Twomey, Séamus (1919–89), Provisional IRA chief of staff, was born in Marchioness Street in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, the son of an IRA Volunteer in the 1920s. Twomey experienced the poverty of interwar Belfast: ‘degradation and unemployment and humiliation . . . just no life at all’ (Hederman, Crane Bag). He joined the IRA in 1937 and was interned during the second world war. Twomey lived in Andersonstown, west Belfast, and made his living as a bookmaker's runner and manager of a bookmaker's shop. Twomey was a keen fan of Gaelic sports and horse racing, and in the late 1940s was a co-founder and leading member of a west Belfast Gaelic football club, Seán Gaffneys. ‘If this war was over tomorrow I would like to go back to my own ways,’ he said in 1977, ‘going to football matches . . . having a few bets maybe on a horse’ (Hederman, Crane Bag). Like most Belfast activists, he did not participate in the 1956–62 border campaign. In the late 1960s he left the IRA because of his dislike of the policies of the leadership around Cathal Goulding (qv). He took a keen interest in the future Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams. In early 1969 Twomey led the ‘auxiliaries’, a group of older republican activists who organised local defence during the riots of August 1969. He was one of the discontented veterans who founded the Belfast Provisional IRA in August–September 1969.
Twomey was a devout catholic and traditional republican militarist – ‘the archetypal IRA godfather of the popular press’ (Clarke (1987), 26), often appearing in dark glasses. He was heavily influenced by the experience of large-scale loyalist attacks on catholic districts at the outset of the troubles. He acquired the nickname ‘Thumper’ because he slammed his fist on the table when angry. Critics claim his military tactics reflected psychotic delight in violence. Twomey told an interviewer that a fighter must be 100 per cent convinced of his own rightness to avoid destroying himself ‘as a human person’. He allegedly invented the car bomb, and favoured a scorched-earth strategy of undermining partition by destroying the province's economy. In April 1971 Twomey became second-in-command and adjutant of the Belfast brigade of the Provisional IRA; in August he was promoted to brigade commander. He was regarded as a leader who ‘expected unstinting effort’ from subordinates ‘but . . . would support them to the hilt’ (Anderson, 282–3).
Twomey questioned the IRA truce of June 1972, believing ‘one big push’ would bring victory. He was a member of the IRA delegation that negotiated with William Whitelaw (qv) in London on 7 July 1972, and returned to Belfast to announce: ‘There's not going to be an old 1921 sell-out here . . . There'll be no underhand deals’ (Taylor, 144). On 9 July he ended the truce, ordering the IRA to fire on British troops during a riot on the Lenadoon estate in west Belfast. Twomey is associated with ‘Bloody Friday’, 21 July 1972, when the Belfast brigade exploded twenty car bombs around the city centre within an hour. The IRA had failed to realise that the security forces could not handle so many bombs simultaneously; nine people were killed and 130 wounded, and pictures of firemen shovelling body parts into plastic bags provoked widespread revulsion.
Within the IRA leadership, Twomey was aligned with the militarists around Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv) against the politically oriented Ruairi Ó Bradaigh and Daithi Ó Conaill (qv). While Twomey described himself as a socialist and had been a trade union activist, he believed his lack of education disqualified him from political leadership. He opposed the contesting of elections by Sinn Féin as a distraction from the armed struggle, which allowed the SDLP to become the dominant nationalist political force.
Twomey moved to Dublin in September 1972, stepping down as Belfast OC; he was IRA chief of staff in March–September 1973 and from June or July 1974 to December 1977. On 1 September 1973 he was arrested in the republic and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for IRA membership. On 31 October 1973 he escaped by helicopter from Mountjoy prison with two other IRA leaders; this exploit was celebrated in such ballads as ‘The helicopter song’ by the Wolfe Tones. He favoured attacks in Britain, ‘hitting the type of person that could bring pressure to bear on the British government’ (Smith, 125). Twomey participated in the Feakle talks on 12 December 1974 between the IRA and protestant church leaders. During the 1975 ceasefire (which he supported as an opportunity to regroup) he addressed the Belfast Easter rising commemoration; unionists protested, and Ian Paisley (qv) produced leaked official documents ordering that Twomey should not be arrested unless caught in flagrante delicto. By early 1976 he allegedly spoke of ending the IRA campaign as a result of damage inflicted during the ceasefire.
In December 1977 Twomey was rearrested by Gardaí and jailed until January 1982; documents captured with him revealed a new IRA ‘long war’ strategy based on a cellular structure and developing Sinn Féin as an adjunct to the armed struggle. Shortly before his arrest Twomey was replaced on the army council by a Belfast protégé, though he remained chief of staff. After his release he was IRA director of intelligence and later director of security, but he never regained his earlier influence. Many of those Twomey had fostered in the organisation provided the younger and more politically astute Northern-centred leadership, which dominated Sinn Féin and the IRA from the 1980s; some sources speak of Twomey's becoming their ‘puppet’. Twomey supported the abandonment of abstentionism by Sinn Féin in 1986. He died of heart disease in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, on 12 September 1989, still wanted for questioning in Northern Ireland. With his wife Rosaleen he had three sons and three daughters.