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Remembering a black week in our history

(Maeve Connolly, Irish News)

Ten years ago this month Northern Ireland was reeling from a series of murders which started with that of a 20-year-old Catholic and culminated in an IRA bomb which claimed the lives of nine Shankill Protestants and the massacre of seven people by UFF gunmen in a Co Derry bar. The 28 murders which punctuated the month of October plunged the north deeper into despair and after more than 20 years of sectarian violence few thought peace would return to the streets.

Ironically, the Shankill bomb and Greysteel shootings of 1993 were the catalyst that moved the peace process forward and gave politicians a renewed impetus to drag Northern Ireland out of the abyss.

More than 3,600 people have died during the Troubles and behind each statistic is a family deprived of a mother, father, husband, wife, son or daughter.

The stories of the innocents caught up in the events leading up to the Shankill and Greysteel killings are no different.

On a Saturday afternoon in October 23 1993 the IRA murdered nine people and one of its own members when a bomb intended for senior UDA figures exploded prematurely in a Shankill Road fishmongers.

Revenge was instant. Within 12 hours a Catholic taxi drive was fighting for his life after being shot in south Belfast.

The 22-year-old father-of-one lost his fight two days later and by the end of the week five others had joined him on the list of the dead.

However, the bloodshed continued as the UFF fulfilled its threat made after the Shankill bomb: "John Hume, Gerry Adams and the nationalist electorate will pay a heavy, heavy price for today's atrocity."

The week in which the Shankill community buried nine people ended with a shooting in the village of Greysteel, Co Derry, which killed six Catholics and one Protestant, bringing the death toll to 23 in seven days.

An eighth victim died months later from injuries incurred during the Halloween UFF attack in which one killer said "Trick or Treat" before spraying the bar with semi-automatic gunfire.

It was the highest death toll in any month since 1976 and looked set to destroy the tentative peace process which had seen Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and former SDLP leader John Hume produce a joint blueprint for peace.

When Mr Adams shouldered the coffin of IRA man Thomas Begley, who was killed in the Shankill bomb, both governments moved to distance themselves from John Hume.

However, in their book Making Sense of the Troubles, authors David McKittrick and David McVea quote from the memoirs of former British prime minister John Major who wrote: "The process was on a knife edge. I think it would have broken down had not the Shankill and Greysteel tragedies intervened."

From October 1 to 22 five people were murdered by loyalist and republican paramilitaries, but the death toll rose to 15 when an IRA bomb exploded in Frizzell's fish shop on October 23.

It was the biggest loss of life in Northern Ireland since the 1987 IRA bomb in Enniskillen which killed 11.

A gospel singer, 63-year-old Desmond Frizzell had owned the fishmongers for 27 years and his daughter Sharon McBride was helping him serve customers that day.

His wife had left the shop moments earlier and survived the blast, however, he and his 29-year-old daughter – who was married with a daughter of her own – were killed.

Among the dead were two young girls, seven-year-old Michelle Baird and 13-year-old Leanne Murray.

Michelle's parents, Evelyn Baird (27) and Michael Morrison (27) were also killed in the explosion.

The couple had gone to the Shankill Road that Saturday to buy a funeral wreath for Michael's father who had died two days earlier.

Their deaths orphaned their other two children, a nine-year-old boy and six-week-old girl.

Leanne Murray had been in a neighbouring shop with her widowed mother who had buried a five-year-old son, killed some years previously.

She told reporters the next day: "Leanne had just left me to go in to the fish shop. Suddenly there was this huge bang. We ran screaming for Leanne. We couldn't find her.

"No-one had seen her. There were people lying in the street covered in blood. My little girl was underneath all that rubble.

"We started clawing at it with our bare hands. I was screaming her name. But it was no use. My little daughter was dead – just for a tub of whelks."

George and Gillian Williamson had recently moved to a new home in Lisburn and were shopping for curtains when the IRA device detonated.

Speaking after their death, daughter Michelle said those responsible were "evil bastards".

"They say a mother's love is a blessing. I miss my mother already.

"I am angry. I am bitter. I will never forgive them for this. Never.

"I want to see Gerry Adams face-to-face. I want to tell him that the people who did this to my mammy and daddy are nothing but scum."

The ninth victim was 38-year-old mother-of-two sons Wilma McKee who died the following day.

The lives of two children, four women and three men were snuffed out in a bomb attack meant to kill members of the UDA's inner council which had met in an office above the fishmongers since the 1970s.

Two IRA men wearing the white coats and caps of delivery men carried a bomb into the shop which the republican paramilitary grouping claimed had been devised to allow evacuation.

The device exploded prematurely and as the old building collapsed in on itself it buried the dead and injured, spewing masonry onto the street.

Security forces, emergency services and local people dug through the rubble for survivors who were ferried to the Mater and Royal Victoria Hospitals for the next five hours.

Paramedics from Ardoyne ambulance station were the first to arrive and supervisor Brian McKee told the Irish News the horror would never leave him.

"You were digging away with bare hands, another body and another body and every so often the firemen would call halt and try to listen to any screams and they brought in imaging cameras but it was to no avail. It was just a long, long day."

Saturday shopping is the province of women and children and there were many among the 58 injured.

Speaking from his hospital bed in the aftermath, a Shankill man who had been walking with his 13-year-old son told the Irish News: "We were totally innocent... I saw a fellow who had no face. I grabbed my wee lad and pulled him to the other side of the road in case there was a second bomb. They do that sometimes."

In January 1995 Ardoyne man Sean Kelly was sentenced to life imprisonment on nine counts of murder and 25 years for causing the explosion.

He was released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in July 2000.

In the days following his 1995 incarceration, Mr Kelly expressed his regret in a letter to the Irish News.

"Regrettably, nine innocent civilians and my comrade, IRA volunteer Thomas Begley, died when the bomb, meant for loyalist paramilitaries, exploded prematurely."

A crown lawyer at a bail hearing for Mr Kelly said the events which unfolded that day had begun at a house in the nationalist Ardoyne area of north Belfast.

A hijacked blue Ford Escort was used to transport three men and a bomb the few miles to the Shankill Road and a car with the same description was seen parked in the Berlin Street area with three men wearing white coats and caps inside, he added.

Sentencing Mr Kelly, Lord Justice MacDermott described the attack as "wanton slaughter" and "one of the worst outrages to beset this province in 25 years of violence".

Forensic evidence pointed to Thomas Begley holding the five pound bomb above the refrigerated serving counter at the fish shop when it exploded, the judge added.

After his death Thomas Begley's parents Sadie and Billy said they had been unaware he had belonged to the IRA and, expressing their sympathy to the families of the bereaved, said they too were suffering.

The bomb took place against the backdrop of clandestine meetings between the British and Irish governments and republicans and the production of the Humes/Adams document.

However, the Shankill Road atrocity caused political as well as personal mayhem.

A full Anglo-Irish government conference scheduled for the Wednesday afterwards was postponed "out of sympathy and respect" for the people of Belfast, according to Tanaiste Dick Spring.

Unionist leaders demanded Mr Hume stop his talks with Mr Adams who was called upon to condemn the attack by the Tanaiste.

Mr Adams said it should not be used as a means of imposing pre-conditions and asked that John Major not scupper his talks with John Hume. He also pledged to continue seeking peace, even if the joint initiative was unsuccessful.

However, when images of the Sinn Féin president carrying Thomas Begley's coffin were seen across the world, questions were asked about his commitment to the peace process.

In the 24 hours after the Shankill bomb Sunday newspapers in Ireland predicted the end of the Hume/Adams initiative.

The Independent on Sunday had a sub-headline: 'Attack by IRA on loyalist paramilitary headquarters may end tentative moves towards peace.'

The Observer's political editor argued the talks were in jeopardy, while the front page of the Dublin-based Sunday Independent read: 'Peace hopes in tatters after street carnage'.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Life>/i> editorial stated that the attack "blew any hopes of peace to smithereens".

It urged John Hume to "pull the plug before the SDLP is so tarnished with the brush of violent republicanism that its standing is damaged beyond repair".

The Irish News called on the Provisional IRA to end its campaign of violence.

The Catholic community was aware loyalist paramilitaries would seek vengeance for the Shankill bomb and fears were running high after the UFF released a statement promising to do just that.

People chose not to socialise amid the atmosphere of uncertainty and Mass goers were warned against lingering outside the chapel.

On top of this cemetery Sundays in the Milltown and City cemeteries were cancelled and the impending Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland world cup qualifier on November 17 was deemed a "high risk".

And so a wave of reprisal began.

Martin Moran had a five-week-old baby and worked as a taxi driver in Belfast.

He was lured to a house in the Vernon Court area of the Donegall Pass and shot twice in the head hours after the last person had been pulled from the rubble on the Shankill Road.

The 22-year-old died two days later.

A Catholic man was also shot in the arm in a north Belfast bar and petrol bomb attacks were launched on two Lisburn homes that evening.

A Protestant man was shot in the face on October 24 as he sat with his girlfriend in a car in north Belfast and initial reports suggested that he had been a victim of mistaken identity.

On Monday October 25 pensioner Sean Fox was shot dead in his Glengormley home by the UVF who released a statement claiming the 72-year-old Catholic widower had been questioned for an hour, "admitted his crimes and was executed".

A loyalist gun attack on a west Belfast council depot claimed two more Catholic lives 24 hours later.

Father-of-three James Cameron was killed along with 28-year-old colleague Mark Rodgers when two UFF gunmen disguised in yellow council overalls opened fire indiscriminately at approximately 25 people.

The gunmen pushed past 54-year-old Mr Cameron and sprayed the Kennedy Way depot with an estimated 60 bullets.

An ITN report said Mr Cameron's wife had helped Shankill bomb victims three days previously at the Royal Victoria Hospital where she worked as a nurse.

Loyalists, meanwhile, threw a petrol bomb through the kitchen window of a Catholic home in Newtownabbey on the outskirts of north Belfast.

A 29-year-old man was shot in the leg in the Stewartstown Road area of west Belfast and north Belfast republican Eddie Copeland was shot by a British soldier outside Thomas Begley's home.

Meanwhile, a gunman's machine gun jammed during a UFF attack on a Co Antrim restaurant.

As Northern Ireland listened to news bulletins detailing the growing number of deaths, an RUC officer warned that more attacks would follow.

"They've only started. They are totally indifferent to people's feelings."

In an effort to curb the violence extra British soldiers were drafted into Belfast and police officers put on extended 12-hour shifts.

The day of Thomas Begley and Leanne Murray's funerals was one of bloodshed with a Belfast Catholic shot in the chest and the IRA opening fire on a Derriaghy checkpoint on Wednesday October 27.

A British soldier was also charged with the attempted murder of Eddie Copeland.

Friday October 29 was the day a Co Armagh school girl was celebrating her 11th birthday so when two men burst into her home she thought it was just a prank.

The men turned out to be UVF gunmen who shot dead her brothers Rory (18) and 22-year-old Gerard Cairns.

The week ended as it had begun, with lifeless bodies and the prospect of seven more funerals.

On Saturday October 30, as some 200 people were in the Rising Sun bar and restaurant in Greysteel waiting for a country and western band to come on stage, two men dressed in boiler suits and balaclavas appeared.

One shouted "Trick or Treat" and thinking it was a Halloween prank a young woman said: "That's not funny".

The UFF gunman replied with a bullet and as one struggled with a jammed pistol, the other walked through the premises, firing an AK-47.

By the time it was over 45 shots had been fired, seven people were lying dead and a further 19 were injured in a scene of bloody horror.

The UFF made the following statement: "This is the continuation of our threats against the nationalist electorate that they would pay a heavy price for last Saturday's slaughter of nine Protestants."

Spontaneous rioting erupted in Derry as news of the murders reached the city.

Speaking at the scene of the shooting, RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley said Northern Ireland was "at a crossroads".

"Is it to be evil and violence or is it to be dialogue and peace?"

The seven who died in a hail of gunfire were 19-year-old Karen Thompson from Limavady who died alongside her 20-year-old boyfriend Steve Mullan from Greysteel, Joseph McDermott, (60), from Greysteel and 81-year-old James Moore whose son owned the bar. The father-of-five was ordering a drink when he was gunned down.

John Moyne, (50), meanwhile, pushed his wife to the floor and died protecting her and 54-year-old John Burns was shot as he walked to the bathroom.

The Protestant father of three children – a 14-year-old daughter and sons aged 16 and 19 – was a former member of the UDR and lived in Eglinton.

His wife was badly hurt in the incident.

The seventh person killed in the Rising Sun was 59-year-old Moira Duddy who came from Greysteel.

Married with six children she was sitting with her husband and two friends but was the only person hit by gunfire.

Her husband described the scene on October 30.

"My good wife, my good wife. We went out on a Saturday night for a wee dance and they blew her to bits. They slaughtered my innocent wife... I'll never get over it.

"They shot into the wee lounge first. I thought he had finished but he loaded another magazine and the other one with him shot everybody in the big lounge. I saw the gun coming round the corner and then I heard the bangs.

"My wife and friends were on the floor. They blew the legs off her. They shot her through the heart, through the back. Thirty-three years of marriage and it nearly Christmas."

A retired farmer and former member of the B Specials in Claudy was the eighth Greysteel victim.

Samuel Montgomery dropped dead six months after being wounded. Blood clots resulting from his injuries had moved to the 76-year-old's heart and lungs.

Four men from Derry were jailed in February 1995 for the eight murders and the death of Mr Montgomery six months later.

At the funeral of five of the victims Bishop Daly told mourners:

"There have been too many bloody days and nights, too many funerals. People are bleeding and heartbroken and we must listen to their cry."

United in disgust at 23 murders in one week thousands took to the streets in Belfast and Derry on November 3 in peace rallies organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

The slaughter also acted as a political spur – following an intense meeting between John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds the Downing Street Declaration was unveiled by the two leaders on December 15.

Containing elements of the Hume/Adams initiative, the blueprint for peace stated Sinn Féin could join talks when the IRA declared a ceasefire.

A joint Irish News/News Letter phone poll, meanwhile, registered 157,457 calls for peace and the process gained a new momentum.

Fast forward to August 30 and the IRA declared a ceasefire with loyalist paramilitaries following suit on October 12.

Despite these significant moves and the huge well of public support for peace in Northern Ireland, in the intervening 10 years many more deaths have been added to the 28 of October 1993.

October 22, 2003

This article appeared first in the October 21, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News