McMillen, William ('Billy', 'Liam') (1928–75) republican, was born 13 April 1928 in Belfast, the sixth of nine children (five girls and four boys) of Robert McMillen and his wife Sarah (née O'Neill) of 40 Ton Street. William's grandfather (also Robert) was a Scottish presbyterian. William would later reflect that 'my own grandfather was an Orangeman from Glasgow who married a catholic when he came to Belfast. When they got married, she turned protestant. And she only turned back when he died young. It's ridiculous to think … well, if he didn't die, would I be out there waving a union jack?' (Ir. Times, 20 September 1971).
Robert McMillen junior worked as a sign writer and a stage manager at the Alhambra theatre. Both Robert and Sarah McMillen were republicans. Ton Street, one of the narrow terraced streets near Belfast city centre, was part of an area regarded as the heartland of Belfast republicanism. McMillen remembered his mother as a 'Sinn Féiner, when it was dangerous to be one', who had run messages for James Connolly (qv) (Sweetman, 193).
William McMillen attended St Joseph's primary school in Slate Street. His school principal described him as 'a very intelligent lad … obedient, trustworthy and painstaking in his work' (report copy courtesy of Mary McMillen). Despite passing the secondary-school entrance examination, McMillen went to work at the age of 14. He became a scaffolder and worked in that trade until 1969. He joined the IRA in 1944; his older brother Bob was then serving a prison sentence, having been wounded while carrying out a robbery (an incident believed to have been the inspiration for F. L. Green's novel Odd man out (1945)). A younger brother, Art, also joined the IRA.
McMillen remembered that the movement he joined was 'steeped in the tradition that physical force was the only answer' (Sweetman, 193). He was arrested for the first time in 1946 and served a prison sentence during 1953. For a period in the 1950s, McMillen was a member of the breakaway Saor Uladh organisation. However he rejoined the IRA, and in early 1957 was interned in Crumlin Road jail. He spent four years in prison and in 1961 emigrated to Manchester to find work. On his return to Belfast he resumed republican activity and became adjutant to Billy McKee, the IRA's commander in the city. In June 1963 McMillen succeeded McKee, who resigned from the IRA after being accused of acceding to a police demand that the tricolour not be carried at a commemoration. Known by most as Billy, 'Billdoe' or the 'wee man', McMillen was 'a fluent Irish speaker and an enthusiast for Irish music' (Adams, 66). During the 1950s he often attended the Gaelic League ceilis in the Ard Scoil in Divis Street.
In October 1964 McMillen was republican candidate for Belfast West in the Westminster elections. His campaign drew national attention after Ian Paisley (qv) demanded that police remove the tricolour from McMillen's election offices in Divis Street. The RUC raided the premises and confiscated the flag, sparking off several days of rioting during which McMillen led several thousand protesters in defiantly displaying the tricolour. McMillen recalled the IRA gaining a 'couple of dozen recruits' following the election, but his vote of 3,256 (6 per cent) meant he finished bottom of the poll.
The Belfast IRA continued to recruit and train, however. There were abortive attempts to launch 'one man, one vote' committees during 1965 and various small-scale military operations. During 1966 McMillen was organising secretary for the Belfast 1916 centenary events, which mobilised substantial numbers, far beyond the republican faithful. McMillen was arrested before the events and sentenced to three months in jail, which he regarded as a 'small price to pay for the vast return of national fervour which the celebrations had so obviously generated' (McMillen, 6).
By this stage, the IRA, led by Cathal Goulding (qv), was reassessing its direction, moving leftwards politically and provoking widespread worries about its future among some traditionalists. McMillen later claimed that he and the Belfast leadership had initially strongly resisted the new policies, and at an IRA meeting during 1967 he complained that there was 'too much politics in the army. The need was for the army to hit the British.' However he was dismissive of abstentionism, an idea dear to traditional republicans. Under his command, the Belfast IRA continued to carry out armed actions, bombing British army recruitment offices in 1967 and 1968. In 1971 a journalist described him as 'an IRA man of the old school. The new Marxist teachings … sit uneasily on his lips' (Times, 30 July 1971). McMillen reflected during 1972 that he was always 'a kind of instinctive socialist but it's only in the last few years that I even read James Connolly and Marx' (Sweetman, 193). The American Trotskyist Gerry Foley, a close observer of the Irish republican movement, was impressed at how 'sharp a political sense [McMillen] had, how reasonable and well balanced he was, how open to new ideas' (Foley, 1975).
During 1966 McMillen attended a meeting in Maghera, Co. Derry, to discuss the idea of a new protest campaign. One result of this was the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in January 1967. McMillen was a founding member of its executive and part of a three-person subcommittee that drew up its constitution. He took part, along with 'the bulk' of the IRA's northern membership in the first civil rights march, from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968, but recalled it as a 'disappointing anti-climax' (McMillen, 8). However the next march, in Derry city, on 5 October, drew worldwide attention. McMillen claimed that before the march Belfast republicans were 'instructed, in the event of the parade being halted by police cordons, to push leading nationalist politicians or any other dignitaries who were sure to be at the head of the parade into the police ranks'. He later suggested the Derry events had 'done more for the minority … than IRA physical force campaigns had been able to do in fifty years' (McMillen, 10).
Civil rights agitation provoked a political crisis that not only destabilised the Northern Ireland state but widened the fissures within the IRA. Inter-communal tension increased during the summer of 1969. As sectarian clashes erupted, McMillen resisted demands to respond with weapons, arguing that this increased the danger of sectarian pogroms. However during the 'battle of the Bogside' (12–14 August 1969) he ordered the Belfast IRA to carry out attacks to stretch the authorities' resources, and over the next two days Belfast saw its worst violence since the 1930s, with IRA members active in defence of nationalist districts. Despite their efforts, hundreds of catholics were forced from their homes. McMillen was arrested and jailed under the special powers act.
The IRA recruited rapidly in Belfast following the violence, but there were soon complaints that the IRA's Dublin leadership had not foreseen the likelihood of trouble and been better equipped to deal with it. This argument then merged with traditionalists' complaints about the organisation's left-wing policies. McMillen would admit: 'We were out of practice, our guns were rusty and the public had had contempt for us for many years because our previous campaigns had failed' (Times, 30 July 1971). But he also asserted that 'the meagre armaments in the hands of the Belfast units were put to their most effective use and, it can safely be said, prevented even more widespread death and destruction' (United Irishman, December 1970).
On 22 September 1969 McMillen, just recently released from prison, was confronted at an IRA staff meeting by an armed group of men, largely republican veterans of the 1940s, who demanded that he and the Belfast IRA break links with the Dublin leadership. McMillen initially agreed, but secretly maintained contact with Goulding. By the winter of 1969 McMillen's critics were developing their own structure in Belfast and gaining much support among newer IRA recruits. They became a key part of the Provisional IRA once it emerged at the end of that year. McMillen meanwhile remained in command of what became the 'Official' IRA in the city. Echoing what became a key trope of the Officials, McMillen would argue that it was the Fianna Fáil government that 'created a split … and offered money and guns to those who would reject the leadership' (Ir. Times, 20 September 1971). He also maintained that the Provisionals would ultimately be defeated because most people were more interested in social issues such as housing than in a British withdrawal.
The Officials remained strongest in the Lower Falls and the Markets areas but were outnumbered elsewhere in Belfast. In the spring of 1970 several people were wounded in clashes between the two IRA groups. There was an attempt on McMillen's life, and he himself shot and wounded a member of the Provisionals. An uneasy truce was patched up, but tensions would reignite periodically. McMillen was a member of the OIRA army council, and retained a public role as vice-chairman of the Republican Clubs (Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland) and as a member of the executive of NICRA. However, escalating violence curtailed open political activity. In July 1970 British army raids on the Lower Falls developed into gun battles between the OIRA and troops, who imposed a curfew. McMillen gave the order for the OIRA to engage the army and took part in the fighting. He was arrested in the curfew's aftermath and his home ransacked by soldiers. He argued that the OIRA used 'force when the people demand it, because they need to be defended or because their just demands are not met through any other process' (Ir. Times, 20 September 1971). This he contrasted with the Provisionals' destructive bombing campaign.
A key element of the Officials' strategy was to build cross-community links with protestant workers. While in Crumlin Road jail during 1970 McMillen introduced himself to the UVF leader Gusty Spence (1933–2011). Spence found McMillen 'absolutely nonsectarian. He wanted a united Ireland, no doubt about that, but [he] was very positive in his attitude to unionism and protestants' (Garland, 119–20). McMillen was eager for ways to bring about cooperation and angry that tentative contacts with groups on the Shankill had been destroyed by the violence.
When internment was introduced in August 1971, McMillen evaded capture and moved to Dublin on full-time work for the Officials. In early 1972 he travelled to the US, speaking extensively to both Irish-American and left-wing audiences and leading the OIRA's American supporters in the New York St Patrick's Day parade. He supported the OIRA's conditional ceasefire in May 1972, and his status within the organisation helped carry the argument for cessation.
McMillen was back in Belfast during the summer of 1972, encouraging renewal of political agitation. But he found resentment at the ceasefire and eagerness for armed actions among many of the Officials. Close to Goulding and others who stressed the need for the primacy of political action, McMillen was part of a commission set up to examine the long-term relationship between Sinn Féin and the IRA which recommended that the political wing be paramount. At Bodenstown in 1973, he reiterated the Official line that republicans were not on the verge of victory, but 'on the brink of sectarian disaster', and claimed that the 'horror and revulsion generated by the Provisional bombing campaign has irreparably destroyed that vast reservoir of support and good will' which had existed across Ireland (Liam McMillen, 7).
Opposition to the Official leadership centered around Séamus Costello (qv), whose supporters in Belfast accused McMillen of not relaying the level of dissatisfaction there to the Dublin leadership. The consequent split led to the formation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) in December 1974 and to armed conflict with the Officials. By April four people had been killed and dozens had been injured. The violence was largely confined to Belfast, where McMillen's influence was again crucial in ensuring the majority remained loyal to Dublin. McMillen, though, was seen by many in the IRSP as central to efforts to crush them.
In the midst of the ongoing feud, on 1 March 1975 McMillen married Mary McGovern from Norfolk Parade, a secretary and member of the Republican Clubs. By late April talks were underway to secure a truce, though each side continued to accuse the other of bad faith. On Monday 28 April 1975 McMillen drove with his wife to Harden's paint shop on the corner of Spinner Street of the Falls Road. McMillen was sitting in the driver's seat of his van when a gunman walked up and shot him several times. He died almost immediately. Though no organisation claimed responsibility, it is accepted McMillen was shot by Gerard Steenson, a member of the IRSP (McKittrick et al, 538).
On 30 April thousands of people attended McMillen's funeral at Milltown cemetery, where Goulding hailed him as the 'authentic voice of working class Belfast' (Ir. News, 1 May 1975). The Andersonstown News reflected that McMillen 'could have sold his considerable talents to any number of opportunist political groups … but he didn't. Instead he chose to serve his people and his community in the way in which he thought was right' (Andersonstown News, 3 May 1975).
Regarded as one of the 'best-known republicans in the North' at the time of his death, McMillen has been overshadowed by the dominance of the Provisional IRA in historical accounts. This has been aided by the reluctance of his own organisation's successors in the Workers' Party to reflect on their paramilitary heritage. One effect of McMillen's death was to accelerate the Officials' shift from identification with 'traditional' republicanism. McMillen's murder intensified the already bitter hatred of the Officials for their former colleague Séamus Costello, and was a factor in the OIRA's murder of Costello in 1977. The loss of McMillen weakened the Officials in Belfast and influenced the Provisional IRA's decision to carry out major attacks on the organisation in late October 1975.
After his death several Official Sinn Féin cumainn were named after McMillen. He was the subject of a poem by Dominic Behan (qv), 'Bás, fás, blás', published in 1976. A mural featuring McMillen and quoting his 1973 Bodenstown speech adorns the wall of an office used by the OIRA's ex-prisoners' organisation An Eochair on Belfast's Falls Road. In October 2015 the Workers' Party organised the first 'Liam McMillen lecture' to discuss the events of 1975.