Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

IRA was sending Government mixed signals before 1994 ceasefire - but Shankill bombing was the point of no return

The IRA bomb in Frizell's fish shop killed 9 innocent people and one bomber. Picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon
The IRA bomb in Frizell's fish shop killed 9 innocent people and one bomber. Picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon

It is easier to assess the importance of the Shankill bombing now, looking backwards, than it was at the time. The emotional impact on Belfast and the wider region was far greater than many previous atrocities. I remember a feeling that used to hang in the air at the worst of times, a heaviness, almost as if you could put your head out the window and know that something awful had happened; that people were afraid.

Before I got the news about the bomb, I had seen the sombre looks on the faces of shoppers. A Protestant acquaintance, who would normally have stopped to share a joke with me, walked past as if he hadn't seen me.

The context was a developing peace process. The SDLP leader, John Hume, had been in talks with Gerry Adams for five years and had come up with an agreed statement that the people of Ireland, north and south, were entitled to self-determination.

By December, the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and prime minister John Major would agree a joint declaration, accepting that an historic conflict had to be negotiated into a resolution.

Hume was warning not to be swayed by "the politics of the last atrocity". The prize, if we kept our nerve, he said, was an end to violence.

There are different ways of setting the bomb into that context. First of all, one may assume (though others will argue against this) that the attack on Frizzell's fish shop was a failure; that the IRA did actually intend to kill the leadership of the UDA, which met upstairs.

Then we have to consider what the impact of success would have been; the slaughter of Johnny Adair and the other 'brigadiers'.

In the past, when the UDA had been decapitated by the Stevens Inquiry into collusion, this new generation of leaders had increased the murders of Catholics.

They were even getting close to real republicans, having killed Eddie Fullerton in Donegal and Malachy Carey in Ballymoney.

The IRA may have thought that destroying the command structure would have broken the UDA and made it possible to advance towards a ceasefire without fear of being vulnerable to loyalist attrition afterwards.

When the plan did not work, and as the pressure to call a ceasefire increased after the joint declaration, and stalling began to look like bad faith, the Provisionals went on to kill more loyalists, including Ray Smallwoods in July 1994, before making their statement.

We can read that strategy as an effort to clear the field before the ceasefire, but we can also read it more cynically.

The IRA, since the first approach to the Government for negotiations, had always been sending out mixed messages. Overtures for peace and hints at a ceasefire were often followed by massive bombs in London, bombs bigger than any we had seen in the north.

Even as they inched through the peace process, they planned mortar strikes on Heathrow, the sabotage of all electricity sub stations around London and other huge explosions.

It is hard to be confident about what that strategy meant, whether it signalled a division of opinion within the IRA – one faction opting for escalation and having to be placated – or whether the Adams-McGuinness leadership itself thought that the British and the loyalists could be softened up.

The British responded by taking the hit. Other governments, faced with such assaults on their capital, would have retaliated with helicopter gunships; the British continued to believe that the IRA was coming into negotiations and that it was best not to avenge these bombings.

The loyalists reacted differently. Their leaders had escaped the incineration planned for them and those to die were innocent civilians, shopping on the Shankill on a Saturday afternoon, and one of the bombers, Thomas Begley.

Halloween was approaching, a time for ghoulish antics. 'Trick or Treat', said the lead gunman, Stephen Irwin, as he entered the Rising Sun, a bar in Greysteel a week later, with an AK-47. With nearly 70 people partying in the bar at the time, the miracle was that they killed only eight, with 13 injured.

Six others had been killed in the week since the Shankill bomb and Belfast had become a grim and frightened city.

Pubs were dangerous places. Many would not let you though the door until you had passed through a security cage and been assessed and identified. Taxi drivers were being picked off in dial-a-target operations.

We seemed as far from the promised peace as we had ever been and the ambiguous signals from republicans included a statement from Gerry Adams that the attack was wrong and could not be excused, yet he carried Begley's coffin.

A British soldier opened fire on mourners in Ardoyne, in an attempt to kill republican Eddie Copeland, and was given 10 years for attempted murder.

People were frightened, but they were heartbroken as occasionally during the Troubles, after the multiple slaughter of civilians at Enniskillen, La Mon and Omagh.

On occasions like this, we broke from the pattern of routine murder as a backdrop to ordinary life and saw the prospect of death and ruination for us all.

And the stories came of the people who had died and they acquired faces and names. And you knew that could have been your daughter, your father, your wife, your friend.

And for a time the awfulness came into focus as inexcusable and yet, perhaps, stoppable.

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