Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Shankill Road bomb atrocity remembered

The Shankill Road bombing was carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on 23 October 1993 and is one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The IRA intended to assassinate loyalist paramilitary leaders, who were to be meeting in a room above Frizzell's fish shop on Shankill Road, Belfast.

Two IRA members were to enter the shop disguised as deliverymen, then force the customers out at gunpoint and plant a time bomb with a short fuse. However, when the IRA members entered the shop with the bomb, it exploded prematurely.

One of the IRA members was killed along with a UDA member and eight Protestant civilians. More than fifty people were wounded. Unbeknownst to the IRA, the meeting had been rescheduled.

"It may be 20 years but it could be 20 minutes ago," says Charlie Butler, who lost three family members in the bombing.

He still recalls the bright crisp autumn day when he and his wife were shopping on the Shankill - a day that was suddenly and without warning shattered by the explosion.

"I looked up the road and saw total carnage. People were lying around bleeding with horrendous wounds. I looked over to where Frizzell's shop used to be and it was no longer there," he remembers.

It was only when one of the emergency crews opened the back doors of an ambulance and there were other stretchers inside covered with sheets, then it started hitting home”

Mr Butler saw dozens of people in amongst the dust and debris clawing at the rubble. Without thinking, he joined them.

"I started pulling rubble away and it didn't hit me then that we could have been looking for bodies. I was looking for someone who was alive and trapped under the wreckage," he says.

As the minutes ticked by, he began to realise this wasn't going to be the case until he came across the body of 13-year-old Leanne Murray. She was placed on a stretcher, covered with a sheet and taken to a nearby ambulance.

"Even then, the severity of what had happened didn't strike me," he says.

"It was only when one of the emergency crews opened the back doors of an ambulance and there were other stretchers inside covered with sheets, then it started hitting home - this is bad."

Reverend David Clements ran the local Methodist church in nearby Woodvale. He was relaxing at home when he got the call about what had happened. He put on his clerical collar and went straight to the scene.

"I wasn't long in the ministry but I had my own experience of the Troubles. My father, who was a policeman, had been killed by the IRA and a very good friend of mine had also been shot," he says.

Search for relatives

The clergyman helped to comfort relatives at the Methodist church just a few feet from the bomb scene. He also accompanied people to nearby hospitals while they searched for relatives caught up in the explosion.

While the churches did offer support in the immediate aftermath of the carnage, Mr Clements believes many people feel there has been a failure of pastoral care in the intervening 20 years.

"There hasn't been the support and help that there probably should have been," he says.

"I think what can be said by way of criticism of the churches generally can be said even more for the rest of society.

"Too many people in Northern Ireland have the notion that we're past it, get on with it, forget about it. Draw a line and get over it. I think that is grossly unfair for so many families who have lost in the Shankill bomb, in the Greysteel shootings and other situations like that."

The Methodist minster believes a level of criticism should be directed at government-funded agencies as well.

"Victims care and support is an issue that's hung around the edges of political debate for years. It has been misused by some people on both sides to advance their own political agendas and that has not, in most cases, been to the benefit and for the good of the victims themselves."

Mr Clements concedes it's an issue that is contentious and one that people in Northern Ireland may never properly get to grips with.

Around the time of the bombing, Jackie Redpath of the Greater Shankill Partnership was among those committed to the regeneration of a community in decline.

"The day before the bomb we had been to Stormont presenting our long-term strategy for the Shankill to the head of the civil service," he says.

"We came away from that meeting full of hope and possibility and then the bomb went off. While it knocked us for six, this was nothing compared to what it did to the families of the victims."

Mr Redpath says the attack reinforced their resolve to come back, not just from the bombing but also from 30 years of economic decline.

He says it made people determined not let this beat them, and he believes that since 1993 the Shankill has seen some of the best community development work in the whole of the UK.

"When you are attacked from outside, it brings a community together even more tightly," he says.

Plaque commemorating Shankill bombing victims

A plaque has been put up on the Shankill Road in tribute to those killed and injured in the bomb.

"The bomb reinforced that sense of community that was always there and it actually strengthened the spirit of the Shankill, making us more resilient.

"That came through in how people dealt with the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and we as a community took our hope from the hope of the families of the victims."

In the memorial exhibition at the local Methodist church, a table in the shape of the figure nine is covered in hundreds of small cards and scraps of paper.

Nearly dumped but now gathered together for the first time in 20 years, these were the messages of sympathy and support that accompanied the flowers laid at the site of the bombing in the days that followed.

On the back of a brown envelope stained with the glue of the long-perished sticky tape that was used to attach it, appear the words: "From a disabled Catholic and his family to the people of the Shankill Road - our thoughts are with you at this time."

Wednesday 23 October 2013


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