yesterday it described him as “A true legend of the Irish Republican Army”. There was no apparent acknowledgement of his death from Sinn Fein.
Following the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr in 2011, he told the Irish News that “Ronan Kerr knew when he donned that uniform what was in front of him... You can’t expect us to go down and start shedding tears for some of them. Not me.”
And commenting on the Bloody Friday bombing in Belfast city centre he said that it “didn’t come off as expected”.
He gave no indication as to how he expected the 20 bombs to ‘come off’.
“I’m not going to condemn it or the men that carried it out,” he said. “No way.”
Similarly, he had no sympathy for the McConvilles.
“All I know is that Mrs McConville was found out... working for the Brits,” he said, a claim rejected by her family and later discredited by the Police Ombudsman.
He described himself as a regular mass-goer, and said he had no regrets about his life: “From I was 15 until 65 I was in some way involved. I have had plenty of time since to think if I was right or I was wrong. I regret nothing,” he said.
Victims campaigner Ken Funston, whose brother was murdered by the IRA, said yesterday: “Billy McKee will join the growing list of terrorists who take their evil antecedents to the grave clutching their Green Books, whilst their remaining cohorts continue to insist that the state must reveal all. Whilst this situation persists, the bitterness will continue to fester.”
Kenny Donaldson, of Innocent Victims United, said many will “mourn the life he chose to live and the resultant devastation”.
At a time when many are calling for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy bodies, he asked, where is the evidence is that those involved in “terrorism and other criminal violence” are ready to “address the pain” they caused?
“Billy McKee doesn’t meet the evidence test, Martin McGuinness didn’t meet the evidence test and so many others have also failed to do so.”
Ex IRA bomber Shane Paul O’Doherty commented that there “used to be Irish republicans who dreamed of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”. He added: “That era ended with the Billy McKee IRA campaign. There was no Protestant, no civilian, no woman and no child that could not be murdered in the pursuit of a United Ireland by force of arms. McKee wanted to give the example of exiting this life unrepentant about so much pain and so many evils.”
UUP MLA Doug Beattie said McKee was “yet another former republican terrorist going to his grave” without divulging the truth about PIRA’s thousands of victims.
“In his lifetime he presided over a brutal bombing campaign that left hundreds dead and thousands either injured or traumatised. The fact he did not condemn this senseless and pointless carnage while at the same time blaming victims like Jean McConville, shows the real measure of the man.”
BBC journalist Peter Taylor said McKee believed to the end that only violence would achieve Irish unity. “He once told me that he believed the deliberate killing of innocent civilians was never on the IRA’s agenda and that the Birmingham pub bombings were never ‘authorised’ by the IRA’s command,” he said. “Of course ‘Bloody Friday’ gave the lie to this. He would have regarded the abduction and murder of Jean McConville as a ‘legitimate military operation’.”
Ulster University politics lecturer Cillian McGrattan said: “He may be eulogised by some republicans but the name he leaves behind will be forever associated with cruelty, blood lust and hatred.”
Journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty, who is from west Belfast, was scathing about McKee’s legacy.
“McKee was a chauvinist so steeped in darkness that he could not separate religious faith from murderous passion,” he said. “He saw no conflict between his Christianity and his violence. This is hard for people of modern Ireland to understand. With luck he will be among the last of his kind.”