Cahill, Joe (Joseph) (1920–2004), republican paramilitary, was born 10 May 1920 in Divis Street, west Belfast, the eldest of thirteen children (two died in infancy) of Joseph Cahill, printer, and his wife Josephine. One brother, Tom, became an active IRA member and was severely wounded in March 1971 during a feud with the Official IRA; another, Frank, helped to establish the Conway Mill development group. Both parents had strong republican sympathies and Joseph senior frequently did printing work for the IRA. Cahill attended St Mary's Christian Brothers' primary school in Barrack Street, Belfast; he left school aged 14 to assist his father in his print shop, but later became a joiner as the business could not support him. He was active in the Catholic Young Men's Society and joined Fianna Éireann (youth wing of the IRA) at the age of seventeen, transferring to the IRA about eighteen months later.
After working for a time in Newry, Cahill returned to Belfast, where he became an air raid warden, assisted in IRA weapons training and was made second‑in‑command of C company of the second Belfast battalion, under Tom Williams (qv). On 5 April 1942 (Easter Sunday) Cahill and Williams led a group of IRA men who fired on a police patrol. They were pursued and trapped in a 'safe house', where Constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead while gaining entry. All six gang members were sentenced to death but only Williams was executed (2 September 1942). The others had their sentences commuted after an international campaign; Cahill was sentenced to penal servitude for life. It was widely speculated that Cahill fired the fatal shot but this was never confirmed (Murphy was hit by bullets from two different guns).
Cahill served his sentence in Crumlin Road jail, Belfast, spending 28 days on hunger strike in March–April 1944. He was released in October 1949 and subsequently found employment in the Harland & Wolff shipyard. (He remained there for eleven months and later spent another nine months there between jobs in the construction industry.) He also returned to the IRA as a travelling organiser and intelligence officer. On 2 April 1956 Cahill married Annie Magee; they had a son and six daughters.
Late in 1956 Cahill became IRA OC Belfast after the arrest of his predecessor; however he himself was interned in January 1957 following the outbreak of the IRA border campaign. Released in April 1961 he returned to the IRA, but resigned in 1962 in protest against the new leadership's adoption of what he saw as doctrinaire Marxism. Because it left him politically isolated, Cahill later described this resignation as the worst mistake he ever made.
From 1964 Cahill was active in the National Graves Association, which became a rallying‑point for discontented IRA traditionalists. He became involved in organising Belfast local defence groups which, after the massive Belfast disturbances of August 1969, became the nucleus of the Provisional IRA. When it was established at the end of 1969 Cahill was one of seven founding members of the Provisional Army Council, and took a leading role in arming and reorganising the IRA. (Cahill actually suggested that the name IRA should be abandoned on the grounds that it had been discredited by the failure of the Official IRA leadership to organise effective communal defence during the Belfast disturbances; in subsequent interviews he spoke of himself as fighting a defensive war, meeting violence with violence.) During a lengthy tour of the United States in November 1970 Cahill made contacts that became the basis for NORAID, the IRA's American support organisation and its arms smuggling network.
Cahill was now OC Belfast; on 13 August 1971 he highlighted the failure of internment (implemented 9 August) to weaken the Provisional IRA by speaking at a press conference organised by the Republican Labour politician Paddy Kennedy (qv), who introduced him as the Belfast OC. After giving further press interviews, Cahill went south to assist the organisation's Dublin leadership, becoming deputy chief of staff; he addressed meetings throughout the Republic, established contacts with the Libyan government through intermediaries, and engaged in talks with the British opposition leader Harold Wilson (March and July 1972). These were unproductive as Cahill and the IRA saw little scope for compromise. 'I am a gunman', he declared at one point. 'Talking will get us nowhere' (Ir. Independent, 7 December 2004). Cahill went on hunger strike after being arrested in the Republic in June 1972, but was released by the special criminal court three weeks later.
In November 1972 Cahill succeeded the arrested Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv) as chief of staff; however, he was arrested by the gardaí in March 1973 on board the intercepted arms ship Claudia, which was carrying five tons of arms from Libya. Cahill was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the special criminal court but released on health grounds on 24 January 1975. He had spent 21 days on hunger strike for political status in September 1973 and subsequently suffered a heart attack.
After his release Cahill became a member of the ard comhairle of Sinn Féin; he subsequently became treasurer, holding this position until 1998. (He is also alleged to have returned to the provisionals' army council; some sources claim he retained membership into the 1990s.) For most of this period he lived in temporary accommodation in Dublin and Dundalk while his wife and family remained in Belfast. He was active in the H‑block campaign, spending four months illegally in the USA in 1981 and twelve weeks in 1984. On these visits he combined addressing meetings, and keeping activists in touch with the leadership's strategy, with arms‑running operations. For example, he was involved with the Boston criminal and IRA sympathiser Patrick Nee in the attempted smuggling in September 1984 of seven tons of arms on the trawler Valhalla. Nee later recalled that even the notorious Irish‑American Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger was impressed when introduced to Cahill.
Cahill was generally supportive of the increasing political involvement of the Sinn Féin and IRA leadership in political activity. At the 1986 Sinn Féin ard fheis he spoke in favour of the successful motion to abandon the traditional policy that any Sinn Féin TDs elected should not take their seats in Dáil Éireann, and he was widely credited with reducing the dimensions of the traditionalist secession led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. In manners and appearance the incarnation of the old‑style IRA man, he appeared at successive Sinn Féin ard fheiseanna as the incarnation of the continuity of the struggle. (Some commentators, mainly but not exclusively disgruntled traditionalists, claimed the Adams leadership played up Cahill's importance in the early years of the struggle at the expense of others' reputations.) In August 1994 the Irish government persuaded President Bill Clinton to secure a visa for Cahill to enter the United States in order to persuade Irish‑American supporters of the validity of the leadership's strategy (and as a sign of the political concessions Sinn Féin might expect through the peace process).
In 1998 Cahill spoke in favour of Sinn Féin acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement; in an ard fheis speech he criticised those (such as the leaders of the Real IRA and other splinter groups) who argued that the agreement betrayed the memories of martyrs such as Bobby Sands (qv) and Tom Williams. Cahill pointed out that when he was sentenced to death in 1942 his political thinking had been highly undeveloped, and that had he been hanged at that time his name might have been cited in the same way. 'Nobody can speak for the dead. They went to their deaths believing what they believed at that particular time' (Anderson, 6). He argued that political involvement was simply another strategy aimed at securing the same end, even suggesting that he might live to see its achievement: 'I was born in an united Ireland and I want to die in an united Ireland' (Anderson, 15).
He was an unsuccessful Sinn Féin candidate for the Northern Ireland Assembly in North Antrim in 1998. In the same year Cahill resigned as Sinn Féin treasurer and was given the honorary title of vice‑president for life; he had suffered three heart attacks and was operated on for colon cancer in 1988. He continued to appear at republican commemorative events and participate in election campaigns. It has been claimed that he also engaged in gunrunning activity; the girlfriend of an IRA man convicted with others of acquiring revolvers in Florida to be smuggled into Ireland recalled that on 15 March 1999 Cahill had a twenty‑minute conversation with the leader of the group at a NORAID fundraising event in Florida.
Cahill died in Belfast on 23 July 2004 from the long‑term effects of asbestosis contracted during his work at the shipyards. His life centred on the IRA and Sinn Féin, and he made many sacrifices for their cause. Opinions of him depend on the observer's view of that cause and the means by which it was pursued. Martin McGuinness described Cahill as 'the embodiment of the spirit of Irish republicanism' and at his funeral Gerry Adams declared there would have been no peace process without him; but the journalist Jim Cusack called him 'a sinister old man encouraging young Catholics to kill and be killed' (Ir. Independent, 12 December 2004). Cahill's official biography emphasises his friendships with Protestant IRA members. A Doubleband Films television documentary, 'Joe Cahill – IRA Man', was broadcast on RTÉ on 7 December 2004.