20 years on: The Shankill bomb and Greysteel massacre

By Michael Clarke,

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The 20th anniversary of the Shankill bomb on October 23rd commemoration and political controversy. The bomb killed nine innocent civilians, including two children age seven and 13, and one of the bombers, Thomas Begley. A total of 57 people were injured. The anniversary was always going to difficult for the survivors but the situation was further inflamed when a plaque to remember Begley was unveiled during a commemoration event organised by his friends in Ardoyne.

Thomas Begley’s family have previously publicly stated their opposition to the Shankill Road bombing and his father told the crowd at the plaque unveiling that “this is not a celebration or a glorification of that tragic day”.

As so many times before others were to die in the following days in a series of “tit-for-tat” murders.
The UDA in particular was responsible for a number of vicious attacks. Later the same day it shot a Catholic delivery driver after luring him to a bogus call in Belfast. He died on 25th October. On 26th October, the UDA shot dead another two Catholic civilians and wounded five in an attack on a Council Depot at Kennedy Way, Belfast. On the evening of 30th October in Greysteel, County Derry, the UDA opened fire in the crowded Rising Sun bar during a Halloween party, killing eight civilians and wounding thirteen.

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The week of October 23rd since 1976.
In all the publicity surrounding the anniversaries there was no mention of the united response of the working class at the time. Shortly before the Shankill bomb there was a walkout by Shorts workers after a Catholic was murdered on the factory site in East Belfast. After the Shankill atrocity Catholic workers from Shorts and Harland & Wolff joined their Protestant workmates to march to the scene in protest. Soon after the attack on the Rising Sun Bar the trade unions organised a Northern Ireland-wide day of mass protest in which at least 80,000 took part. Working class people voiced their revulsion at events and demanded an end to the violence. Less than a year later the main paramilitary groups announced their ceasefires.

As well as remembering the dead and the survivors of that terrible week twenty years ago it is of vital importance that we learn the lessons of those events. One key lesson is that the working class, when it acts collectively and in unison, can make a real impact on events. Throughout the Troubles, the majority of workers remained united in their unions. Not once was a major strike been defeated by sectarianism. And repeatedly throughout the Troubles the working class intervened to both halt a slide to more intense conflict and to demand paramilitary ceasefires and a better future.

The demonstrations after the Shankill bomb and Greysteel massacre, and the other trade union demonstrations of the early 1990s, were instrumental in forcing the paramilitary groups to accept the futility of their campaigns.

We must reject the insidious idea that we are all somehow to blame for the Troubles. Working class activists, primarily organised through the unions, stood against sectarianism and sectarian killings. These activists were not responsible for the Troubles and to suggest otherwise is a travesty.

Sectarian forces on the other hand have much to answer for. They dragged us into violence in the past and will do so again unless challenged. We need to build an alternative, through well-organised trade unions with combative leaderships, and by working to create a mass anti-sectarian party which unites Catholic and Protestant workers and young people.

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