Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Shankill bomb: Massacre lit the blue touchpaper on a week of deadly reprisals

The Shankill bomb was not an operation that went 'tragically wrong'. Innocent victims were inevitable. As they were in the retaliatory attacks. Brian Rowan reports.

Barbaric: The scene at Kennedy Way where James Cameron and Mark Rodgers were murdered
The carnage on the Shankill Road
The scene after the UFF attack on the Rising Sun bar

The contact often began with the words "the Crucible". It was about authenticating the statement that was about to be read; sometimes down a telephone line, at other times face-to-face.

The caller, or person I met, was a spokesman on behalf of the UDA-linked Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF).

I heard the codewords – "the Crucible" being used many times – long before October 1993 and that week that stretched from the Shankill bomb through to the Greysteel shootings and the period afterwards.

On the day of the Shankill bomb, the UFF had signalled its intentions, warning that the nationalist community would pay "a heavy, heavy price".

There was a reference also to the Hume-Adams talks of that period and what loyalists labelled a "pan-nationalist front".

And what we were reading was a statement that, between the lines, was saying that every Catholic – any Catholic – could be a target.

Then the shooting began, in Belfast and elsewhere; with the guns of the UFF and UVF loud and then louder as the week went on.

News reports moved from one incident and one name to the next incident and the next name; Martin Moran, then Sean Fox, then James Cameron and Mark Rodgers.

James Cameron and Mark Rodgers were shot dead and others wounded in an attack on a council yard at Kennedy Way in Belfast.

"This is only the start of the heavy price to be paid," the UFF said. "Our attacks will widen and intensify."

These were not idle words. Two days later, the UVF shot dead two brothers Gerard and Rory Cairns, and two days after that, the UFF carried out the Greysteel pub shootings.

Gunmen sprayed bullets killing eight people. Two Protestants were among the dead.

In Belfast, there had been a significant arrest operation, but loyalists had chosen another stage and another place before speaking in another coded statement.

The heavy price after the Shankill bomb was the week of slaughter that followed; a week that took Northern Ireland right to the very edge.

No-one could have seen it then, but behind the headline news of those horrific days, a peace initiative was being developed.

John Hume was trying to find a way out of the killing; trying to persuade Gerry Adams to persuade the IRA that there was an alternative.

And, within a year of the Shankill bomb and the shootings that followed, both the IRA and the then Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) had announced ceasefires.

But it was not a straightforward walk to that point. Just weeks after Shankill and Greysteel, news emerged of secret contacts between the Government and republican leadership. It added even more volatility to an already fragile situation.

There were loyalist fears of a sell-out; that some secret deal was being done between the British and the IRA.

Only days earlier, the combined loyalist leadership had spoken of an earnest desire for peace, but had warned: "In the eventuality of peace being bought at any price, we are preparing for war."

This was how dangerous and deadly the situation was on that long walk from October 1993 to October the following year, when the CLMC matched the IRA ceasefire that had been announced in August 1994.

The wider context of the period began long before the Shankill bombing; long before the introduction of those words "the Crucible". The UDA leadership had been transformed in the period of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Older men were pushed to one side as a younger, more militant leadership took shape. Across the loyalist organisations, there had been a re-arming and then a killing surge.

Many of the statements of this period were delivered with the codewords "The Ulster Troubles". One loyalist, in particular, became a key target for the IRA.

His name is still on the tip of many tongues, republican and loyalist: it was Johnny Adair that the IRA hoped to kill in the Shankill bombing.

Adair would often have used an office upstairs in the same block of buildings as Frizzell's fishmongers. I had spoken to him in that office, seen him there on a number of occasions with other loyalist leaders, including those who sat at the top table of the UDA.

But they were not there on the Saturday of the bombing. The office was empty. But even if they had been there, that attack was always going to result in civilian deaths.

The IRA bomb was on a short fuse. There was no time for anyone to get clear. And those who sent Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly out with that device knew this.

It was not an operation that went "tragically wrong". On that busy Saturday shopping afternoon, men, women and children were always going to die.

And, once that happened, more people were going to lose their lives. This is the horror and reality of that October week in 1993.

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