The story of the Shankill Road Bomb

The Shankill Bombing came at an extremely precarious time in the peace process in Northern Ireland. This attack and the resulting retaliation attacks that culminated over the following days, very nearly derailed the entire peace process altogether. At this stage of the Troubles, for the very first time, Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for more civilian deaths than Republicans.

One of the main Loyalist paramilitary organisations in Belfast at this time was the UFF or the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The leader of the UFF was Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair. Leadership of the UDA and UFF used the office above Frazzelli’s chip shop on the Shankill Road as their headquarters. It was also the office used by the Loyalist Prisoners Association, which was a group that gave out money to the families of Loyalist paramilitary prisoners. Saturday was the day that money was distributed. Therefore, on Saturday, October 23, the building and the surrounding area was busy. The IRA knew this. They also knew that Johnny Adair had been seen entering the building Saturday morning. He was the main target in the Shankhill Road bombing. The IRA put a plan in place to execute him.

Shortly after 1pm on Saturday, October 23, 1993, two IRA men, Sean Kelly and Tomas Begley, walked into Frazelli’s chip shop dressed like delivery men in white coats. It was a normal Saturday afternoon and the area was busy with shoppers. However, in one of the men’s hands was a five pound bomb with an 11 second timer attached. A third IRA man waited outside in a car so that once the bomb was planted, all three could make a quick getaway.

Sean Kelly waited just outside the front door of Frazelli’s, while Thomas Begley walked through the crowd of customers holding the bomb. The IRA’s official statement regards this was that, Begley’s orders were to remove all the civilians from the building by gunpoint and arm the bomb before fleeing himself. The bomb was designed so that it would explode directly upwards, with the aim of killing the occupants of the office above: Hopefully including Adair. However, what actually happened was the bomb prematurely exploded whilst still in his hand. The violent and extremely powerful blast caused complete destruction of the building, making it collapse in on itself, and  trapping many people underneath the rubble. Begley was killed immediately along with nine other people, two of whom were children.

Killed in the blast were chip shop owner, John Frazell, 63, his daughter Sharon McBride, 29, UDA member Michael Morrison, his wife Evelyn and their seven-year-old daughter. Michael’s father had recently died and the three of them were walking to a shop to pick up a wreath when they were caught up in the explosion. Others killed were Leanne Murray, 13, George Williamson, 63, his wife Gillian and Wilma McKee, 38. On top of the fatalities, there were 59 casualties. Johnny Adair had left the building before lunchtime.

Many of the wounded lay under the rubble for hours before they could be rescued due to the huge mounds of debris and bricks. Something else that hindered the rescue operation was that some bodies were so badly maimed that paramedics found it difficult to  identify bodies. The bomber Thomas Begley was killed immediately in the blast. His accomplice Sean Kelly was severely injured; he tried to run from the scene but was too badly wounded to get far.

Sean Kelly was taken to hospital by ambulance lying beside other victims of the bombing that he had caused.

After the bombing, the IRA released this statement: “The IRA today targeted a regular meeting of UFF activists on the Shankill Road UDA headquarters. Eight hours after the operation not all of our volunteers are accounted for, we can only conclude at this stage that those volunteers are amongst those that were tragically and unintentionally killed by a premature detonation of this device. We regret all innocent deaths and understand the grief felt by those loved ones of all those who died today.” 

Within hours of the bombing, the UFF called the BBC and issued a statement saying that all their service units would be fully mobilised and that the national electorate would pay a heavy price for the bombings as a reprisal. Their statement is below:

“This afternoon the people of West Belfast have been on the receiving end of a blatantly indiscriminate bombing attack supposedly aimed at the UFF. The number of women and children killed and injured is still unclear but lends a lie to the false claims. As from 18:00hrs tonight that’s six o clock on Saturday on the day of the bomb all brigade and active service units of the UFF across Ulster will be fully mobilised. John Hume, Gerry Adams and the nationalist electorate will pay a heavy, heavy price for today’s atrocity, which was signed, sealed and delivered by the cutting edge of the Pan Nationalist Front. And finally to the perpetrators of this atrocity we say this. There will be no hiding place, time is on our side and to Hume, is this part of your peace process?” 

Sean Kelly was sentenced to nine terms of life imprisonment at his trial in January 1995. The judge at his trial, Lord Justice McDermott, described the bombing as “wanton slaughter” and “one of the worst outrages to beset this province in 25 years of violence.”

Kelly was released in July 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. He now works as a tour guide in Belfast, teaching tourists and anyone interested in the Troubles, the history of the conflict.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

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