The Shankill Road was always at the centre of the Northern Ireland troubles. It saw the first murders of the Ulster Volunteer Force's 1966 campaign. After the arrival of the British Army in 1969, it was quickly separated from the predominantly nationalist Falls Road by the persistent peace wall. It was itself divided between loyalist paramilitary groups, with its lower and upper sections being predominantly Ulster Defence Association areas, whilst the middle stretch is staunchly the home of the UVF. When loyalist feuding broke out, particularly during the post-Good Friday period, violence was never far from the Shankill Road. It remains the focus of summer marches and many Shankill Orangement have become involved with the marches that pass the Ardoyne shop fronts where they meet with protest and violence on the part of Ardoyne republicans.
The Shankill Road is also, importantly, home to thousands of families. Largely Protestant, entirely working class, it has retained a very strong sense of community for decades, a sense of community that you do not find in all areas of the increasingly cosmopolitan Belfast of 2013. It would have been, in the absence of the violence that beset Northern Ireland for much of the late twentieth century, a typical working class area of a large British city, no different to similar areas in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Birmingham.
Saturday 23 October 1993 was a typically busy day on the Shankill Road. Weekend shoppers were out in force on a rare sunny autumn day in Northern Ireland's capital city. Particularly busy was Frizzell's fish shop, located right in the heart of the Shankill.
Upstairs from Frizzell's was the Ulster Defence Association's Shankill Road offices, often in operation on a Saturday as the Loyalist Prisoners Association met to distribute money to the families of prisoners. There was also a good chance that on any given Saturday, many if not all of the UDA's Inner Council would be in attendance at meetings in the office above Frizzell's.
One common misconception about the Northern Irish troubles is the idea that sectarian murder was exclusively a loyalist tactic. This is a myth easily perpetuated and one that emphasises the issue of being a pro-state terrorist group: more legitimate options to fight against the IRA's campaign of violence were available in the form of the police and military. Therefore the purpose of loyalist paramilitary groups can be more easily misconstrued as that of an anti-Catholic movement. This became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, thanks to the nakedly sectarian actions of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, particularly the notorious Shankill Butchers gang, the Ulster Defence Association, not least the Johnny Adair-led C Company in the lower Shankill, and the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
There were also blatant acts of sectarian murder on the part of republican paramilitary groups. The Shankill Road had borne witness to this first hand on 11 December 1971 when, in retaliation to the UVF's bombing of McGurk's Bar (now commemorated by a plaque on the side of the westlink motorway), the IRA bombed the Balmoral Furniture Company showroom on a busy Saturday afternoon. Four civilians were killed, including two young children.
On 13 August 1975, an IRA unit led by Brendan McFarlane, now reinvented as a traditional Irish musician playing to the bars of nationalist areas across Belfast, launched a gun and bomb attack the Bayardo Bar just off the Shankill Road, killing four civilians and a UVF volunteer. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the UVF's involvement in the horrific killing of the MIami Showband two weeks previously. McFarlane would later assume the role of Officer Commanding of the IRA in the Maze Prison after Bobby Sands relinquished the role to begin his fatal hunger strike.
Throughout the years of the troubles, the Shankill Road remained a hub of activity, particularly at the weekends. Many local residents simply refused to venture beyond the sanctity of the areas in which they had grown up. One prominent UDA man whom I knew quite well could only navigate Belfast using either loyalist or business areas. He used to insist on giving me a lift to his office in North Belfast for our occasional meetings/interviews and we zig-zagged from my home area of South Belfast to the north side of the city, never going too close to a nationalist or a republican area. The cessation of violence in the late 1990s has had economic consequences for loyalist areas: shops which could previously rely on the local community for business saw their customers venture further and further afield, notably into the centre of Belfast which became an increasingly viable shopping district as the peace process developed.
The UDA were indeed occupied in their offices on the morning of Saturday 23 October 1993, but they had concluded business long before Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly arrived in Frizzell's at 1pm. The two men were IRA volunteers from nearby Ardoyne and the holdall they brought with them contained a bomb, primed to explode eleven seconds after they had issued a warning to all of the customers in the store. IRA intelligence operatives had been conducting surveillance on the fish shop and the offices above and had concluded that eleven seconds would be long enough to clear the shop but not long enough to vacate the offices, meaning that the bomb, upon detonation, would kill all of those in the offices above.
Kelly waited at the door whilst Begley made his way to the back of the store. As he moved to place the bomb over the refrigerated counter, it exploded prematurely. Begley was killed instantly and died along with nine others. Nearly sixty were injured. One UDA man was killed in the blast, but only because he happened to be in the shop at the time of the explosion. The closest any leading loyalist had been to the blast was the nearest pub, where Billy "Twister" McQuiston had been. McQuiston had joined the UDA after the Balmoral bombing, and had rushed to the furniture showroom after the explosion to help rescue survivors. Nearly twenty-two years later and he again found himself clearing rubble after an IRA bomb had brought the conflict right to the door of the ordinary people of the Shankill Road.
The sense of rage across loyalism on the evening of Saturday 23 October was palpable. Reports suggest that Johnny Adair had arranged to conduct a series of gun attacks on Catholic churches during Saturday night mass, only to be foiled by a significantly increased security force presence across Belfast. Loyalist retaliation took its most deadly form a week later when the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, a few miles east of Derry city, was hit by an Ulster Freedom Fighters gun attack which killed eight.
Sean Kelly survived the bomb and was rescued from the rubble. After his recovery in hospital he was jailed for nine counts of murder and received a life sentence. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 2000.
At Begley's wake, a British soldier opened fire on a group of mourners and seriously injured senior Ardoyne Republican Eddie Copeland. Gerry Adams served as a pall-bearer at Thomas Begley's funeral and received widespread condemnation for this, even though he regularly performed this duty for IRA funerals. It has been suggested that, at a particularly precarious stage in the peace process, it would have been dangerous for Adams to shun the IRA. With hindsight, this may indeed have been true.
Nearly two decades since the Shankill bomb, the IRA will commemorate Begley, as it has begun to do for a great number of its volunteers who were killed in action. Gerry Kelly, involved in the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey and since 1998 politically active as MLA for North Belfast, said that the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate Begley in his native Ardoyne would be respectful. Kelly commented that:
Thomas Begley was not responsible for the conflict here – he lost his life as a result of the conflict he was born into.
This was a terrible tragedy when 10 people were killed, one of them IRA volunteer Thomas Begley. The people of the Shankill will be holding their own commemoration and remembering their loved ones.
Everyone has a right to remember their loved ones and Thomas Begley's family and friends are no different
His comments have exacerbated tensions over the issue of IRA commemorations. Ulster Unionist councillor John Scott, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, said:
The families of Begley's victims have suffered enough already without republicans now rubbing their noses in Begley's crimes by unveiling a plaque to the mass murderer. I can understand that a family may want to remember a son, but this isn't the way to do it, given his crimes.
Scott's niece, Wilma McKee, was one of the victims of Begley's bomb.
A protest was held on the Crumlin Road by relatives of the Shankill Road bomb victims, but Copeland and Kelly unveiled the plaque in the Ardoyne despite their protestations.
One of the most articulate and considered commentators on the conflict has been Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and his father in law John, who owned the shop, in the bombing. McBride commented:
Because of the fact that he was a notorious person who took nine lives on the Shankill Road you would very much feel for the families today.
The Shankill bomb, because it was a high-profile atrocity, it was always going to receive widespread media attention.
Obviously families are going to hear about this and some of them are going to be distraught because while Thomas Begley is some mother’s son, he’s the person who took their loved ones’ lives away and they’re going to be filled with all sorts of grief and trauma.
People will remember in the way they want to remember and I suppose all you can ask is that we establish a set of principles around not rubbing people’s noses in it.
Timing is indeed everything. Adams could not afford to shun Begley's funeral, even though he was reportedly angry about the Shankill bomb, because of the need to maintain control over the IRA at a particularly sensitive time in the peace process. The message to the loyalist people of Belfast, particularly the Shankill Road, however, seems to be that the need to commemorate an IRA volunteer, one who would have served a life sentence had he survived the attack, takes priority over their own commemorations in the minds of elected representatives. We have already seen, in the form of the "flags" protests, what can happen when the feelings of the loyalist people are overlooked. Sensitivity has to go both ways.