A native of Belfast, MacAirt first became involved in Irish republicanism as a boy when he joined the Fianna Éireann. His first imprisonment was in 1942 when the youthful MacAirt was sent to jail for illegal drilling. MacAirt was later interned during the Irish Republican Army's Border Campaign of 1956-1962.
Founding the PIRA
Having retired at some earlier point MacAirt returned to the republican movement in 1969, throwing his lot in with the newly established Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and their political arm Provisional Sinn Féin. Indeed, in early 1970 his Padraig Pearse cumann, which he set up in the Clonard area of the Falls Road, was the first branch of Provisional Sinn Féin established in Belfast and proved central to the growth of the dissident party in the city. In August 1970 MacAirt was appointed editor of the Belfast-based Republican News, succeeding Jimmy Steele who had died soon after being appointed editor. Despite his advancing age MacAirt also became involved in the gun battles that raged between the republicans from Falls and loyalists from the neighbouring Shankill Road. As a consequence MacAirt became one of the leaders of the nascent PIRA in Belfast. MacAirt was publicly named as a leading republican by General Anthony Farrar-Hockley who had commanded the British Army present during the clashes and with whom MacAirt had held failed negotiations at the scene of conflict. He served as Adjutant to Billy McKee, who was first commander of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. According to Brendan Hughes MacAirt's Kane Street home doubled as Belfast Brigade headquarters at this early stage in the movement's history.
On 15 April 1971 MacAirt, along with Billy McKee, was arrested by the British Army when found in possession of a hand gun. Both men were sentenced under the Explosive Substances Act 1883 and sent to Crumlin Road Gaol. In the prison the two men were recognised as the leaders of the republican prisoners, a role held by Gusty Spence on the loyalist side. MacAirt and McKee co-operated informally with Spence to maintain order until they agreed to establish an official Camp Council. The make-up of this group saw MacAirt and McKee representing the PIRA, Spence and an associate identified only as "Robert" representing the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ned McCreery and James Craig as Ulster Defence Association delegates, with members of the Official IRA and Irish National Liberation Army eventually added.
MacAirt was involved in the talks held between republicans and clergymen from various Protestant churches held at Feakle on 12 December 1974. Whilst the talks produced little MacAirt was one of those who maintained contact with the clergymen. Indeed, on 19 January 1975 one of the ministers, Rev William Arlow of the Irish Council of Churches, even introduced MacAirt and his ally Jimmy Drumm to British government officials Michael Oatley and James Allan in an attempt to have the republican grievances heard.
Although a new generation of leaders emerged in the PIRA and Sinn Féin MacAirt remained an influential veteran. He was close to Danny Morrison and Tom Hartley and helped to ensure the removal of Seán Caughey from the editorship of Republican News in 1975 and his replacement by Morrison.
- IRA Memorial Garden (South Link)
- Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, London, 2004, p. 112
- Brian Feeney, Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin, 2002, p. 261
- English, Armed Struggle, p. 115
- Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace, Hutchinson, 1995, p. 89
- Coogan, The Troubles, p. 112
- Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, p. 373
- Ed Moloney, Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland, Faber & Faber, 2011, p. 47
- Moloney, Voices from the Grave, p. 51
- Moloney, Ed (2002). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin Books. p. 98. ISBN 0-14-101041-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Roy Garland, Gusty Spence, Blackstaff Press, 2001, p. 120
- Garland, Gusty Spence, pp. 167–168
- English, Armed Struggle, pp. 178–179
- Patrick Bishop & Eamonn Mallie, The Provisional IRA, Corgi Books, 1994, p. 285
- English, Armed Struggle, pp. 112–113
|Editor of Republican News