Current Affairs History Politics

Remembering The Shankill Road Bombing

Thomas Begley, Volunteer of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army killed on Active Service, 23 October 1993, Belfast, Ireland
Thomas Begley, Volunteer of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (Íomhá: Ardoyne Republican)

I suspect that I am not the only Republican made uneasy by a community plan in Ardoyne to hold a public commemoration to mark the anniversary of the death on active service of 22 year old Thomas Begley, a Volunteer of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. He died during a 1993 attack intended to eliminate the local West Belfast leadership of the UDA-UFF, a British state-controlled terrorist faction in the north-east of Ireland, which was due to hold its regular Saturday morning meeting in a room situated above Frizzell’s Fish Shop on the Shankill Road. Begley and another member of his Active Service Unit were depositing an explosive device in the building when it exploded prematurely killing the Volunteer and eight civilians (including two children) and leaving scores injured as the building collapsed. A known British terrorist was also killed but the rest of those targeted in the strike escaped unharmed as the gathering was cancelled due to an intelligence-based warning from within the RUC, the British paramilitary police force.

Whatever about a private function by family and friends to mark the death of Thomas Begley I believe that a public one, even without the official participation of Sinn Féin, is simply insensitive given the terrible loss of life at the time and should be reconsidered. Whatever happens on the October anniversary the deaths of so many entirely innocent non-combatants, regardless of the military intent of the strike, cannot go by without acknowledgement. And, indeed, one might well ask whether those participating in such an operation are deserving of any official remembrance at all since collateral damage to civilian life and property would seem to have been inevitable, whatever the then circumstances. One can hardly criticise acts of deliberate or reckless violence by state or non-state forces and then gloss over the actions of others when convenient or politic to do so. Whether carpet-bombing German cities from the air in times past or carrying out drone-strikes in Pakistan in times present there should be no hierarchy of victims.

17 comments on “Remembering The Shankill Road Bombing

  1. Begley was what was formerly known as “retarded”. His death so near to the ceasefire was a mockery of republican principles. A 30 second timer was fitted so he had no chance of escape.

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  2. urbanseanchas

    Jaysus lads maybe not the best place to air these allegations or views??? Tragic one way or the other. Dont really want to add anything more other than questioning the fact of stigmitizing people with learning difficulties. Can a person with learning difficulties not play a role in a community or movement….?.. or is what suggested by person above that someone was taking advantage of and used perhaps.

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    • Fair points but since it was raised in a Comment I thought it better to address it immediately. The basis of the claim was indeed that young Thomas Begley was taken advantage of and sent off on a suicide mission of sorts. Idiotic of course and with not a shred of proof. As far as I am aware the allegations that went around at the time came from British political and tabloid media circles and were repudiated. I have learned of nothing new to change that. There was a lot of understandably nasty stuff in circulation at the time and this was just another part of it.

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  3. You know what, a Shéamas, I was thinking this very thing this morning when I heard this. And I thought of your analogy regarding Germany, too.
    I’m very uncomfortable about this and concerned of how Loyalism will use this to their advantage to bolster numbers/sympathy. I say this as a Republican. Nuair a tharla seo, bhí mé i gCeis Fada agus shíl mé go raibh traigéide ann. Sílim sin go fóill.

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    • I believe most Republicans would agree and would look to those who were then in positions of command and control for greater culpability than young volunteers under orders. It was a terrible, terrible time of inter-communal conflict with the British terror gangs in Ireland given free reign by Britain as part of a stepped-up counter-insurgency war but the attempt to eliminate the main Unionist leaders in the manner decided upon was reckless in the extreme. It was indeed a tragedy.

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  4. its part of a a wider series of events by republicans in ardoyne putting up plaques to volunteers from ardoyne who died on active service. Out side looking in with out all the facts it may seem offencive but to people from that community organising this event the symiotics may be different.

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    • True, Shea. However I wonder could it have been handled with more sensitivity? As I understand it a leaflet was sent around the local community informing them of the commemoration, one depicting armed Volunteers. Perhaps something a little less low-key at least at a time still relatively close to the conflict? Your point is valid though. We are outsiders looking in.

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  5. they where combatents though, the symbol of the vol with a bally and his/her weapon means different things to different people. To some it strikes fear to others it stikes hope and a lot of other meanings. How that image is resieved depends on who is looking at it, I don’t believe the people organiseing the image mean it to take offence, especially since they are distributing it amonst the local community from where these Vols came. The point of the commemeration is the aknoledge their sacrafice. Begley was one of them, at 22 years of age would it be likely that it was his first time out? only a few people would know the answer the that but i would think not. Your original post is right is so far as i agree with it in that that disaster of an opp should not be pinned on one man, i think the consequence of that thinking is that this Vol should not be brushed under the carpet. The local community advertised this to the local community, other media picked up on it, unfortunate but so be it.

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    • Very little to disagree with in those points, Shea. They are well made. Perhaps some acknowledgement of the loss of civilian life, a minute’s silence for all the dead, might be considered at the revealing of the plaque?

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  6. the humming sound in the back round on the video is the sound of a helicopter in a fixed position, thats its so load indicates its flying low. i think the video shows that that community remembered their comrade with dignity and love with out getting into triumpalism.

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  7. François

    I meant to leave a comment on this subject when your article was published. However, I didn’t want to engage in any controversy at the time with any of your readers, as I have strong views on the subject, so I didn’t react. Now is probably a more appropriate time, since no one, bar the author of this blog, will probably read my comment.
    No matter what the intention was, the Shankill bombing was a desperately wrong act. Please note: it wasn’t a rightful endeavour that only became wrong when things didn’t happen as planned… It was wrong from the very moment such a reckless operation was mooted.
    Surviving bomber Seán Kelly, in fairness to him, has (by and large) kept a very low profile ever since this tragedy occurred. He did, however, grant an interview to the North Belfast News upon being released from jail, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/aug/05/northernireland.johnmullin
    I, for one, can accept genuine remorse when full responsibility has been acknowledged. In his interview, I am sorry to say that Kelly falls short of that. It is worth remembering that Kelly and his sidekick had planned to give innocent shoppers, including children, just… 11 seconds to flee for their lives. Now, let’s imagine the scene: people are going about their ordinary business, with elderly folks, and parents and their young children in tow, buying fish in a fish shop. Then, all of a sudden, a roar is heard, and a man is seen fleeing from the shop. “What is it that he said? We couldn’t quite make it out as he was already a mile down the road when he finished his sentence…”. Granda, with his hearing problem, didn’t quite hear what was said either. The young child, who is not in a position to run fast, and still has a limited grasp of his native language owing to his young age, remains at the scene, unsure as to what is happening. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking…
    I needn’t go on any further. We all know that these innocent people were, effectively, doomed. The bombers knew, as they planted their device, what kind of people were in the shop: people of all ages, women, children… maybe people with reduced mobility or learning difficulties. Yet, Kelly and his accomplice still chose to prime their deadly device. This was no accident, but their choice.
    Now, Kelly essentially blames bad luck, as opposed to himself, for the tragedy. This isn’t good enough. To add insult to injury, he also describes himself as a “victim”. I don’t accept that for a second. If I choose to plant a bomb, I am not a victim, no matter what the political context is.
    His decision to take part in a commemorative event, no matter how it was staged and presented, was truly appalling. He knew that he would reopen old wounds and hurt the relatives of his victims, and yet, knowing this, he chose to go ahead… He chose to knowingly inflict hurt, as he had done 20 years previously. That says a lot about the man.
    The bottom line is this: intent alone does not exonerate. Just because the bombers didn’t mean to kill civilians, does not exonerate them, since they chose to plan and proceed with an operation which placed civilians at risk of near-certain death or grave injuries.
    People reading the above might be enraged by my comments, seeing shameless political bias on my part or whatever. However, these very same people would probably be the first to condemn the bombing by the Israeli army of the Gaza strip. Yet, the Israeli army also claim that they only mean to target combatants, as opposed to civilians, and they too seek to exonerate themselves by phoning or texting civilians, just seconds before their strike… I think this is food for thought.

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    • François, I pretty much agree with all of that. I wrote a more detailed description of the events that day and leading up to it elsewhere but still arrived at the same conclusion as yourself. A reckless, ill-conceived operation that knowingly placed civilian life and property in danger. Certainly not something to be remembered unless with shame and utter morose. Within the rules of international law it was a war crime.

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