A two-year IRA investigation has cleared an executed Lenadoon volunteer of charges that he was a paid informer at the time of his death. And it has also scotched reports that he was responsible for informing on one of the IRA's biggest-ever operations.
The family of an IRA volunteer killed in 1979 have acknowledged the outcome of a protracted IRA investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Michael Kearney (20) from Lenadoon, West Belfast, was killed by the IRA in July 1979 and his body left at the border near Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh. At the time the IRA stated he was one of their volunteers and was executed for “breach of general army orders”. There has been speculation over the years since his death, with at least one report implying that he was a paid informer, actively working for the British. The IRA investigation has concluded that he was not a paid informer and has dispelled any suggestion that he was.
Michael Kearney was arrested while on active service in June 1979 and was taken to Castlereagh holding centre, where he was subjected to three days of intensive and brutal interrogation. At the end of the second day of that interrogation his resolve finally cracked and he revealed the whereabouts of IRA material – a small quantity of explosives. He also agreed to become an informer while under RUC interrogation.
Upon his release from Castlereagh, Michael immediately informed the IRA as to what had happened to him while under interrogation. He spoke freely and frankly to them about his situation. Unfortunately at the time the IRA took a stance and as a result Michael tragically lost his life.
Initially, the family approached the IRA leadership two years ago and it agreed with the family's request to launch a comprehensive and thorough investigation into the case.
The family have acknowledged that the IRA achieved that aim. The report was both transparent and conclusive, successfully terminating any suggestion that Volunteer Michael Kearney was working as a paid informer. As far as the family are concerned, his good name has been totally restored.
A brother of the IRA Volunteer said: “There have been many casualties in this war and our brother was one of them. Moreover, despite official statistics, our family have also been casualties, having to bear such immeasurable pain, anguish and sorrow for the past 24 years.
“However, we are not claiming victimhood, but more importantly, are on a journey seeking dignified closure.
“We believe the army investigation has played a role in helping us reach the end of that long journey.
“We are ever mindful of the fact that we are not the only ones to have suffered such a loss in this long struggle, nonetheless, Michael's death has left us with an open wound which has continued to seep and which has refused to heal properly. Consequently, as a result of the army investigation, we can now speak authoritatively and without fear of contradiction about Michael's last days on this earth.
Perhaps now the wound will start to heal.
“It is our personal opinion that Volunteer Michael Kearney was a victim of his own honesty and commitment to his army. Upon his release from Castlereagh in June 1979 he could have very easily left the country, but chose instead to report back to his unit. He was extremely patriotic and felt he had let the cause down and, of course, the people around him. So to actually do what he did after coming out of Castlereagh interrogation centre took a powerful amount of courage for such a young man.
“We can only pray for Michael now and hope he is in a better place, watching over us as we struggle on with our lives without him.
“There is not a day goes by when we don't think about him and heave a sigh. The love we have for him never diminished over the years and the emptiness we feel without him may never be filled. He has always been and always will be a special part of our lives. His precious memory lives on.”
IRA finding ends 24 years of rumour and speculation
Michael Kearney broke just before ten o'clock on the Friday night. Since Wednesday afternoon, June 20, 1979, when he was captured in upper Andersonstown with the keys of a commandeered car in his pocket, he had endured the Castlereagh routine. He had been beaten and abused for over two days when he told his tormentors about five pounds of explosives in a flat in Lenadoon.
He was released on Saturday at 2:30pm. He went straight to the IRA and told them what he had done, what he had said and why. He was picked up by the IRA on Monday afternoon and taken to Dundalk. Nearly three weeks later, he was shot dead by the IRA – executed for “breach of general army orders” in giving away the Lenadoon dump. His body was left on the border, near Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh.
For the Kearneys, a well-respected family with a strong republican tradition (a brother was on the blanket at the time), the death of their son and brother came as a shattering blow. But there was worse to come. For some – among them IRA colleagues of Michael's – it was hard to believe that the IRA would kill one of its own for having cracked under torture and having immediately and freely admitted what he had done. The rumours began to circulate in Lenadoon, and then further afield, that young Michael was a paid informer, actively working for the British.
The most damaging and recurring rumour was that Michael had earlier that same year compromised one of the IRA's biggest and most audacious operations. 42 bombs had been assembled and stored in the Short Strand. Michael Kearney was a member of the IRA team which had transported the bombs across Belfast. The bombs were to have been placed at a number of targets across the city in a ‘spectacular' that would have struck a massive blow against the British. But the operation had been compromised – a bungled SAS stake-out allowed volunteers to escape, but the bombs were captured.
The story was told in Ciarán de Baróid's hugely influential book Ballymurphy and the Irish War, and later in Lost Lives, the catalogue of Troubles deaths. Perhaps the most crucial piece of evidence that led the IRA to conclude in its investigation that Volunteer Michael Kearney did not betray the Short Strand operation came from beyond the grave in a debriefing statement that Michael made on the day of his release. That the paper came to be in the hands of the Kearney family was a stroke of luck – little did the family know that the statement would reach out across the years to restore the good name of their son and brother.
While he was being interrogated in Dundalk, Michael told the IRA that his 12-page debriefing statement was in a detergent package under the sink at his family's home in Lenadoon. A volunteer was dispatched to get it, and even though a family member helped him look, it was nowhere to be found. In fact, it was down the back of the small cupboard, and was found by the family a short time later.
In the statement, Michael records in detail his arrest, torture and eventual collapse. It's clear from the statement that Michael had never worked for the British – indeed, strenuous efforts were made in Castlereagh to recruit him. It's also crystal clear that he did not betray the Short Strand operation, as it was one of a number of jobs that his interrogators accused him of being involved in. The IRA agreed.
It's 24 years since Michael Kearney was shot – two years since the family approached the IRA and asked them to launch an investigation. The Kearneys have been remembering Michael with pride for 24 years.
Now the rest of the republican community can too.