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Belfast's 'house of quality tools' McMaster's to close: Store witnessed unimaginable tragedy

'It wasn't heroic, I thought you are not coming in here, shoot someone and just walk away'

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The famous tool business in Church Lane

The famous tool business in Church Lane

Family business: Alan and his brother John McMaster (right) who was shot dead in the Belfast city centre shop

Family business: Alan and his brother John McMaster (right) who was shot dead in the Belfast city centre shop

Alan McMaster before he retired from the tool shop

Alan McMaster before he retired from the tool shop

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The famous tool business in Church Lane

Belfast landmark McMaster's Tools closes next week after 122 uninterrupted years of trading. But the Church Lane magnet for generations of builders and DIY enthusiasts has witnessed unimaginable tragedy. By Laurence White.

When Gavin McMaster turns the key for the last time on the family business in central Belfast next Wednesday he will bring to an end 122 years of trading.

WM McMaster Ltd tool shop in Church Lane was founded in 1896 and four generations of the family have since served behind its counter.

But it was a murder committed behind that same counter which made headlines not only for the callous nature of the crime, but also for the astonishing attempt to justify it by a spokesman for the breakaway republic group involved.

It was on July 18, 1991 that John McMaster was serving in the shop first opened by his grandfather. His younger brother, Alan, was in the back of the shop when two gunmen, members of the Irish People's Liberation Organisation - an offshoot of the INLA - walked into the premises.

From his position in the back office, Alan heard what he thought was a light-bulb exploding, but when he rushed into the shop he saw a gunman firing at an unknown target behind the counter.

Alan couldn't see who the victim was from his position. There was a smell of cordite in the air and, as the gunman turned to leave, Alan ran after him.

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He denied that it was a heroic act. "I just thought 'you are not coming in here, shoot someone and just walk away'. It was nothing to do with heroism, just an instinctive act," Alan later recalled.

But as Alan gave chase, the second gunman smashed him in the face with the butt of his weapon, breaking his jaw and shattering his teeth. Behind the counter, his brother lay dead.

Alan said: "He was in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve on HMS Caroline and he was shot dead by this republican splinter group because of the Royal Navy's involvement in the Gulf War.

"Even the IRA condemned the killing. The total waste of a good man for a mistaken ideal."

John's son, Gavin, was supposed to be working in the shop that day too, but had a driving lesson.

"I was only 17 at the time and, thankfully, I wasn't there when the shooting took place," he told the Belfast Telegraph this week.

"I was at home when I found out that my father had been killed. Memories of that event never leave you and it has been fairly tough ever since."

His father had been a Lt Commander in the RNVR when he was shot dead at the age of 47.

Last year a memorial plaque was rededicated by his widow Muriel.

It had formerly been erected aboard HMS Caroline, the historic battleship which was used as a training vessel while moored in Belfast. However, when it was taken over by the National Museums, the plaque was moved to the Royal Navy headquarters at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn.

The magnum revolver used to murder John McMaster had a grisly history. It had been used in two other murders and just over a year later, on August 18, 1992, was fired again in the murder of IPLO leader Jimmy Brown in the Clonard area of west Belfast by another faction of the terror group.

In the wake of Mr McMaster's murder, Brown had tried to defend it, saying he was a reservist in the navy which took part in the US-led bombardment of Iraq during the Gulf War. He said "our friends in the Middle East" would take note of the IPLO killing a member of that navy in Belfast.

It was a preposterous attempt to defend the murder of a well-liked businessman and one which brought condemnation across the board.

Alan McMaster later recalled how he had received and kept letters of sympathy signed simply "a good Catholic" and others which were anonymous, because the writers lived in staunchly republican areas and feared the consequences of their words.

He added: "It was tragic. But that sort of support helped us carry on. It was just such a waste. Neither of us were political at all. We weren't brought up that way.

"My father had always brought us up to treat everyone with fairness and dignity and refused to discuss politics or religion in the house.

"The first day on the job, well before the Troubles broke out, I remember my father taking me aside and saying we serve everyone in here, Orange and Green, black and white, they are all treated the same and we give exactly the same service and courtesy whether someone is spending 10 bob or £50."

Alan's slow recovery from his physical injuries and from the grief of the loss of his brother had a devastating effect on him, but he had to keep the business going because he had a family and a total of 13 people depending on him.

He added: "Other people have suffered more than I have, but if the man who pulled the trigger could see the suffering that he causes for years afterwards, he might think again."

Alan retired from the business at the age of 57 after almost 40 years working in the shop. Now it is his nephew who is closing the doors for good.

Gavin blames online shopping and factors like high rates for forcing his hand. "It all makes trading conditions too difficult to continue," he says with regret.

It pulls the shutters down on a landmark business which was started as the result of an accident.

William McQuoid McMaster worked as a joiner in Harland & Wolff shipyard until he fell and broke both wrists; deciding, if he couldn't continue to use his tools, he would begin selling them to other workmen.

His first premises were in Ann Street, where he remained for 14 years before moving to Church Lane.

On his death, in 1936, his three sons, William, James and John, took over the business.

In those days, business boomed. The shipyard employed 24,000 men and other big employers like Mackies, Shorts and the textile mills ensured that there were plenty of customers for all sorts of tools.

Alan recalled when he was still at primary school he used to run around to the shop after classes and stand at the pot-bellied wood burning stove watching the 'saw doctors' sharpening the tools.

At one time, there were 11 of these men on the top two floors of the building, sitting sharpening the saws. Today, such tools are simply thrown away when blunt.

The business passed to Alan and John in the 1960s and the pair treated the experienced tradesman and the novice DIY enthusiast with the same, friendly service.

Indeed, they had plenty of advice for the novice on which tools to buy and which were best left to the professionals.

The Troubles left its indelible mark on the business with the murder of John, but like many other business owners during those decades of mayhem there were regular call-outs after nearby bomb explosions to ensure the property was still secure.

Alan remembered them as dark days which probably left their mark on everyone involved.

"We lost a lot of our social life, even our peace of mind," he added. "You would never want your children to live through those days."

He certainly lived through the best of times and the worst of times.


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