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The Shankill Butchers - Empire's Death-squad. Part One

Updated on August 13, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honors graduate and has written extensively on aspects of the Irish conflict, geopolitics,and history.

Their foul work
Their foul work

Murder and Collusion

The BBC documentary, Shankill Butchers, first screened in March 2011 but since repeated rekindled public interest in one of the most horrific of the Loyalist death-squads active during the period known as The Troubles. The Shankill Butchers gained the grim nickname due to their modus operandi of murdering many of their, mostly Catholic victims, with butcher knives, meat cleavers, and axes, primarily in an area of North Belfast which became known as The Murder Mile. The Shankill Butchers were a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) jointly led by the notorious psychopath, Lenny Murphy, who is documented as having murdered or taken part in over 30 people during the 1970s and early 1980s in Belfast

Larger than life, local BBC radio and television presenter, Stephen Nolan's documentary was memorable due to the fact that, unlike previous broadcasts and publications on the subject, he very publicly cast doubt on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) claims that they were powerless to stop the Shankill Butchers' reign of sectarian murders. The RUC have always maintained that they were unaware of the identities of the gang. This official version was known to be fiction with the names of the gang's membership common knowledge amongst local people, Republicans, Loyalists and indeed most journalists of note.

Nolan's interview of the RUC Detective Inspector, Jimmy Nesbitt, who was in charge of the investigation, went a major way to cast doubt on the official RUC version of the investigation and alluded to a blind-eye being turned to the Shankill Butchers and the possibility of state-collusion, in the murders. Nesbitt looked decidedly uncomfortable during the interview, especially while attempting to maintain the official RUC line that collusion was not a factor.

A clearly rattled Nesbitt contradicted himself when asked about RUC Special Branch knowledge of the gang's members and whether they would have shared that knowledge with him. Nesbitt's denials became even more incredible when viewed in the context of other interviewees from the Shankill Loyalist community, who readily admitted that the identities of the Shankill Butchers would have been common knowledge within their community and also within RUC circles.

Convicted Shankill Butcher gang member, Eddie McIlwaine. No bar to Orange Order membership

Eddie McIlwaine, ,an active member of the Shankill Butchers, did not forfeit his membership of the Orange Order
Eddie McIlwaine, ,an active member of the Shankill Butchers, did not forfeit his membership of the Orange Order

Imperialism and Counter-insurgency Policy

It is now accepted as fact that the RUC Special Branch, SAS, MRF, MI5, MI6 and various units of the British army colluded with and directed Loyalist death-squads throughout the conflict in the North of Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UDA, UVF, RHC were an integral and important component of British counter-insurgency strategy in Ireland.

The type of inhuman brutality shown to victims of pro-British death-squads was a definite tactic and an accepted practice of imperialist forces in various theatres of operations, hoping to terrorize civilians and sap support from popular insurgencies. Brigadier Frank Kitson's published theses, such as: 'Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping' (1971) and 'Gangs and Counter-gangs' (1960), which were to become the British Army's counter-insurgency bible in the North of Ireland in particular, defining their counter-terror usage of Crown-friendly terror gangs, like the Shankill Butchers.

Those same inhuman 'counter-terror' tactics have been seen in common usage by British imperialist forces outside Ireland, for instance, during the guerrilla struggle against British colonial rule in Malaya, conducted by the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). The Anti-British National Liberation War or Malayan Emergency, as it was termed by the British colonial rulers, lasted from 1948-1960 and a trait of local British-friendly, pro-British local forces was to brutally kill and dismember insurgents and civilians, who made up the MNLA''s support base, in a similar fashion to the Murphy gang. This savage behaviour, was of course, encouraged and directed, at the highest level by British imperial forces.

Similar vile behaviour, as a 'counter-insurgency' tactic, to soften-up civilian support for insurgents, was invariably carried out by Kitsonian so-called counter-gangs or militias loyal to colonial regimes, at the behest of the imperial regular military forces. This savage counter-terror by pro-imperialist forces has been well documented during conflicts such as the NLF/FLOSY national liberation struggle in Aden; Kenya; the Vietnam War; Oman; and Nicaragua, to name just a few. Indeed one only has to look to the recent conflict in Iraq and the likes of Abu Ghraib prison, to recognise that this behaviour travels well with the forces of imperialism. Likewise in Somalia, where an entire regiment of Canadian airborne troops, ironically commanded by John De Chastelain (the man appointed decommissioning Czar in Ireland) was disbanded after the discovery that they had engaged in similar behaviour as the Shankill Butchers by torturing and murdering a child suspected os 'espionage.'

The grave of a sadistic serial killer but a hero to Loyalists
The grave of a sadistic serial killer but a hero to Loyalists

Loyalism and Barbarism

The Shankill Butchers gang were not unique phenomena within Loyalism, despite their later notoriety. From the early 1970s onwards, horrific sectarian murders of Catholics were a common trait of the pro-British death-squads of the UVF, UDA, and RHC. The Loyalist practice of abducting Catholic civilians and later horrifically torturing them, often in Loyalist drinking clubs and with patrons participating in the torment of the terrified victim, was common in the North of Ireland, especially in the 1970s. This became known as 'Rompering' and the scene of crime known as a 'Romper room'. Disturbingly, the name came from a local children's television program.

The fact that this type of terror was a key element of British counter-insurgency policy and directed or encouraged by elements within the British military-industrial complex, is one factor in the phenomena of Loyalist death-squads, such as the Shankill Butchers. Another factor, also born of the British colonial legacy to the divided society known as 'Northern Ireland', a state-let- formed on the basis of a sectarian headcount, was that many Loyalists believed that Catholics were certainly sub-citizens, and many indeed felt, sub-human. Few Unionist politicians dis anything to dissuade such views, if anything, it was blatantly by Paisley and his ilk. With views like that being common currency, it may then have seemed a natural progression to treat the 'disloyal' and therefore, less than human Catholic victims with the worst kind of sectarian savagery.

Again, this view that natives, rebels or non-WASP peoples were less than human, was a widely held belief within imperialist military circles and their confederates. For instance, one only has to read the writings of comrades of the notorious Colonel Callan, (the ex-Parachute Regiment soldier who served in Ireland in the 1970s and went on to lead a mercenary force in Angola) to realise that the MPLA guerrillas and indeed the Angolan civilians, who they murdered in their hundreds, were roundly viewed as being mere sub-humans. Within the Ulster Loyalist paramilitaries themselves, displaying the most pathological hatred of Catholics was often the means by which members advanced through the ranks and proved fealty.

It is well known that there was never a comparable phenomenon as the Shankill Butchers, within Republicanism during the recent Irish conflict, although it should be stressed that Unionists did not hold the monopoly on sectarianism. However, the sectarianism of pro-British Loyalism was borne of an Ethno-supremacist worldview and by definition, victims were therefore viewed as lesser citizens or indeed species. The Shankill Butchers and similar Loyalist death-squad gangs were, therefore, symptomatic of imperialism or more accurately, they were molded by imperialism's encouragement of a supremacist-based, divide and rule strategy well tried and tested globally. Lenny Murphy, the psychopathic leader of the Shankill Butchers, was following in the footsteps of previous notorious rabidly anti-Catholic killers, such as 'Buck Alec' Robinson, whose predilection towards sectarian serial murder of disloyal citizens was encouraged and indeed rewarded by the colonial, pro-British establishment. The Shankill Butchers can not be viewed in isolation, as some hitherto unknown phenomena, they just happened to be the most widely publicized and perhaps most prolific of the Loyalist death-squads, who almost universally operated with near impunity during the recent conflict in Ireland.

The Shankill Butcher's Lennie Murphy shot dead by IRA
The Shankill Butcher's Lennie Murphy shot dead by IRA
A vsick Internet meme used by loyalists
A vsick Internet meme used by loyalists

© 2019 Liam A Ryan

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