As I often note in these pieces, I do not have the resources to confirm if a named individual is definitively the same named individual from source to source. I only include them if the ages and location match that which has been confirmed.
Most articles that I write have something of an arc to them, a conclusion at the end. This one isn’t really like that, it’s more a portrait of elements of a society that were somewhat eclipsed by political conflict.
This article is also an appeal for information. If you know anything about those mentioned, please do get in touch.
On the 22nd of February 1958, The Birmingham Mail (often a surprisingly good source for conflict related information) reported that “three Irishmen” stole a safe, and were apprehended following a police chase that was described by a court official as sounding like “a scene from an American gangster film. Two of the men, Arthur McKenna (23) and Alexander McVicker (22), were sentenced to three years in prison whilst a third, George Augustus McAtackney (21), received sentences totalling four years. The safe contained over £500, worth almost £10,000 nowadays. The men had travelled over for Belfast reportedly to carry out this theft, suggesting they had contacts in the city, and the a degree of knowhow to carry it out.
KcKenna and George McAtackney, received a prison sentence for loitering with intent in the 1950s, and then I could find no mention of McAtackney again, though a male relative was possibly charged with drug possession in Belfast, 1971. And until 1970, there was no mention that I could find of Alexander McVicker, though Arthur McKenna had a storied criminal record, though for acquisitive crime rather than violence.
However, in Ballymurphy and the Irish War by Ciarán De Baróid, this is said about Arthur McKenna and Alexander McVicker:
The McKenna and McVicker outfit were also (as well as running gambling houses) involved in minor racketeering. They fenced stolen goods, lent money at exorbitant rates of interest, ran small protection rackets, and when the opportunity arose, invested their talents in burglaries and robberies. Generally acknowledged as rough diamonds, not to be crossed if you valued limb and property, they maintained a stranglehold over Greater Ballymurphy. A former fellow-traveller would later comment:
‘Very few people would take them on, because if you did it never ended. If one of them got in a fight they weren’t happy until the other bloke ended up a hospital job. Then they’d wreck your house as well. That’s how they controlled this whole area; they just terrorised the whole place.’
The book also noted that:
By late 1970 the two Ballymurphy men had also begun to cross swords with a new organisation – the Provisional Irish Republican Army – in the course of their extortionist activities. It was a fatal error.
The IRA shot both men on the streets of Ballymurphy in 1970: “The local population was stunned. Bad and all as things were, nothing like this had ever happened before.”
Why did the IRA kill McKenna and McVicar? Their control over Ballymurphy would not have gone unnoticed. And perhaps some IRA members found their criminality distasteful. But every iteration of the IRA has been keenly aware of the threat of informers, and criminals, particularly career criminals, who are wide open to be manipulated into being informers. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest either McKenna or McVicker were informers, McKenna’s brother, Jimmy, later worked for the UVF, and allegedly the RUC Special Branch, having previously been a British soldier. His UVF “minder” was Billy Hutchinson, who talked about Jimmy McKenna in his memoirs. More can be read here and here.
A Protestant man with a criminal record close to matching that of Arthur McKenna was found bound, gagged, and shot through the head on the 7th of February 1971. Albert Edward Bell was 25 years old, and had served prison terms for breaking into shops, and, intriguingly, escaping from a prison in Guernsey. He had republican literature in his pockets when his body was found. Bell had been released from prison two days before he was killed. In Political Murder in Northern Ireland, Martin Dillon had this to say about Bell’s murder:
Albert Edward Bell was a Protestant member of the IRA. He was found at Nutt's Corner, off the Crumlin Road, a deserted spot high above the city on the road to Aldergrove Airport, not far from the place where the three Scots soldiers were to be killed the following month. He was the victim of a clinically executed IRA killing. The pathologist’s report showed that he had been shot twice at close range by a 32 revolver. The first bullet had entered the brain from the back of the head and had travelled upwards. The second bullet had been administered after the body had fallen, and had entered the brain behind the right ear and exited on the other side of the head. Death was instantaneous. This pattern of execution was to become, with slight variations, the standard IRA killing.
Dillon alleged that the IRA killed Bell for being an informer. A republican source has confirmed that this was the reason.
26th October 1971
In the essential book for Troubles historians Tartan Gangs & Paramilitaries by Gareth Mulvenna, the author discussed the murder:
On 26 October … republicans from the Short Strand had abducted and killed a 26-year-old rope works employee named Robert McFarland. McFarland was a petty criminal of subnormal intelligence who … had recently spent time in Crumlin Road Gaol.
McFarland had been convicted of possession of an incendiary device in the grounds of a Catholic church.
Again from Tartan Gangs, then Tartan gang member, and now a respected playwright, Beano Niblock said:
there was a guy I did know called Robert McFarland … He disappeared and the story was he walked into a Catholic bar looking to change money … he was found with his tattoos removed and he’d had a copper pipe shoved down his throat and shot.
31st October 1971
19 year old Thomas Henry Kells was found dead, close to where Albert Bell’s body was discovered, shot by the IRA. Rumours abounded that Kells and McFarland had been viciously tortured before being killed. Mulvenna reported Stormont MP Johnny McQuade saying in parliament:
Nobody in the Shankill or Woodvale areas will believe anything other than that young Kells had a tattoo on his arm cut off before the bullets were used on him.
These rumours, and Kells' friendships with later-to-be infamous loyalist paramilitaries such as Stewart Robinson and Lennie Murphy, had a radicalising effect on young loyalists.
Why did the IRA kill Bell, McFarland, and Kells?
All three men had been in prison shortly before their deaths. IRA prisoners would also have been in prison, and almost certainly the three Protestants would have been known to them. McFarland was in prison for being found with a petrol bomb in the grounds of a Catholic church, an offence for which the IRA probably would have killed him. And the IRA might also have killed Kells for his association with militant loyalists. Here is what Martin Dillon said about McFarland’s death:
McFarland had gone into the Bridge Bar in the Short Strand and tried to get a cheque cashed by the barman. The bar was frequently used by local IRA men, and McFarland got into conversation with a group of them. He asked them if he could join the IRA. They in turn asked him if he wanted to join the Officials or the Provisionals. He replied that he did not care, and the men said they would see to it for him. Later that evening, McFarland was picked up by the IRA in the Short Strand and interrogated. He was executed because they believed he was an informer giving information, gathered on his drinking visits, to the UVF on IRA activity in the area. His attempt to join the IRA of whichever wing was seen as a crude attempt to infiltrate the organization to spy on its operation.
Dillon has made a number of mistakes in his books, and I treat his work with caution. This one of his books was published in 1973, and reading it with hindsight, it seems clear to me that he was given information that he took as accurate which wasn’t in a number of cases. With regards to McFarland, there is a degree of corroboration via Beano Niblock that McFarland visited a pub in the Short Strand prior to his death. Also interesting is Mulvenna stating that he was of “subnormal intelligence” – it could perhaps be assumed he might therefore be more susceptible to manipulation from the security forces.
Perhaps Dillon is right and McFarland did attempt to infiltrate the IRA. If we accept this, it’s reasonable to speculate on who suggested he undertake such a perilous mission. This is pure speculation on my part, but I think it’s more likely that the security forces encouraged McFarland to do this. McFarland, like Bell, would have been vulnerable to coercion from the police, as criminals often are. Is it farfetched to suspect that the RUC or army would have used convicted criminals to join paramilitary groups? We know that this is standard practise. Tasking Protestants to join the IRA seems suicidal nowadays, but the IRA did have Protestant members and Bell, was at least, if not in the IRA, close enough to access information. But it’s also very possible that the IRA simply believed they’d been passing information and deigned them legitimate targets.
But Dillon also claims that Kells was executed for passing information on the IRA. John Taylor, then a Stormont MP, now a member of the House of Lords and an embarrassment on Twitter, said that the IRA had in fact kidnapped Kells in February 1971, eight months before his murder, and the same month that Bell was killed. He was clearly a person of interest to the IRA, but my hunch is that they had him pegged as a militant loyalist rather than someone spying on them.
But this is all speculation. And the spectre of sectarianism cannot be ruled out in the killing of the three men.
Part two will look at crime, violence, and killings within the Catholic community.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.