Australia and the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s: A case of the national/border security nexus.

Evan Smith and Anastasia Dukova bring us a taste of the research that they’ve been doing in the recently opened Australian Security Intelligence Organisation archives. This important work brings a transnational lens to the study of the ‘Troubles’ while also raising questions about migrant connections and belonging within the British Commonwealth.

Although the Australian security services monitored Irish Republicans in Australia during the First World War and in the 1920s, the commencement of the ‘Troubles’ heightened their interest. As the conflict in Northern Ireland worsened throughout the early 1970s, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was keen to monitor sympathetic republican activists in Australia, concerned that international events could spill over into the domestic sphere.

Since Federation in 1901, border control mechanisms had been used to prevent potential ‘alien enemies’ from entering Australia and to monitor potential ‘threats’ of those who had entered the country.In the first three decades of the twentieth century, as the Irish independence reached its zenith with the Third Home Rule Bill, the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence (and subsequent civil war), the Australian government, the security services and the police heavily surveilled Irish migrant communities and visitors from Ireland to Australia.[i]

The Migration Act 1958 allowed for the refusal of entry to people suspected of being a security threat and there were a number of discussions over the years between ASIO and other government agencies over whether entry and/or assisted passage would be granted to people suspected of having ties to the IRA. After the current affairs programme This Day Tonight featured alleged IRA members in Australia in 1971, a number of government agencies became concerned, with an ASIO memo noting that the Minister for Immigration had ‘received a number of complaints from the public… for allowing this type of person into the country’.[ii] ASIO’s Regional Director in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) stated that the Immigration Department’s view on this was:

no Australian visa is necessary for Northern and Irish persons who wish to visit Australia. They have what is called “freedom of movement” to Australia with the result that as British subjects they would not be asked the purpose of their visit and no record would be held by the Department of their visit. The only formalities would be stamping of their passport fort a six month period and the usual filling out of an Incoming Passenger Card.[iii]

As the British authorities intensified their efforts in Northern Ireland with internment, the suspension of Stormont and the passing of the first Prevention of Terrorism Act in late 1974, the Commonwealth’s Special Interdepartmental Committee on Domestic Violence (established in 1974) ‘expressed concern’ to ASIO about ‘the possibility that members of the IRA could attempt to travel to Australia if the UK Government imposed heavy restrictions on [the] IRA’.[iv]

This post focuses on a case study found in the opened ASIO files on Irish Republicanism in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s. In October 1974, ASIO investigated the migration of several people from Northern Ireland suspected of being involved in or having sympathies with the IRA, all sponsored by people attached to one address in Wollongong. It was noted that three out of the four people identified had applied for assisted passage and had been rejected, with three of them paying their own way to Australia.[v]Although one, Roy McIlwaine, was believed to have returned to the UK after less than a year in Australia, the others were seeking to sponsor others to emigrate.[vi]

One of these migrants was James Lillis.[vii] Lillis had been interned from January to June 1972 ‘under suspicion of being a member of the IRA’, while Lillis’ brother was a prisoner at Long Kesh at the same time.[viii] James and his wife Jean were both considered ‘strongly nationalistic’ and ‘hard line Republicans’, and although Lillis now resided in Australia, there was a concern expressed by the Australian Migration Office in Belfast that this did ‘not remove him from the grip of the IRA, who are well represented in Australia’. The Australian Migration Officer in Belfast suggested that Lillis would continue to assist the IRA from Australia (‘where he cannot be interned’) by raising funds.[ix]

Lillis had allegedly served a prison sentence for a firearms offence and it was speculated that he was involved in more serious crimes. The same Australian Migration Officer in Belfast speculated, perhaps wildly:

Any man prepared to carry an illegal firearm in Ulster must be regarded as a potential murderer. [Lillis] may be responsible for one or more of the unsolved murders referred to above.[x]

Labelling Lillis as ‘obviously not the type of citizen that Australia wants’, the Officer argued that the fact that Lillis was able to travel to and reside in Australia despite being a prohibited immigrant ‘points to a need for a revision of procedures in cases such as this’. In July 1974, the Whitlam government introduced a visa regime for British migrants, as part of the dismantling of the ‘White Australia Policy’, and the Officer proposed that this would be effective in preventing known criminals from entering the country.

This lengthy special report from Belfast concluded:

James Lillis is a prohibited immigrant. He has entered Australia illegally and I strongly urge that the matter of deportation be stronglyconsidered. (I certainly would not like to meet him in a dark street when I return home!) If we allow him to remain in Australia we certainly run the risk of other members of the Lillis family such as his brother Kevin (presently interned but doubtless due for release in the foreseeable future) seeking to join him. I also recommend that action be taken immediately to prevent Mrs Lillis travelling F/F [full fare-paying] to Australia until her husband’s position has been determined.[xi]

Another migrant living in the same residence as Lillis was Michael McGirr, who was ‘understood to have been interned in 1971-72 on suspicion of IRA activities’. A special report from Belfast stated that while McGirr was not a prohibited immigrant, his internment record and association with Lillis ‘earmark him as a very undesirable type of settler’. The same officer who composed a special report on Lillis again speculated about McGirr’s supposed IRA activities.[xii] McGirr sought to sponsor his wife and children’s passage to Australia and the Belfast Australian Migration Officer recommended rejecting her application, although a memo from the Australian High Commission in London (via the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch at Heathrow) noted in December 1974 that Geraldine McGirr and her two children had flown from London to Sydney to join Michael, now residing in Sydney.[xiii]

Unfortunately, the opened ASIO files end in 1974 and there is no resolution to this correspondence or indication of what (if any) action was taken against these prohibited immigrants, other than a report from October of the same year noted that Lillis was still at the same Wollongong address.[xiv]

As migrants from Ireland (from both Northern Ireland and the Republic) had little restrictions upon their entry prior to 1975, the Australian authorities found it difficult to utilise border control mechanisms in the same way as they did against other national groups. This case study shows that Northern Irish migrants were granted more leeway in some regards, but also highlights the difficulty of the Australian authorities to determine legitimate ‘threats’ with regards to IRA sympathisers coming into the country in the 1970s.

Evan Smith is a Research Fellow in History with the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on extremism, national security and border control in Britain, Australia and South Africa. His latest books are British Communism and the Politics of Race(Brill/Haymarket 2018) and The Far Left in Australia since 1945 (Routledge 2018), which he co-edited with Jon Piccini and Matthew Worley.  He blogs at Hatful of Historyand tweets from @hatfulofhistory.

Dr Anastasia Dukova (TCD) is a Resident Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University. Anastasia is a Partner Investigator on an ARC DP Managing Migrants and Border Control in Britain and Australia, 1901-1981(Flinders University), where she lends her expert knowledge of Irish policing, its connections with the English municipal force and the transnational impact. Her most recent books are Policing Colonial Brisbane (University of Queensland Press, 2019), and A History of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Its Colonial Legacy (Palgrave, 2016).

[i]See: Mark Finnane, ‘Deporting the Irish Envoys: Domestic and National Security in 1920s Australia’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41/3 (2013) pp. 403-425; Stephanie James, ‘Australian Echoes of Imperial Tensions: Government Surveillance of Irish-Australians’, in Kate Ariotti & James E. Bennett (eds) Australians and the First World War(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) pp. 123-142.

[ii]‘Irish Republican Army, JAMES LARKIN Branch, Sydney, Publicity Officer and Organiser, Noel Anthony ASPILL’, 29 July, 1971, A6122 2253, NAA.


[iv]ASIO Inward Message, ‘IRA Activities Overseas and in Australia’, 5 December, 1974, A6122 2257, NAA.

[v]‘Irish Republican Army’, 28 October, 1974, A6122 2257, NAA.


[vii]‘Special Report: Mrs Mary C. Dickinson and Wife of William Dickinson’, 24 June, 1974’, A6122 2257, NAA.

[viii]‘Special Report: Mrs Jean Lillis, Wife of James Lillis’, 6 March, 1974, A6122 2257, NAA.




[xii]Special Report: Mrs Geraldine McGirr, Wife of Michael McGirr’, 18 April, 1974’, A6122 2257, NAA.

[xiii]Memo from Australian High Commission, 10 December, 1974, A6122 2257, NAA.

[xiv]‘Irish Republican Army’, 28 October, 1974, A6122 2257, NAA.

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