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Huge turnout at Bobby Moffett funeral sends message to men of violence

By David McKittrick

Residents from Belfast's Shankill Road paid their respects to the latest victim of violence which remains ingrained in the area even after the decline of the Troubles.

Until last Friday, when Bobby Moffett, a 44-year-old loyalist, was murdered by other loyalists in broad daylight, it had been hoped that the Shankill had seen the last of its many funerals. Even now, as his coffin made its way past the crowds, the size and dignity of the occasion have given rise to hopes that a turning point has at last been reached.

The Shankill's backstreets still house many members of extreme Protestant groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, but last year they announced that they had decommissioned their weapons and were committed to peace.

The events of last Friday made a mockery of such pledges when two gunmen wearing balaclavas ran up to Moffett in a busy street and blasted him with shotguns. His death was witnessed by many passers-by; one woman was splattered with blood.

The killing, described by police as a public execution, was the work of the UVF. Moffett himself had a paramilitary past, serving two prison sentences for armed robbery as a member of the Red Hand Commando, a UVF-linked group.

But he was also known as one of the district's "hard men", and he had challenged a UVF leader to a fist-fight. This followed an incident in which members had carried out a "punishment attack" on his nephew, wrecking his sister's home in the process.

The UVF leader's response was to summon weapons, which were supposed to have been decommissioned, and to order Moffett's death.

The incident thus had a personal element to it, but it had a double purpose: it was also clearly designed to send the message that anyone falling foul of the UVF could wind up in a coffin. It is said that Moffett thought he was attending a meeting to sort out differences.

The episode provides the most graphic and menacing statement that the UVF remains a lethal force in the loyalist underworld, albeit less active and less well-armed than it once was.

To confirm its intent, the group warned several people to stay away from yesterday's funeral, sending out text messages which featured a photograph of Moffett's bleeding body.

But despite the intimidation, almost 2,000 mourners attended the funeral. They listened to the hymn "Amazing Grace" sung by a community worker, Jim Weir, who witnessed the shooting and tried to resuscitate the victim at the scene.

During the past week many people attended vigils held near the shooting: acts of condolence which have given heart to the Moffett family. Bobby Moffett's sister Irene said: "With the strength of our whole family we will get through it together, and with the strength of the people that have been here, we will."

North Belfast Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds, who attended the funeral, said the people of the Shankill had sent out a powerful message to the paramilitaries that the community wanted to move on. Local police, anxious to ensure that this single murder does not turn into a sequence, have carried out more than 30 searches since the incident.

Detective Chief Inspector John McVea said yesterday: "This was a very public murder. I believe the time and the location was at the choosing of the gunmen. This leads me to describe the murder as a public execution."

The UVF's show of ruthlessness will no doubt deter some people from coming forward, despite the police offering the full protection of the law.

Yet there is no doubt, according to local community and religious leaders, that a wave of shock and revulsion has been generated by the killing.

It came as a blow after spirits had been lifted by a period of relative peace. Suddenly, an old pattern seemed to be reasserting itself, with old tensions and fears flooding back.

Many Shankill people were killed in the Troubles, and many more murdered by loyalist organisations. The district produced savage gangs such as the UVF's "Shankill Butchers", who killed victims with butchers' knives and cleavers.

Today there is concern that the authorities did not foresee the return of the gun, despite the many undercover security agents said to have been embedded in extreme loyalist ranks.

An official intelligence assessment, published two days before the Moffett murder, said that although some arms might have been retained by some elements, the UVF increasingly presented "a picture of an organisation going out of business". The group's leadership, it said, was continuing to guide it away from paramilitary activity and criminality.

In this instance, either the intelligence services had badly misjudged the UVF or a section of its Shankill leadership had defied the organisation's apparent decision to abandon acts of violence.

The second is the more likely, although Dawn Purvis, who leads a small party with UVF links, has resigned in dismay at the killing.

At the moment there is little evidence that the UVF as a whole is gearing up for a return to war. But, as the killing and the list of non-lethal UVF criminality indicates, the UVF and other groups have not melted away.

They contain individuals who wish to maintain their reputations as men of violence, and who want to make money from crime.

The Shankill still produces a steady flow of young people willing to become involved in paramilitarism. As one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland it has high levels of unemployment and crime and particularly poor records in education and health. This potent mix of deprivation and paramilitarism, which has festered for generations, has brutalised many and created a culture in which constant crime and occasional murders continue.

It was in June 1966, before the Troubles began, that the Shankill UVF claimed its first victim. In June 2010 it has again spilled blood on the streets. This time, however, the mass turnout by local people is clear evidence of their determination that the funerals should stop.

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