Kelly, John (Joseph) (1936–2007), republican activist and paramilitary, was born in the New Lodge area of Belfast on 5 April 1936, one of five sons and four daughters of William Kelly, retail and wholesale fruiterer, and his wife Margaret (née Maginness). Living off Carlisle Circus in a flashpoint area of north Belfast and close to Crumlin Road prison, the Kellys were a strongly republican family, regularly supplying republican inmates with fruit and assisting them on their release. Kelly's maternal grandfather had been a close friend of James Connolly (qv) during the latter's stay in Belfast, and one of Kelly's maternal uncles, Billy Maginness, was Connolly's election agent during a local government contest. Kelly's mother was a member of Cumann na mBan and in her youth worked closely with Winifred Carney (qv); she remained active in the republican movement until she was severely wounded in October 1980 when loyalists fired on an H-block demonstration (she died in 1983). Kelly's brother Billy (d. 2009) was interned in the 1950s and became a co-founder of the Provisional IRA. Another brother, Oliver (1946–2009), studied law while interned in the early 1970s, became a well-known Belfast solicitor, and chaired the Antrim GAA county board for ten years. Kelly's sister Rita (d. 2009) co-founded the Irish National Caucus, an Irish-American lobby group, with Fr Sean McManus.
John Kelly joined the IRA in 1952 and attended training camps with Sean South (qv); at the same time he trained as a marine engineer. In December 1956 during the IRA 'border campaign' he was captured with an IRA flying column near Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, and sentenced on 11 April 1957 to eight-years' imprisonment for IRA membership and possessing explosives. While attempting to escape from Crumlin Road prison on 26 December 1960, Kelly fell from a wall, injuring his back and acquiring a permanently crooked little finger; the escape attempt brought an additional six-month prison sentence, which he served in solitary confinement. After his release Kelly worked as a maintenance fitter with ICI in Carrickfergus and attended civil rights demonstrations. He largely detached himself from the IRA; although he regarded himself as a republican socialist, he thought that the Dublin leadership under Cathal Goulding (qv) downplayed the military aspect of the movement excessively. Marrying in the 1960s, he and his wife Philomena, who was from Maghera, Co. Londonderry, had one daughter.
At the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles in August 1969 Kelly took an active role in defending nationalist areas (particularly the Lower Falls Road in west Belfast) from attack by loyalist mobs. Kelly supported the tendency within Sinn Féin and the IRA that became the Provisional movement, as opposed to the 'Official' leadership headed by Goulding. Kelly attended the first clandestine meeting of what became the Belfast Provisional IRA on 24 August 1969, and participated in an attempted coup by the dissident group against the Belfast IRA leadership of Billy McMillan; he joined the walkout from the 1970 Sinn Féin ard-fheis over the issue of abstentionism, and became a founder-member of the Provisional IRA. In the later stages of the conspiracy to import weapons that led to the 1970 arms trials, Kelly was a member of the Provisional GHQ staff, reporting directly to Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv). (In later life Kelly stated that Goulding's socialist strategy might have been correct in the long term but under the circumstances of Belfast in 1969 communal self-defence had to take priority. He expressed respect for some prominent Official activists, notably Seán Garland, with whom he had been imprisoned during the border campaign.)
Kelly's connection to the arms trials began when, as central organiser of the 'citizens' defence committees' that coordinated defensive measures and provided community organisation in nationalist areas, he engaged in meetings of northern nationalists with Captain James Kelly (qv), an Irish military intelligence officer; they met first in September 1969, and John Kelly was one of the main participants in the Bailieborough (Co. Cavan) meeting of 6 October 1969 at which Captain Kelly informed northern representatives that Irish government funds were available to purchase weapons for self-defence. Captain Kelly wished both to strengthen the military position of the northern nationalists and to create a traditionalist IRA focused on the northern situation and less interested in revolution in the Republic (unlike the Marxist Goulding faction). Kelly later stated that he knew this was Captain Kelly's agenda but that the IRA split was inevitable. In November 1969 Captain Kelly had to intervene to prevent John Kelly from assassinating a supposed arms dealer whom he (correctly) believed to be a British agent, and John Kelly later stated that while Captain Kelly believed the arms would remain in the Republic under his control in preparation for a doomsday situation, the IRA intended to seize them when they arrived and bring them north directly.
John Kelly also claimed that his trust in the Irish government was reinforced by serving on northern nationalist delegations which went south to ask for assistance from the government of the Republic in the aftermath of the violence of August 1969. He always maintained that he believed that Captain Kelly and the cabinet ministers Neil Blaney (qv) and Charles Haughey (1925–2006) with whom he liaised were acting on behalf of the government as a whole. According to Kelly, Blaney was the main mover in the plot while Haughey's role was relatively peripheral. In November 1969 Kelly and the Derry IRA leader Sean Keenan visited New York (on passports arranged by Blaney) in an attempt to procure arms from traditional IRA suppliers. This project was aborted since Blaney wished to work with European arms dealers rather than with less easily controllable Irish-American republicans; the activities of Kelly and Keenan, however, led to the formation of the Irish-American republican support group NORAID and the reactivation of the US arms supply line to the benefit of the Provisional IRA.
Attempts to bring the arms into Dublin by sea and air in early 1970 were thwarted through the intervention of the senior civil servant Peter Berry (qv), and the ministers involved were subsequently dismissed from the government. The two Kellys (and the businessman Albert Luykx) were arrested on 27 May 1970 and charged with the illegal importation of arms (Blaney and Haughey were arrested the next day and charged with the same offence). John Kelly was one of four defendants in the two arms trials of September and October 1970 (the charges against Blaney having been dismissed), but chose not to give formal evidence, claiming that to submit to cross-examination would endanger colleagues in Northern Ireland. Instead, he made an unsworn statement in which he reviewed his career, justified his actions on the grounds that they were necessary to defend northern nationalists, and claimed that the government had not rejected requests for arms and had been fully aware of the attempted importation.
After the trial ended with the acquittal of the defendants, Kelly remained active in the IRA. On 13 May 1972 he was part of an IRA delegation that held clandestine talks in Dublin with Harold Wilson and Merlyn Rees (qv); Rees later stated that the delegation came across as hard men who thought like soldiers and had no grasp of the necessity for compromise. Kelly participated in the celebrated 10 August 1972 Belfast press conference in which IRA leaders (notably Joe Cahill (qv)) were introduced to reporters as proof that internment had failed to cripple the organisation; in 1973 he served a six-month prison sentence in Portlaoise after being convicted of IRA membership. However, his high profile and detachment from the northern situation meant that he was progressively marginalised. Despite the drawbacks of separation from friends and family, Kelly adjusted well to life in the south; in his later years he stated that he found Belfast dour and provincial in comparison to Dublin, and encouraged young northerners to travel and see the world.
Kelly remained in contact with his fellow arms trial defendants; although he had relatively little contact with Haughey before the trial his wife's family were acquainted with the Haugheys and Kelly subsequently became a regular visitor to Haughey's mansion at Kinsealy (though, according to Kelly, they never discussed the arms conspiracy as Haughey found this a sensitive issue). From time to time Kelly acted as intermediary for republicans who wished to contact Haughey. While Captain Kelly always spoke of Haughey with contempt for falsely denying knowledge of the arms conspiracy during the 1970 trials (thereby attempting to secure his own acquittal while undermining the other defendants' contention that the initiative had government approval), John Kelly saw Haughey's behaviour as an emotionally understandable reaction to being arraigned despite peripheral involvement while the much more deeply implicated Blaney had evaded trial. Kelly also shared with Haughey an interest in horses; he had a lifelong fondness for attending horseraces, and the fraternity of the racetrack doubtless contributed to his ability to get on with those with whom he disagreed.
Kelly returned to Northern Ireland after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, settling in Maghera, where his wife and daughter lived; there he was an active supporter of Watty Graham's GAA club. In 1996 he became a Sinn Féin member of Magherafelt district council. In the 1998 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly after the conclusion of the Good Friday agreement, Kelly was elected as a Sinn Féin MLA for Mid Ulster. He subsequently fell foul of the Sinn Féin leadership over his willingness to visit dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry jail and his support for a dissident-led campaign to segregate republican and loyalist prisoners. He denied any sympathy for the dissidents' continuing violent activities, but noted that 'they were prisoners as I was a prisoner' and that some prisoners were his constituents (Irish News, 2 March 2004).
Kelly did not contest the 2003 Assembly elections, ostensibly on health grounds (he had undergone heart surgery and developed bowel and prostate cancer), but he regarded himself as having been de-selected. Shortly after the election he resigned from Sinn Féin, expressing disquiet at the authoritarian control exercised by the party leadership and at Gerry Adams's repeated denials of IRA membership. (Maintaining the traditional republican self-image as a straight talker, he later expressed open contempt for Sinn Féin equivocations.) He subsequently stated that he had been wrong to support the Good Friday agreement, though he continued to believe that armed struggle was futile at that point in time. He strongly disapproved of moves towards IRA weapons decommissioning on the grounds that the surrender or destruction of weapons ran counter to republican tradition; in a notable display of wishful thinking, he suggested that unionists might have been satisfied with a public IRA order to dump weapons and stand down (as at the conclusion of previous IRA campaigns).
Kelly became strongly associated with other republican critics of Sinn Féin, campaigned for dissident candidates at the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and joined in denunciations of Sinn Féin's decision to accept the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. A younger ex-prisoner critic of Sinn Féin, Anthony McIntyre, called him 'the wise owl of dissident republicanism'. In his later years, especially after 1994, Kelly gave many interviews to scholars of the Northern Ireland troubles, though his frankest statements on the arms trial were only made (or at least published) after Haughey's death. John Kelly died of cancer at his home in Beaver Crescent, Maghera, Co. Londonderry, on 7 September 2007.