Current Affairs History Military Politics

The Shankill Bombing And Britain’s Proxy-War In Belfast

Just after 1 pm on the afternoon of Saturday the 23rd of October 1993, Thomas Begley and Seán Kelly, two volunteers of the 3rd Battalion of the Belfast Brigade of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army, entered Frizzell’s, a busy two-storey fishmonger’s shop on the Shankill Road, a traditionally pro-UK or unionist enclave in the nationalist west of the city. With their requisitioned van parked a short distance away in Berlin Street the pair were disguised as delivery men in white coats and hats. While Kelly stood at the doorway, possibly shouting at startled staff and customers to flee the building, Begley rushed to a refrigerated counter, carrying a white box containing a device packed with over two kilograms of explosives, intent on placing it beneath the ceiling. The bomb was purposely designed by the (P)IRA engineers to direct the blast upwards, hopefully penetrating the secure rooms situated on the top level of the shop. The twenty-three year old volunteer lit a fuse on the device expecting a short delay to allow everyone on the ground floor to evacuate the premises. In the event the bomb exploded almost instantaneously, collapsing the interior of the old building and killing ten people, including Thomas Begley and two young children, thirteen year old Leanne Murray and seven year old Michelle Baird. His comrade and fifty-six others were injured, while locals and the emergency services spent several hours digging trapped survivors from beneath the devastated structure.

The intended target of the attack had been the Belfast leadership of the UDA-UFF, a semi-legal British terrorist faction, which held meetings every Saturday lunchtime in the closely guarded offices of the Loyalist Prisoners’ Association (LPA), a front-organisation situated on the first floor above the shop. On the morning of the attempted “decapitation strike” a prominent unionist gunman, Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair, who was working with a UK military intelligence grouping known as the Force Research Unit (FRU), was spotted by a (P)IRA observation team entering the building, confirming that the weekly gathering was going ahead. In fact the meeting of the militant leaders was cancelled at the last minute, with Adair exiting the building unobserved by the (P)IRA scouts, accompanied by his colleague, William “Winkie” Dodds. Later investigations proved that only one UDA-UFF fatality was numbered among the casualties, twenty-seven year old Michael Morrison, the father of Michelle Baird, though two other “loyalists” were injured.

The wanton slaughter on the Shankill Road was a propaganda disaster for (P)IRA and its political leadership in (Provisional) Sinn Féin, garnering opprobrium both at home and abroad. Paradoxically, however, it weakened internal opposition among the frontline units of the underground army’s Northern Command, especially the Belfast Brigade, to the burgeoning Irish-British peace process and contributed to the ordering of an open-ended ceasefire on the 31st of August 1994, facilitating further covert negotiations between the (Provisional) Republican Movement and the UK government. Meanwhile various armed British gangs, principally the UDA-UFF and UVF, stepped up their campaign of murder against the nationalist community, killing and wounding dozens of men, women and children in the months that followed the botched attack.

Nine years later, on the evening of Sunday the 17th of March 2002, a car containing three men in business suits passed through the blast-proof barriers at the heavily fortified Castlereagh Police Station in unionist East Belfast, a place made infamous for its role as a British torture centre during the 1970s and ’80s. By the early 2000s the installation was a local headquarters of the Special Branch (SB), the eight hundred strong detective unit of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the UK’s paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland. By this period it was also housing the regional headquarters of the British Army’s Joint Support Group (JSG), successor to the notorious FRU, and carrying out many of the same tasks: controlling pro-UK terrorist proxies and double-agents or spies in the counter-insurgency struggle against (P)IRA and its off-shoots. Indeed a government enquiry in Britain led by Sir John Stevens, head of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, revealed that around the time of the atrocity on the Shankill Road the former Neo-Nazi skinhead turned UDA-UFF terrorist, Johnny Adair, had been invited to a dinner in the sprawling complex by the FRU’s commanding officer, secretly chauffeured there by soldiers in civilian clothing, where he was gifted with intelligence files on suspected (P)IRA volunteers and their families. However in 2002 the intent of the newest clandestine visitors was entry to Room 220, a temporary work-centre for Special Branch personnel on the first floor that had come into use just a short time earlier.

Flashing UK military identification cards the men proceeded through the bunker-like buildings, passing beneath high netting designed to trigger falling grenades and mortars, following a flight of stairs up to the guarded SB offices where they calmly knocked on the locked door. When the sole duty-officer inside opened it they rushed him, knocking the man to the floor before tying him to a chair with a bag over his head. Thirty minutes later they drove away from Castlereagh’s towering walls of steel and concrete, laden with dozens of paper files and thousands of electronic ones which were smuggled to the north-western city of Derry and then to a secret location elsewhere in Ireland. By Monday evening press reports were giving credit for the “break-in” to the GHQ Intelligence Department of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. It was soon recognised that (P)IRA had staged one of the most successful espionage operations of the Long War or northern conflict. With no evidence or clues, beyond the fact that one of the intruders had spoken with an unidentified English accent, the RUC was left helpless.

Despite half-hearted attempts to downplay the losses the panic which gripped Britain’s intelligence machine – regardless of ceasefires and the ongoing peace process – was visible to even the most jingoistic or gung-ho of British journalists. Hundreds of paramilitary police and army officers or agents were hurriedly moved or withdrawn from the field, in some cases family members joining them. Though newspaper and TV sources speculated that the operation was yet another “inside job” by British spy agencies wishing to cover up evidence of their “dirty war” in Ireland it soon became evident that this time around the document losses were different. Within months the RUC investigators were seeking the whereabouts of a former American employee at the base, suspected of involvement in the case, either as a (P)IRA intelligence officer or sympathiser.

The immediate aftermath of the bomb-blast at Frizzell’s fish shop, Shankill Road, West Belfast, 1993

Now, some fourteen years since the penetration of the Castlereagh base and twenty-three since the mass-murder on the Shankill Road, the Irish News has made a serious of shocking allegations which have sparked new controversy.

” CLASSIFIED documents stolen during the break-in at Castlereagh have shown the IRA ‘commander’ at the time of the Shankill bomb was working as an informant and passed information to his handlers that could have potentially prevented the atrocity.

The former ‘blanketman’, now aged in his late 50s, was known as agent AA and calls made to his special branch handlers are logged throughout the documents stolen by the IRA during the raid at PSNI headquarters almost 15-years ago.

The files stolen during a robbery on St Patrick’s Day 2001 were heavily encrypted had to be deciphered by the IRA who used a handful of trusted members to decode the information.

The north Belfast man was ‘stood down’ by the organisation’s ruling army council in 2002 after they pieced together the coded information and discovered he had been working as a double agent for almost a decade.

The Irish News has seen documents which show the Ardoyne IRA chief was in contact with his handlers in the run up to the bombing and passed on details of ‘scouting missions’ to the Shankill.

Plans to kill UDA leader Johnny Adair in his office, situated above Frizzell’s fish shop in the weeks leading up to the bombing were known to special branch who were receiving regular information from AA.

On the day of the bomb the office above the shop was empty and no UDA members were caught up in the blast that injured over 50 people.

Less than 10 months later the IRA called a ceasefire.”

The Independent newspaper in Britain has made further claims in relation to the bombing:

“The ex-IRA man reported to have been a security force double-agent who tipped off his handlers about the October 1993 Shankill Road bombing is suspected by a number of former Belfast IRA comrades of having deliberately “jarked” the device so it exploded prematurely, to cause maximum civilian casualties and so weaken the “hawk” wing within the Provos opposed to an IRA ceasefire.

This means the Shankill bombing joins a list of Troubles incidents that are being investigated over alleged security force or service complicity by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), or judicial reviews and inquests. These include the Omagh bombing in 1998, when the Real IRA slaughtered 29 people and two unborn twins and maimed hundreds, the loyalist “UVF” 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings which killed 34 and injured hundreds, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, and claims about an IRA double-agent codenamed “Stakenife”, who is said to have murdered scores of people while working for the security forces.

Ex-IRA prisoners say they strongly believe “AA” was given the go-ahead by his handlers to “jark” the device. Asked how this could have been done, one former prisoner said: “It would have been easily booby-trapped. Those carrying it would not have known the timer could have been altered. They would have been given 45 seconds to clear the premises and then detonate the device, giving them time to also get out, but not those upstairs who were the target. But, if it was a time-lag switch, it could have been secretly adjusted, without a doubt.”

Reports over the years suggested that the IRA had been unable to decipher the Special Branch documents, but it can now be revealed that – after recruiting a former prisoner turned top academic, who in turn recruited a small team of helpers – the IRA did indeed establish the extent to which it had been penetrated by the British state.”

In a follow-up story we are told:

“THE Stormontgate arrest of Sinn Féin special adviser Denis Donaldson was orchestrated to protect the senior republican after his cover as a double agent was blown when the IRA stole classified documents from Castlereagh, it has been alleged.

Senior IRA sources have claimed that it was his own associates and not Special Branch who ‘outed’ Donaldson forcing him to make a shock public confession in 2005, four months later he was shot dead at a rural cottage in Donegal.

It is now believed that the IRA had known about Donaldson’s double life since his arrest in 2002 when they deciphered the stolen Castlereagh documents and that his arrest may have been orchestrated by the PSNI to protect their agent.

Information Donaldson had passed on during his time as an informer was politically rather than ‘militarily’ sensitive. His codename P O’Neill appears repeatedly throughout the stolen Castlereagh documents.

He was said to have been the British government’s mole within the party during the Good Friday peace negotiations.

As a close friend and confidant of Gerry Adams, his outing as a double agent made him the most high profile member of Sinn Féin to have been discovered working as an informant.

In February 2008, Roy McShane, a former IRA commander turned chauffeur for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams fled the Divis Tower flat he was sharing with his his girlfriend after also being outed as an informer.

…the Irish News has learned that it was members of his own organisation that threatened to out him after he was discovered to be an informer and was named throughout the stolen Castlereagh documents under the codename ‘Chiefy’.

While dozens of other informants, some low level, others higher up, were unmasked when the classified Castlereagh papers were decoded by the IRA, only those close to the Sinn Féin leadership have so far been ‘outed’ others were quietly told to leave the country for their own safety or left to get on with their lives as ‘retired’ IRA members.”

So what are we to make of it all, of accusation and counter-accusation? Some are expressing disbelief, others are highlighting the closeness of the revelations to national and regional elections in Ireland this year, while a few believe that the UK intelligence services or former, disgruntled RUC men are the real sources of the allegations.

For the present moment, in the aftermath of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland, anything seems possible.

Below are some extremely rare images taken in 2002 showing the exterior and interior of the feared RUC complex at Castlereagh.

Castlereagh Holding Centre Exterior

Lookout Post at Castlereagh Holding Centre

Cell Block at Castlereagh Holding Centre

Prisoner Records at RUC Station, Castlereagh

Records at Castlereagh Holding Centre


8 comments on “The Shankill Bombing And Britain’s Proxy-War In Belfast

  1. I read Johnny Adair would welcome an inquiry although he denies he was ever warned about the attack. For someone who denies he was a state agent, the state went out of their road to spirit him to safety, via helicopter, when he was released from prison for fear he would be a target of the loyalist feud at the time. I can’t recall too many ‘terrorists’ being cared for that much by state security agencies.
    Btw, a few characters up sticks and left my town, around the mid noughties. Looking back it probably had something to do with the castlereagh break-in fall out. No big loss mind you.


    • The fact that Adair was being wined and dined by the FRU, as revealed by John Stevens and his Met officers during their trawling through the files in Belfast, makes a mockery of any claim that the UDA-UFF, etc, were anything but extensions of the UK’s war machine in Ireland.

      The problem for Mad Dog was that he bit the hand that fed him. He still ended up living relatively comfortable in exile in Britain, though, at the largesse of the UK tax-payer. For a while at least.


    • Of course, we can only speculate, but Adair would have incentive to deny foreknowledge for a number of reasons. Never mind issues on the state-security side, if Adair admitted that he was warned, and that that had been the reason for the calling off of the UDA-UFF meeting at the last minute (was a specific explanation ever given as to why it was called off?), he’d be pretty much admitting to collaborating in or giving an effective go-ahead to the death and injury of Shankill residents/civilians and workers in the fish-shop (who he intentionally didn’t warn, if the theory is correct, so as to ultimately undermine the IRA).

      We know Adair entered the building when it was under surveillance by the IRA (although he claims this was to pick up a prison pass before heading to meet his buddy Sam McCrory in the Maze later that day). If the theory that he had foreknowledge is correct, however, he was presumably a decoy and his entering the building presumably a “signal” to assure the IRA observation team that the scheduled meeting was going ahead. Of course, the meeting wasn’t going ahead and Adair’s exit of the building was missed by the observation team. How might it have been missed? Did Adair exit the way he came in or was he advised by someone (the RUC or MI5 perhaps) to exit another way, knowing that going out the way he came in would alert the observation team that the meeting wasn’t going ahead, after all?


      • It’s a mystery, and a bloody murky one at that. The Long War is a period of history where sooner or later most of the conspiracies theories seem to become fact. I haven’t noticed too many acts of contrition by the press for their previous attitudes of scepticism. The formerly dismissed “republican propaganda” has now been proved to have been more often right than wrong. Where are the journalists saying, sorry, we got it wrong?


  2. meanwhile proceedings against freddie scappitticci are on-going

    while the UK continues to flout ECHR rulings about investigating state killings by hiding behind the flimsy pretext of “National Security”


  3. If P.I.R.A. was following the movements of Adair & Co and wanted to kill them without endangering civilians, why didn’t they just shoot them at the side of the street?


    • They did, a car he was in was shot up, and there were numerous other attempts. However the attack in Shankill was criminal, no question about it. Even if the British and Adair were in cahoots it was the Belfast Brigade HQ Staff that gave the operation the green light. Civilian casualties were almost certain.


    • Presumably, the idea of bombing the room in which the meeting was supposed to have been taking place was that the UDA-UFF leadership would all have been together in-situ. Gunning them down individually on the street would have carried a higher risk of failure, as far as the objective was concerned, even if it might have posed less of a risk to civilian life. It simply wouldn’t have worked because there was no guarantee the leadership would all have been together on the street to take them all out in one ambush. As soon as a bullet would have been fired, the presence of an ambush team would have been made known and other UDA-UFF leadership would no doubt have been advised to stay clear of the area.


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