When Northern Ireland was at war Remembering can help prevent future horror

The tragedy of the people of Northern Ireland killing each other was memorialized this past October by the families and friends of the 18 victims who died 20 years ago in two of the most tragic atrocities in the North’s difficult history.

Today, as American observers sometimes become frustrated by the sporadic rioting and slow progress on agreement on nearly everything in Northern Ireland, we should recognize that going back to the old days is not an option. Interested Irish Americans should have patience and always focus on improving the hard-won peace.

It is always worth remembering just how brutal things were just a short 20 years ago.

First, there was the bombing on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast that incited a machine gun attack in a bar in the Catholic town of Greysteel outside of Derry a week later. Both were retaliatory strikes that produced many dead and many injured, most of whom were innocent bystanders.

In the early 1990’s, as the peace talks were repeatedly stalled, many innocent Catholics were killed while walking the streets by newly active UDA-UFF protestant paramilitaries.

Under attack, Catholic paramilitaries felt they had to respond.

On Saturday afternoon, Oct. 23, 1993, the provisional IRA, believing that the leaders of the UDA-UFF were meeting upstairs, bombed Frizzell’s fish shop in a Protestant neighborhood on Shankill Road. With the shop and the streets outside crowded with women and children, two IRA members, Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly, took the bomb into the shop shortly after 1 p.m., but the UDA-UFF bosses had left their office upstairs. The bomb went off prematurely, killing 10 people, including Begley, John Frizzell, the owner of the shop, four women, two children, and two men. Kelly was severely wounded, and more than 50 were injured. The IRA then and now claims the explosion was supposed to be delayed so that civilians could be warned to leave the building.
The outrage was instantaneous. Protestant anger swept every part of Northern Ireland, and world leaders condemned the atrocity with great passion. And over the next several days, six Catholics were indiscriminately shot and killed in and around Belfast. Security forces were sent to guard all Catholic churches.

Then, on the following Saturday, Oct. 30, four UFF Protestant paramilitaries attacked the Rising Sun Bar in the small village of Greysteel, a Catholic town nine miles east of Derry on the other side of Northern Ireland. The men used machine guns to spray automatic fire toward patrons sitting at the tables and the bar. There were twenty-seven people were shot that evening, and eight of them died – six Catholics and two Protestants. Since Greysteel was 96 percent Catholic, the UFF gunmen had assumed they would only kill Catholics. Like so many assumptions in this terrible war, it proved incorrect.

The Belfast Telegraph newspaper reported the names of the four men who did the killings. Stephen Irwin led Torrens Knight, Geoffrey Deeney, and Bram McNeill, all fellow UFF members, into the Rising Sun Bar. Despite the cold-blooded horror they committed against their own countrymen, all of them, along with Sean Kelly, the IRA bomber in Belfast, were released from jail as a result of the Good Friday Agreement that was ratified by the Irish people throughout Ireland five years later, in 1998.

In Northern Ireland during those seven days of extreme violence, 24 citizens died and 69 were injured. The men who did this are free, and their leaders, who either told them to do it or condoned what they did, are still living their lives, having dinner with their families, and making speeches, with some probably serving in the Northern Ireland government.

Today, much of Northern Ireland life seems quite normal and business is thriving, but beneath the surface, especially in the neighborhoods where the 70 or so 12-foot-high “peace walls” are still deemed necessary, people are very wary, looking back over their shoulders every day. The police will tell you that there are frequent rallies and troublesome marches, with violent eruptions not uncommon.

Irish-American support is important to both sides as we see delegation after delegation coming to Boston from Northern Ireland to raise money, promote business, or simply gain support for their cause. The struggle for productive healthy lives there for everyone is not over.