Joe Cahill, founder of Provisional IRA, dies

Architect of violence became an advocate for the peace process

July 25, 2004|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

Joe Cahill, an Irish Republican Army figure who dodged the hangman and emerged from prison to lead the IRA into a long, bloody guerrilla war before persuading his comrades to embrace the peace process, died Friday in Belfast. He was 84.

While British officials and Protestants in Northern Ireland considered him a terrorist, Mr. Cahill spent his latter years reassuring hard-liners in the republican community that the peace process was their best chance at ending the partition of Ireland.

At 22, he became part of republican folklore when he and a friend, Tom Williams, were sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman in Belfast in 1942. Mr. Williams was hanged, but after appeals on Mr. Cahill's behalf, including one from the Vatican, Mr. Cahill's sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Released from prison in 1950, Mr. Cahill worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast. At the time of his death, he was among a group of plaintiffs who said they were suffering from exposure to asbestos.

A dock worker by day, Mr. Cahill was a rebel by night. He rejoined the IRA, which became largely dormant after its failed border campaign of the mid-1950s. In the late 1960s, however, the Catholic civil rights movement, and especially the heavy-handed response to it by the Protestant establishment, breathed life back into the IRA.

Mr. Cahill was a founder of the Provisional IRA, which was flooded with recruits after British troops opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Mr. Cahill shepherded the IRA into a more violent stage of a long struggle.

Under Mr. Cahill and other like-minded leaders, the IRA continued its staple of doorstep assassinations of police officers, but it became more indiscriminate in its violence, setting off no-warning bombs that killed civilians, both in Northern Ireland and England.

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