Remembering the Shankill Butchers March 29, 2011Posted by Garibaldy in media, The North.
Stephen Nolan may be an unfamiliar name to many readers here, but he is pretty much the star name in BBC Radio Ulster’s line-up, doing a daily morning phone-in show (obviously Gerry Anderson’s show is much better). He also does work for BBC Radio 5 Live, and some television work. He’s something akin to Northern Ireland’s version of a populist shock jock (although he has a very different persona for 5 Live). His show is very popular and award-winning, but he rubs a hell of a lot of people up the wrong way. I’m one of them. But credit where it is due. Last night, he presented a documentary about the Shankill Butchers (iplayer link so may not work outside the UK and may be time-limited, while a search for Shankill Butchers on youtube turned up a band of that name and some tribute videos to the likes of Lenny Murphy that I didn’t watch). He then followed it up this morning with an edition of the radio show dedicated to talking about the Shankill Butchers (may not work outside the UK, and is time-limited). The radio show in particular was fascinating.
The publicity for the documentary made great claims to having unique access to the evidence from the cases involved, and also exclusive interviews with victims’ families and with the RUC CID detective who caught them, as well as others such as the pathologist and journalists. It’s a long time since I read Martin Dillon’s Shankill Butchers, but as far as I can remember it drew on much of the same material he did. There is something much more immediate and affecting, however, in seeing the daughter of a victim talk about noticing that her father’s nose had not been sewn back on properly, and that it took a metal brace to hold his head in position because he had nearly been decapitated than reading about it in a book. The documentary itself was fairly straightforward, telling the tale of the gang from its earliest days to its capture to Lenny Murphy’s death at the hands of the Provisionals. Importantly, it stressed just how small the area the butchers operated in was, crusing in a black taxi to abduct victims, and later in other cars. It also included footage of the quite large funerals of some of the Butchers, and the awful experience of a victim’s daughter who was stuck in the traffic jam caused by one of their funerals for two hours, forced to watch what was going on around her.
In terms of the Butchers themselves, it raised a number of issues. The first was whether, and for how long before they were caught, their identities were known: (a) to the UVF leadership (b) to the security forces, and in particular the CID team seeking to catch them and (c) more generally to the local population of the Shankill. There was no statement from the UVF leadership, or quoting of sources active then, but the line has tended to be they did not know, and certainly weren’t certain if they had suspicions, with Murphy’s unit protrayed as a rogue outfit. This was roughly the line taken by a former loyalist internee on the radio show this morning. The fact that the gang was responsible on leadership orders for the Easter Sunday bomb in 1977 that killed a ten-year old watching the Republican Clubs parade undermines that argument somewhat, as does the fact that they killed a number of other loyalists. I suspect they were seen as a good group to have to intimidate rivals. There are some parallels perhaps from the 1990s with the unit based in the Mount Vernon estate (and riddled with informers) that was responsible not only for vicious sectarian murders, but also for beating Raymond McCord Jr. to death and for taking an active role in feuds with other loyalist groups. The Sunday World’s Jim Campbell was adamant that the identity of the butchers was known early on to his sources in the UVF on the Shankill. Surprisingly, the detective in charge stated his belief that the UVF leadership did not know who was responsible when Nolan asked him.
He also denied suggestions that the RUC must have known who the butchers were long before it caught those responsible after a victim survived and identified them. Campbell argued that the special branch must have known, but did not say anything specifically about the local CID. The experience of the CID detective, Jonty Brown, who eventually had the Mount Vernon unit charged was that evidence was withheld from him, so it is possible Campbell left them out deliberately. Nolan seemed sceptical of the CID’s denial of having clear suspects when journalists knew, a sentiment increased when May Blood guessed that perhaps 30 to 40% of the local population knew who the butchers were, but said that people were too frightened to speak out. The detective stuck to his line, and Nolan didn’t push it as hard as he might.
The linked issue here is the perception of the investigation among Catholics. A man who worked in his family bar, and who may have been the last person to speak to one of the victims before he was snatched after leaving the pub, made the point quite clearly that local Catholics believed that the police effectively turned a blind eye to the butchers, at the least not chasing them as hard as they could have. A victim’s daughter also believed that the gang was able to operate for so long because its victims were Catholics, who were seen as second-class citizens. Hovering over all this of course is collusion. The police were adamant that they tried as hard as they could; not just the detective interviewed, but several former officers who served in the area at the time and who rang in. They argued that the Shankill butchers were one problem among very many, with officers over-stretched (one said that the detectives probably had 10 murders each to deal with) during a very violent time. The issue of the black taxi is key here. It became public knowledge that the butchers used one from press reports, and the phone-in heard from several people who had near-misses with the butchers and the black taxi, or who interrupted them trying to abduct someone else (there was one woman who rang in to thank a man who had saved her now husband from them, and give her own memories of the event). There was kind of an unspoken assumption that this pattern and the fact that they stuck pretty much to the same area should have made them easier to catch, whereas the police pointed out that there were hundreds of black taxis in north Belfast among a population of 150,000 people, and that no-one gave them the licence plate number to match the description.
The programme and the phone-in perhaps showed the gap between the basic assumptions of the members of the police and people from the areas targetted. The programme pointed out that Lenny Murphy had already beaten one murder charge by forcing his driver, who gave a statement against him, to write a note saying his allegation was fault and take cyanide. This was in gaol. It also mentioned that he may have killed several people before the stabbings began. The police said he was not on their radar, while one ex-policeman who rang in – and who lamented that O’Neill had been forced out before he could have brought reform that would have prevented the Troubles – recounted his shock when Murphy was brought in for questioning about the murders. He said that none of the police on duty thought it could have been him who was the “Master Butcher”, that they didn’t think he was that type of person. It’s fairly clear how this will sound to people who believe the RUC and army saw them in much the same light as the loyalist paramilitaries did. There were also several callers who said that they had given statements and information to the RUC at the time, and that they seemed uninterested – one made the point he was still waiting to be contacted. Again, though, the police would probably say that the statements did not tell them much beyond what they knew already, and didn’t give specific leads that could lead to charges.
The tv and radio programmes, then, touched on the issues of police negligence or collusion, but never pushed the issue as hard as it might, partly due to the fact that the phone-in was specifically designed to offer people a chance from various sides to tell their stories and thoughts in as unconfrontational a way as possible. And in fairness to Nolan, he did that quite well, and it elicited some interesting responses, and not just from people who were directly touched by it at the time. For example, there was a 28 year old loyalist who said that he had not lost anyone in the troubles but who seemed on the verge of tears as he pointed out repeatedly that the Shankill butchers should be seen in the context of people being blown to bits by the Provisionals, including people who now sat at Stormont. The loyalist mentioned above also made similar points, although in his case he tempered it by saying how he supported the peace process and them being in government, and condemnations of the means used by the butchers. He also expressed a feeling that his community was being constantly condemned for past acts in the media, while others got off scot-free. There is no doubt that the fact that so much of the Historical Enquiries Team efforts have focused on Mount Vernon has added to that perception. His contribution was a prime example of a mixture of feeling victimised first by the campaign that sprang out of the events of the late 60s and now by a feeling of being left behind and treated unfairly and unfavourably as compared to “the other side”, of feeling justified at, in David Ervine’s words, “returning the serve”, but also of wanting the violence to be gone for good while not quite being reconciled to all the consequences of the compromises made. I think those feelings characterise quite a lot of loyalism at this point and time, and will come out to the fore in the election campaign for May.
One issue the programmes raised in the most direct way possible was the treatment of victims. Is enough being done for them? Do people recognise the massive damage inflicted on their lives? One family member cited the case of her brother who was so distraught of what had happened his father that he had slit his own throat to try and comprehend what his father had felt as he died. She said that the brother had also suffered through drink, and that it has affected his relations with his own family. He died early, and never came to terms with what had happened. There was a real sense of catharsis in the phone-in as people recounted their stories of survival. From that point of view, it was fascinating – a kind of group remembering and addressing painful issues through the media. It was impossible to listen to what was said by and about victims and not feel that more needed to be done.
Are programmes like these helpful? They clearly are for some, including some victims. Others feel that they are one-sided and rake over the past needlessly, and give the wrong impression of people who did their best in very difficult circumstances. The programmes reveal both the positives and the negatives of any memory or truth process. For some it would be very healing; for others, it would stir up deep-seated emotions and hatred. On a societal level, there can be no doubt that it would be immensely controversial, espcially if there was a feeling that prominent political figures weren’t telling the whole truth. Did the programme do anything to dispel or clarify suspicions over the butchers and the hunt for them? I suspect not, and they may even have increased them. But at the same time they demonstrated a capacity to bring the reality of sectarianism and sectarian violence home to people, especially people who grew up after the events described. Given that there was a general feeling among those asked that the sectarianism that allowed the butchers to flourish remains powerful, that’s no bad thing.