Thursday, April 24, 2014

Vol. Bobby McKnight

 This past Easter saw the death of veteran republican and 50's volunteer, Bobby McKnight.

Bobby McKnight was born in Belfast in 1936. He joined the Republican Movement in the late 40's and took part in Operation Harvest. However, like many Belfast Republicans, he found himself interned in Crumlin Road Jail for most of the campaign.   
    After release he was among those who continued their involvement with the movement and helped it reorganize. In 1963, he clashed with the O/c, Billy Mckee, when the authorities ordered there to be no display of the tricolor during a republican march, and Mckee acquiesced. McKnight declared that he would risk jail to display the flag.(1) As it turned out, McKee went down without the flag and resigned afterwards but McKnight still landed in jail: later 1963 he and several others were arrested while at a training camp in Knockmealdown in the Free State. Some arms were discovered, and they were given two months. From the dock he declared (or reaffirmed, as per Gen. Order 8) that the weapons were to be "used against the British forces of occupation."(2)
      He was put on the command staff of the new Belfast O/c, Billy McMillan, first as a training officer. With him on the staff were men like McMillan's brother Art, Solo Sullivan, Denis Toner, and Leo Martin- all fellow POWs in the Crum, veterans of the 40's and 50's who shared a commitment to the revitalizing the movement socially and would eventually form the nucleus of the Belfast Official Republicanism.(3)
      In 1965 the IRA formed a department of political education, with each brigade to appoint a "political education officer." McKnight was made the officer for Belfast and assigned to oversee the appointments for the rest of the movement.(4) As officer he was given the task of swearing in and developing the politics of new recruits- teaching them about Republicanism's social mission, and means of organizing and agitating. He also had the task of traveling to the different units to rouse support for the new direction. Writes Brian Hanley, "It was important to ‘broaden the scope of the ordinary military training’ so that ‘no training session will be complete without some time spent on understanding how to make the national revolution.’ It would be necessary to learn ‘how to resist evictions, how to make foreign ownership of land unpopular, how to organise a co-operative business, how to run a Trade Union Branch.’" (4) By giving practical support to groups such as trade unions, tenets committees, the CRA, and redevelopment associations, the IRA was able to "build a nucleus of support among the population." (5) Attention was also paid to "the history of the movement and the new a direction that the organisation was taking- away from the failures of the past." The Border Campaign in particular was a much analyzed case in point.
        Bobby McKnight's leadership was "a boost" to this all-important political development. His classes- described as usually "very informal"- left a deep impression on the young republicans. One describes him as "an inspiration" and another says he was a "role model to us." Another sworn in by him in the 60's recalled: "He was a rock; a steadying influence through our time in the movement. He put up with our youthful exuberance .... He was a calming influence, with that steady nod of the head he would say I accept that but and then would slowly bring us down to earth."(6)
      In 66 he was in the Dublin Brigade's Easter parade as a member of the color party. When the Garda attacked them, the color party fought back. In the ensuing fracas he "walloped" a particularly unpopular superintendent to the pleasure of both republicans and the other policemen. He had a chance to escape, but first escorted Mrs McKnight away to safety and then returned to the fray to help his comrades. After being arrested he was awaiting the inevitable retaliation beating in his cell when a garda, happy to see his superior take a beating for once, came up and told him "good man yourself!" McKnight and his co-defendents* received several months in Mountjoy jail. (7)
     He ran as an Independent Republican in the 1966 Westminster elections and managed to pull a thousand or so votes (2.9 percent of the overall vote). Though he didn't win a seat, twelve others ran around the north and together they helped to take votes from the Unionist candidates and bolster Republican political presence. In the following years he took part in a number of activities and protests on both sides of the border, including one at the British embassy in Dublin and the fateful NICRA march to Dungannon in 68.
       During the emergency of 1969 he played a prominent role in gathering arms and set up a route to transfer weapons from Dundalk through Newry.(8) He also oversaw a transfer of arms from Fianna Fail. He recalled: "Two of us went down and Charlie’s brother brought us into the airport, we’d a wee pickup truck we got a loan of, and he brought us in, and they put these big boxes on the truck, we had to take it away, the truck was fucking swaying from side to side but we had right of way." They handed the arms over to the Dublin Brigade who split them up and sent them North.(9) Fianna Fail soon realized the left-republicanism of men like McKnight was a threat to their power, and turned to arming the future Provisionals instead. He was present during the armed confrontation by Billy McKee, and during the ensuing split he often acted as a liason between events on the ground in Belfast and the Goulding leadership during his many trips across the border.
     In the 70's he was an active Official volunteer and one of Billy McMillen's right hand men. He took over as O/c of the Official Belfast brigade for a short term, "living a precarious life on the run."(10) Paddy Devlin used his car and pass as a politician to help him move around. His ability to get from one place to another undetected earned him the nickname "the Mole."
     He would see the inside of prison several times more, the death of his in-law Joe McCann at the hands of the Paras, and that of his friend McMillen during the IRSP feud, He himself narrowly survived being shot by the Provos during the "Pogrom" in 75.
    "For so many years he was on call night and day," a comrade recalled. "Like so many republicans of old he retired from active service with hardly a penny to his name. He just done what had to be done, as the movement was his life’s mission." (11) He worked many odd jobs to support his wife Elish and 7 children. They ranged from taxi driver; slot machine repairman, which took him inside police and army barracks; and a construction worker, a business in which many loyalists were involved though they never bothered him. "We weren't left wanting," one daughter, Louise, recalled, but it was often "hand to mouth." Elish was a former member of the Cumann na mBan (once lifted for selling easter lilies), and "her experience often mirrored his." He was on the run for the first five years of their marriage, and it often fell on her to raise the children whilst contending with house searches and other byproducts of having a husband who was wanted. "Its a bit surreal for us seeing how many lives my father has touched," Louise said, commenting after his death, "when we just knew him as a father and husband."
(Photo: news of Bobby's arrest in the 70's.  When he was taken to be interrogated, the head "screw" turned out to have known him from arrests during the 50's. He ordered them to release him because "that bastard never talks!")

     He died on Easter Saturday 2014. In the tradition of Connolly and Wolfe Tone, he left behind a legacy of struggle not just for the freedom of Ireland, but for the welfare of all its people, "Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter." Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

*- One of them, Leo Steenson, happened to have been in the Belfast Brigade during the 50's as well. He and not a few others of those arrested ended up in the OIRA with McKnight.

Sources: 1. "The Provisional IRA" by Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop. 2. "The Lost Revolution" by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. 3. Ibid. 4. Brian Hanley, Document Study: ‘Agitate, Educate, Organise’ the IRA’s An t-Oglac of the 1960s." Saothar, Vol 32, 2007 5."The Role of the IRA 1962-68" Liam McMillan 6.Funeral Oration. 7 Hanley and Millar. 8. Ibid. 9. 10. Funeral oration. 11. Ibid. Quotes from published sources have been noted. Many thanks to the McKnight family and his comrades.

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