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Shankill Road bombing: new claims put police performance in the spotlight

New claims have come to light which allege that police officers may have known about the bombing in advance.

The scene after the 1993 Shankill Road bombing
The scene after the 1993 Shankill Road bombing
Image: PA Archive/PA Photos

ON 23 OCTOBER 1993, two IRA members entered a fish shop on the Shankill Road where they believed members of a loyalist paramilitary group were holding a meeting.

Disguised as delivery men, the pair were carrying a bomb intended to kill a number of Ulster Defence Association (UDA) members.

However, the device exploded prematurely once they entered Frizzell’s shop.

Ten people were killed: one member of the IRA, one UDA member and eight protestant civilians, including two children. There were also dozens injured in the blast.

It later emerged that the planned UDA meeting had been re-scheduled for another time, and that the targets weren’t present in the shop when the bomb went off.

Back in the news

In recent days, the bombing - one of the major events of the Troubles - has made headlines once more with spectacular claims that police officers could have presented the deaths of innocent civilians.

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland confirmed this week that it has received a complaint in relation to the RUC’s handling of the west Belfast bombing.

The complaint came as news reports alleged that the police service knew about the planned explosion in advance.

The bombing was one of the most notorious events during the Troubles and led to a backlash from loyalist paramilitary groups in the following weeks where 14 civilians were killed.

Politics - The Troubles - Shankill Road Blast - Belfast People digging in the rubble following the bombing in 1993 Source: PA Archive/PA Photos

What do the reports say?

The Irish News published an article on Monday which contained claims that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the police service in Northern Ireland at the time, had prior knowledge that could have prevented the bombing.

According the the report, the IRA commander who had planned the bombing was a police informant at the time and he had allegedly given his handlers in the RUC prior warning that the event was going to take place.

The newspaper states that it has seen classified documents that were stolen by the IRA during a break-in at the Castlereagh police complex in Northern Ireland on St Patrick’s Day 2002.

The report goes on to to say that the documents had been heavily encrypted but the IRA had deciphered them – revealing in the process the commander who had supposedly been acting as an informant to police for over a decade.

The man was stood down by the IRA’s ruling army council that year following the revelations but that the rank-and-file members of the organisation were given no explanations. The man has since avoided any significant attention for almost two decades.

What’s the response?

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which oversees the police force, released a statement saying that it has received a complaint in relation to the bombing and that it was conducting enquiries into the claims. The statement reads:

The Police Ombudsman’s Office has received a complaint which centres on two concerns: that police had information which would have helped them prevent what happened, and that the police investigation into the bombing was compromised and failed to deliver justice to the families of those who lost their lives in the attack.
We will now be conducting enquiries into this matter.

Meanwhile, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – which replaced the RUC in 2001 – George Hamilton, dismissed the claims this week.

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He told BBC reporters at an event last night that he was ”100% convinced that the police service at the time had no knowledge of the Shankill bombing that could have prevented it”.

Garda Tony Golden funeral Chief Constable of the PSNI George Hamilton (file photo) Source: PA WIRE

Mr Hamilton also said that he wasn’t sure if the PSNI would be able to deliver criminal justice to the victims of the Troubles.

He criticised Stormont politicians for failing to properly address legacy issues and claimed his force wasn’t equipped to handle the sheer amount of requests which have arisen from the conflict.

What happens now?

The Shankill Road allegations come as a major review of inquests got underway last week into some of the most controversial deaths and killings in the Troubles.

Fifty-six cases involving 97 deaths are being investigated in all. The BBC reports that they include killings by police officers and soldiers, as well as other cases where there are allegations of state collusion in killings.

For now, the police ombudsman will investigate the complaints they received in relation to the bombing. Whether they are proven to have any foundation remains to be seen.

Read: “No grave to tend, no place to grieve”: The four remaining ‘Disappeared’

Read: New appeal over killings linked to secretive British Military Reaction Force

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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