From 1975 to 1982 a British terrorist faction nicknamed the “Shankhill Butchers”, part of the militant UVF, carried out a series of attacks designed to instil terror in the Irish Nationalist community of Belfast, randomly targeting men, women and children living in isolated enclaves around the city. Like Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the intercommunal conflict the Unionist grouping simply didn’t kill their victims. Armed with guns, explosives, axes and butchers knives they kidnapped, tortured, mutilated, hacked the limbs and cut the throats of those they encountered, often using various pubs and bars around the city to carry out their murderous activities (sometimes with the full knowledge of staff and customers). Fuelled by alcohol and drugs they boasted of the time it took to slay their captives or of how many they had killed that week, from ten year-old Kevin McMenamin to forty-eight year Marie McGrattan. Existing in the twilight world of British colonial culture on the island of Ireland, nationalism and religion fused together, they came to represent all that was evil on the ideological fringes of Unionism. Eventually their frenzied behaviour and ancillary criminal ways became too much for the British authorities and paramilitary police and they were brought to heel, arrests and assassinations (both internally and by Irish Republicans) breaking the back of their amorphous organisation.
One of their number was Eddie McIlwaine, a serving British soldier with the infamous Ulster Defence Regiment, who helped the group secure weapons, intelligence information and safe passage through British security cordons and checkpoints (though he was not the only one to do so). He was convicted in 1979 of kidnapping, assault and possession of weapons, the least of the charges that could have been brought against him. His only admitted victim was Gerard McLaverty, a young man the gang grabbed off the street while posing as police officers, beat, strangled and slashed with a knife before leaving for dead. Back then McIlwaine was an acknowledged psychopath, a dangerous soldier-cum-terrorist addicted to inflicting human suffering. Today he is an honoured and all-but venerated member of the Orange Order, the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish fraternity devoted to fundamentalist Protestantism and Britishness. From the Belfast Telegraph newspaper:
“One of the Shankill Butchers stewarded an Orange Order parade past a Catholic church in Belfast last weekend.
Eddie McIlwaine was filmed by Carrick Hill residents ushering members of the loyal orders past St Patrick’s on Donegall Street on the Twelfth.
McIlwaine was jailed for eight years in 1979 for being part of the Shankill Butchers gang that killed 19 Catholics and Protestants.
Last year Sunday Life pictured him parading through east Belfast during the UVF’s 100th anniversary parade.
He wore a UVF armband emblazoned with the words ‘UVF West Belfast 1’, and a medal understood to signify time spent in prison.
McIlwaine’s involvement with the Orange Order was first revealed a decade ago when he was pictured carrying a banner commemorating UVF killer Brian Robinson at the controversial Whiterock parade.
A spokesman for the Orange Order defended the Shankill Butcher’s role in the organisation, saying: “I can confirm that Eddie McIlwaine is a member of that lodge and in good standing…
“As long as Mr McIlwaine upholds the principle of the institution and has paid his debt to society he has done nothing wrong.””
Politicians, journalists and observers sometimes claim a moral equivalence between the actions of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army, the British Occupation Forces and the British Terror Factions during the conflict in the north-east of Ireland and beyond. They argument goes that they all were equally guilty of militarism and violence. This is simply untrue. While the IRA can be justifiably criticised and condemned for many of its actions, up to and including war crimes, more often than not it exercised restraint. As dreadful as the war was it could have been far worse had the IRA chosen to act entirely outside the norms of western European behaviour at the end of the 20th century (or what the communities who supported it were willing to tolerate). That is not to negate the suffering caused by the Republican Army, the many innocent victims both direct and indirect left by its actions. The litany of its barbarisms, deliberate or otherwise, is lengthy and bring no credit to anyone. The war was not a clean one. Heroes are few and far between.
However the terrorist gangs organised and functioning under the aegis of the British state, acknowledged or otherwise, are a different matter. It was these factions which embraced as a weapon of war the policy of “ethnic cleansing” as the ultimate solution – or fallback – to the conflict and the defeat of their enemy. Acting as the cutting edge of Britain’s counter-insurgency strategy they engaged not armed opponents, guerrilla fighters or their commanders, but ordinary Irish men, women and children.
35% of all those killed by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army were civilians.
51% of all those killed by the British Occupation Forces were civilians.
85% of all those killed by the British terror factions were civilians.
When the Orange Order permits the membership of someone like Eddie McIlwaine, a literal butcher of human beings, when it elevates him to a position of authority in its organisation, however slight, it sends a message to the people of Ireland as a whole. It is the same message that ISIS, the would-be Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sends to Shia Moslems and Arab Christians or Israel sends to the Palestinians of Gaza: you and yours are unhumans.