The Shankill Bomb Scandal – Some Thoughts On Media Coverage

A couple of articles arrived in my email inbox this morning dealing with the fallout from The Irish News’ story on the Shankill bomb of 1993 which grabbed my attention.

As regular readers of this blog will know, the story claimed that the RUC Special Branch had an agent within the Ardoyne IRA who told them all about the plan to bomb the UDA leadership to pieces as they met above a Shankill Road fishmonger’s store on a Saturday afternoon in December that year.

Instead the bomb exploded prematurely, collapsing the building and killing nine people, six innocent civilians, two children and the IRA bomber. Loyalist paramilitaries reacted predictably and went on a killing rampage that claimed the lives up up to sixteen people, mostly Catholics in the following week.

The story has slowly taken off, despite frantic PSNI denials, partly because the level of detail is both credible and indicates that it was leaked from a high level within the Provisional IRA; and partly because the cynical, war-weary people of Northern Ireland suspect in their gut that this sort of thing could and did happen.

The two pieces were provocative and interesting but rather like a Chinese takeaway, I came away unsatisfied and looking for more.

One was written by Newton Emerson, a weekly columnist in The Irish News and the second by The Irish Times’ regular, Eamonn McCann. I reproduce both articles at the bottom of this post for the benefit of those who cannot access them by the usual route.

Newton Emerson’s theme is that the bombing happened because none of the intelligence agencies at work in the North in those days – the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit – had any rules and procedures in place for running agents.

He writes:

The 2012 De Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane found that in regards to agent handling, RUC Special Branch had “no workable guidelines”, MI5 had “no effective external guidance”, the army’s guidelines were “contradictory” and there was a “wilful and abject failure” by government to provide a “clear policy and legal framework.”

These findings are replicated in reports by Stevens, Judge Peter Cory and former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan.

Responding to O’Loan’s criticism last year that the RUC broke the rules, chief constable George Hamilton observed this was technically impossible as “there were no rules”

And his conclusion? The Shankill bomb happened and nine people died – six innocent civilians, two children and the IRA bomber – because of ‘bureaucratic inertia’:

Without rules, agents were run as their individual handlers saw fit and the agenda of someone who has spent years cultivating a source will rarely be to cash that source in.

None of this exonerates the security forces – far from it. It raises the grotesque prospect that hundreds of people were allowed to be murdered for no better reason than bureaucratic inertia.

Eamonn McCann’s article is comprehensive examination of the British state’s cover up of its involvement in procuring murder, via both IRA and Loyalist agents run by its intelligence agencies. And he goes on to point out that MI5, the agency at the top of this apex of murder and cover-up, has been guaranteed immunity under the terms of the post-1998 dispensation.

He writes:

The point is the British authorities have known for years of its forces’ deep involvement in lethal criminality and appear to have intervened only to orchestrate cover-ups which continue to this day. Far from being brought to heel, MI5 now occupies a more central role in the North than ever. In 2007, MI5 was given “primacy” over all matters touching on “national security.”

Despite the devolution of policing and justice, and pledges of “transparency” hailed as hugely significant at the time of the handover in 2006, neither the Policing Board nor the department of justice has any function in relation to police matters with a “security dimension”. The documents stipulate that any doubt about the applicability of this provision to a particular matter is to be referred to MI5 or the British government for determination.

The first problem I have with Newton Emerson’s take is that the absence of rules and procedures is hardly accidental. When there are no rules, no limits, nothing forbidden, then all things are possible, including mass murder.

This is not ‘bureaucratic inertia’ but deliberate policy, an omission that allowed murder to happen, facilitated by the cover up’s that have despoiled the story of the NI conflict since 1968. If the rules don’t say you can’t do something, they are in effecting saying you can. A stroke of a pen in Whitehall could have rectified this but that never happened.

The other, more serious reservation with his article can be summed up in the question he poses towards the end of his piece: “…..what was the purpose of running informers, if it was not to prevent mass murder?”

Actually, preventing ‘mass murder’ is not the purpose of running agents, although occasionally that can be a positive by-product. The real purpose of recruiting and running agents is to defeat your enemy – in the case of MI5 et al, the enemy was the Provisional IRA – and sometimes that can mean allowing ‘mass murder’ to happen.

Now an enemy can be defeated in several ways. One is to acquire intelligence so sensitive and damaging that it enables conventional forces to deliver a deadly, crippling military blow to the enemy.

Another is to use agent-provided intelligence to demoralise and divide the enemy, stimulate opposition to it within the ranks of its support base or help foster circumstances which strengthen a section or individual in the enemy camp who is moving, or wants to move in a direction which is to the benefit of the intelligence agency and the government on whose behalf it plots and conspires.

There is a very strong argument to suggest that the Shankill bomb belongs in the latter category.

That is because it happened at a crucial moment in a peace process that was, at that time, hanging in the balance. If The Irish News story is correct, and the RUC deliberately facilitated carnage, then the search must begin for as motive. The obvious motive, arguably, was to help the peace process.

In the autumn of 1993, the British and Irish governments were putting the final touches to the Downing Street Declaration, knowing that any failure to give a date for eventual British disengagement from the North – the basis on which the IRA Army Council had signed up to the process – could fatally weaken the Sinn Fein peace camp.

At the same time opposition to the peace process was growing within the IRA; the bulk of the Belfast Brigade’s command sided against Gerry Adams and had begun to conspire with elements elsewhere in Ireland. If they prevailed the process would be history. (Gerry Adams and his allies would not be entirely safe until the 1996 IRA Convention, where they prevailed by a hairbreadth.)

The Shankill bomb turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the Belfast militarists who were blamed for the carnage and for devising a manifestly risky and stupid operation. Critics of the armed struggle strategy were strengthened while the internal forces opposing Gerry Adams and his peace process allies were weaker after the bomb than before.

(Incidentally, if The Irish News‘ story is correct, questions must also be asked about whether the detonation device was tampered with or ‘jarked’ so as to maximise the possibility of civilian casualties. Again, the story has its own remorseful logic.)

The bomb’s other consequence, a surge in Loyalist reprisals, was utterly foreseeable – more than a dozen people were killed in the following week by  UDA and UVF gunmen – as was the unprecedented wave of terror and fear, as well as yearning for peace, that engulfed the Catholic community.

But that was also good for the peace process. If you have any doubts about the impact of the post-Shankill slaughter on Catholics, just access television archive of the funerals of the eight people killed in the Greysteel massacre, when UDA gunmen fired indiscriminately on a crowd celebrating Hallowe’en. If you don’t shed a tear then you were born without a heart.

When the Downing Street Declaration was published, minus not just a date for British withdrawal but any indication such a thing could ever happen, the Army Council rejected it but on Adams’ urging kept that key decision a secret.

Had their decision been made public there could be no going back and the process would have been dead in the water.

Would the IRA’s leadership have been so amenable if the Shankill bombing had not weakened the militarists?

That decision set the tone for what followed: concessions to the Provos’ political wing to oil the process. A visa for Adams to visit America was followed by the scrapping of the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein in the South. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein launched a long, ennervating but essentially bogus process of ‘clarifying’ the Downing Street Declaration that inch by predictable inch led to the ceasefire of August 1994.

All made more possible by the Shankill bomb? One for the historians to answer but arguably, yes.

So, context is everything in these matters and that is the problem I have with Eamonn McCann’s piece. He makes a very good job of describing what happened in terms of the misbehaviour of British intelligence agencies but, at least in the case of the Shankill disaster, not why. The 500 pound elephant in the room goes unacknowledged.

The reasons for that are understandable: if the RUC Special Branch deliberately dispatched nine human beings to their maker in the rubble of Frizzel’s fish shop, as The Irish News suggests, the odds are they did so to strengthen pro-peace elements in Sinn Fein.

They and Sinn Fein were effectively undeclared, de facto allies, sharing the same goal if very little else. That is the controversial and, to many, unacceptable logic of The Irish News’ story.

A striking feature of the media coverage since the story broke has been the complete silence from Sinn Fein on the matter – but significantly, no denials either – which is especially puzzling since the widespread assumption has been that this was an authorised, leadership-approved leak to The Irish News.

So why the silence? Embarrassment at the level of Branch penetration or discomfort at the implications described in the preceding paragraphs? Or is there a god almighty row raging with the British in the background over how to deal with the past and The Irish News’ story is an opening and warning shot from the Provos.

If so, then there could be more to come.

28 January, 2016 01:00
Shankill bomb informer claims raises grotesque prospect

By Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

THE claim that an RUC informant planned the Shankill bomb has apparently been made by the IRA.

It is hard to see what the republican movement gains from this admission.

As recently as four months ago, Gerry Adams was insisting the IRA no longer exists.

Republicans benefit from a perception that they kept no records and hence are not amenable to truth recovery.

Yet now the IRA is setting out a detailed tale of paperwork and logistics dating back 23 years.

Allowing an informant to commit murder is collusion at its most “extreme”, to quote Lord Stevens, who compiled three reports on the issue.

Although the republican movement needs to manage perceptions of being infiltrated right to the top, it would suit its long-term agenda to conflate all IRA murders of civilians with collusion, until Britain was responsible for everything and the IRA was a victim of itself.

But why rush into this now, weeks before a decisive southern election, with an example as appalling as the Shankill bomb and with information the IRA has apparently known since 2002?

Most Sinn Fein supporters already see Britain as responsible for everything, while the new voters the party wants in the republic are put off by any mention of the Troubles.

Something is clearly up and what it looks like is a warning shot, possibly over dealing with the past, or at least over some matter from the past that has arisen.

“Don’t think we won’t embarrass ourselves to embarrass you” is one signal the IRA might be sending.

Sinn Fein has an active strategy of unnerving the unionist population – former party chair Mitchel McLaughlin admitted as much to the BBC in 2006.

However, it is implausible that this would take urgent priority over the southern electoral strategy.

In any case, unionist narrative certainties are not so much undermined by this week’s revelations as cast back 30 years, when the response of all ‘decent people’ to an atrocity like the Shankill bomb was to wonder why the terrorists were not simply arrested.

It is not as if the identities of our paramilitary godfathers and their foot-soldiers were unknown.

Charlie Butler, who lost three family members in the Shankill bomb, says the names of those who planned and planted the device were common knowledge within hours.

In general, throughout the Troubles, people were mystified by the apparent uselessness of the state’s evident resources.

Super-grass trials had brought home to even the most determinedly oblivious that informants existed and the criminal justice system could get results by cashing them in. Everyone believed – correctly, as it turned out – that surveillance and bugging were carried out on an industrial scale.

Public support for paramilitaries seemed limited, beyond certain areas.

So why were the legendary ‘few hundred people ruining it for the rest of us’ not taken out of circulation?

The question that follows from that is the same question raised this week – what was the purpose of running informers, if it was not to prevent mass murder?

For republicans and many unionists, the explanation then and now is British scheming either for or against a united Ireland.

There may well be such an agenda in Whitehall or the intelligence services but Lord Stevens and everyone else who has authoritatively examined collusion has never found evidence of an overall policy being conveyed down to the handlers who would have had to enact it.

Instead, they have found constant requests upwards for policy direction, which were rebuffed by officials desperate to keep their hands clean.

The 2012 De Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane found that in regards to agent handling, RUC Special Branch had “no workable guidelines”, MI5 had “no effective external guidance”, the army’s guidelines were “contradictory” and there was a “wilful and abject failure” by government to provide a “clear policy and legal framework.”

These findings are replicated in reports by Stevens, Judge Peter Cory and former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan.

Responding to O’Loan’s criticism last year that the RUC broke the rules, chief constable George Hamilton observed this was technically impossible as “there were no rules”.

Without rules, agents were run as their individual handlers saw fit and the agenda of someone who has spent years cultivating a source will rarely be to cash that source in.

None of this exonerates the security forces – far from it. It raises the grotesque prospect that hundreds of people were allowed to be murdered for no better reason than bureaucratic inertia.

Eamonn McCann: State role in IRA killings changes everything

Last Updated: Thursday, January 28, 2016, 11:28

The question arising from this week’s revelations in the Irish News of the extent of British security service involvement in IRA killings is: What was that all about?

Collusion between MI5, the police Special Branch and military intelligence on the one hand, and the UDA and the UVF on the other, has been well documented. But the focus of the piece by Alison Morris was on the infiltration of the Provisional IRA by state agents and the role the agents appear to have played in IRA atrocities, including the bombing of Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road in 1993 in which nine people died, including two children and one of the bombers.

Former republican prisoner Dixie Elliot put the question plainly on Monday: “Were the Brits running both sides?” And if they were to any significant degree, what justification can be offered now for the armed conflict which saw almost 4,000 killed, tens of thousands maimed in mind or body and bereaved families still distraught as their search for truth is thwarted at every turn?

‘Preposterous’ excuses

Also on Monday, a judge investigating 56 stalled Troubles-related inquests, some going back to the early 1970s, was scathing about the failure of the ministry of defence and the PSNI to disclose potentially crucial documents. Lord Justice Weir described their excuses as “preposterous.” And, he added, “They don’t improve with repetition”.

“Preposterous” might be applied also to the response of PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton to a BBC Panorama programme last May detailing a series of paramilitary killings that state agents had helped plan and then cover up. Among these were the loyalist murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan in 2001, the massacre of five men in a bookie’s on the Lower Ormeau Road in 1992 and the IRA slaughter of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmills in 1996. Former police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan told the programme the state agencies had “operated outside the rules . . . Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people died because those people . . . were not stopped in their tracks. Many of them were killers and some of them were serial killers.”

Responding to the reference to operating outside the rules, Hamilton explained: “There were no rules. There was no regulatory framework for handling of informants at that time.”

He did not explain how a “regulatory framework” might have stayed the hands of men intent on procuring murder and confident they’d get away with it.

In 2003 Cambridgeshire deputy chief constable John Stephens published a report on British intelligence and army collusion. His conclusions included that “the conflict in Northern Ireland was needlessly intensified and prolonged by the ‘disastrous’ activities of a core of army and police officers who colluded with the terrorists.” This “core” had “actively and deliberately helped a loyalist paramilitary group to kill Catholics”.

His investigation, he recounted, “faced obstruction from its very first day from members of the security forces”.

In relation to the 1989 UDA murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, Stephens said the killers had been “guided to him” by an agent of both MI5 and a British army undercover group, the Force Reaction Unit (FRU).

Orchestrating cover-ups

The point is the British authorities have known for years of its forces’ deep involvement in lethal criminality and appear to have intervened only to orchestrate cover-ups which continue to this day. Far from being brought to heel, MI5 now occupies a more central role in the North than ever. In 2007, MI5 was given “primacy” over all matters touching on “national security.” Documents obtained in 2012 under freedom of Information by the Committee on the Administration of Justice give an insight into the implication.

Despite the devolution of policing and justice, and pledges of “transparency” hailed as hugely significant at the time of the handover in 2006, neither the Policing Board nor the department of justice has any function in relation to police matters with a “security dimension”. The documents stipulate that any doubt about the applicability of this provision to a particular matter is to be referred to MI5 or the British government for determination.

Nor does the FRU appear to have suffered any loss of approval on account of its part in the Finucane and other murders. In 2007 the Daily Telegraph reported it had been deployed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Its agents “are trained to turn hardened terrorists into coalition spies using methods developed on the mean streets of Ulster” and was now “running dozens of Iraqi double agents”.

The British authorities were unperturbed by the murder spree committed in its name to the extent of exporting the modus operandi.

Whether anything will change as a result of this week’s revelations is greatly to be doubted. It isn’t rogue officers we deal with here, but a rogue state.

 

6 responses to “The Shankill Bomb Scandal – Some Thoughts On Media Coverage

  1. Very interesting article, Ed.

    It raises a couple of interesting questions, for me, vis-à-vis the Belfast Brigade’s attitude and stance to the peace process.

    As detailed in your excellent book, the IRA was a weirdly bureaucratic, if not exactly internally democratic, institution that couldn’t call a ceasefire without protocols being followed – the IRA proved itself callously indifferent to the safely of Catholics and certainly towards their views on whether to call a ceasefire or not.

    In your opinion, would striking a blow against active loyalists paramilitaries be a pre-requisite for the Belfast Brigade supporting the peace process?

    Is there any possibility that AA’s handler thought there was any chance of the IRA succeeding in their plan with such a hare-brained scheme?

    • the effort to wipe out the UDA leadership was not about the peace process but rather to do with one of the major reasons the provisionals evolved in the late 1960’s: the perceived need to defend the catholic population from loyalist violence. this was possibly the most important factor in the IRA split of 1969/70, with belfast elements accusing the dublin leadership of leaving the IRA without weapons to defend catholics when loyalists attacked west and north belfast (where the 1993 bomb attack was planned). overlaid on that were associated political differences, eg the IRA going political. this bomb attack took place against a background of rising loyalist attacks against catholics and not to respond would be seen within the IRA, especially in north belfast, as a betrayal of its raison d’etre. so nothing to do with the peace process in my view…..

  2. Thanks for the reply.

    The attack itself, I agree, was a standard IRA operation in many ways. But getting back to the peace process, and relating to the Belfast Brigade, could it be argued that they would be betraying their raison d’etre by supporting a ceasefire *without* a strike against loyalists?

    I might be making a false link here, but it seems to me that the IRA killed a lot of loyalists in the run up to the 94 ceasefire and that calling a ceasefire amid unanswered sectarian murders of Catholics would have appeared too much like surrender.

    • yes, it is a false link. ‘protecting’ nationalists from loyalist violence was a basic IRA function, irrespective of whether a ceasefire was on the cards (which incidentally it was not in oct ’93, except in the minds of adams &co.) – the killings just prior to 94 ceasefire were a matter of score settling while the opportunity still existed – what unsettled the BB people, and others elsewhere in the IRA about the peace process was not that they would no longer be able to kill loyalists but that the adams’ leadership appeared to be leading them to unacceptable political territory, e.g. accepting principle of consent which was implicit in what was known about hume-adams talks. they feared/suspected a sellout which went way beyond any local concerns re loyalists…..

  3. Thanks – I guess I read too much into it.

    My general thoughts are that the IRA wasn’t significantly affected by he loyalist campaigns, beyond opening up something of a “second front” (loyalists themselves).

    That said, I speculatively guessed that local, indeed feudal, concerns about loyalists might have driven some units away from ceasefire.

    Will you release an updated version of A Secret History of the IRA at any point?

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