The tide swells for Nationalists
By Frank Connolly
The arrest of a man during a memorial event for those killed and injured by the UDA/UFF during the infamous 1992 attack on Sean Graham bookmakers on the Ormeau Road in Belfast has renewed tensions between the police and the Nationalist community in the city.
Mark Sykes, who was shot seven times during the 1992 attack, was taken into custody by the PSNI after he and a group of bereaved family members attended the commemoration to mark the 29th anniversary of the atrocity on 5 February.
Video taken at the scene showed PSNI officers manhandle and arrest Sykes, ostensibly for a breach of Covid restrictions, as family members of those who were killed by the UDA remonstrated with the officers.
Among those present at the memorial service was Tommy Duffin whose 66-year-old father, was shot dead in the attack along with Peter Magee (18), James Kennedy (15), Christy Doherty (51) and William McManus(54).Twelve of the thirteen people in the bookmakers were shot by the loyalist gang.
Video taken at the scene showed PSNI officers manhandle and arrest Sykes, ostensibly for a breach of Covid restrictions, as family members of those who were killed by the UDA remonstrated with the officers
“Anger isn’t a good enough word for it. People are asking me how it happened and to be honest, no one knows how. It just seemed to happen out of the blue”, Duffin said.
“The two cops appeared and hung about until the end of service and decided they were going to start taking names and finding out who were the organisers.
The bottom line is the police should not have been there. One of them was hell bent on arresting Mark Sykes. We were hoping they would see sense in the end but that didn’t happen.
We were socially distanced and all wearing masks. These two cops at no stage mentioned Covid so what were they doing there? They stood and hung about until it was over and they got their notebooks out.
Mark and a few others told them to take themselves off in no uncertain terms. We told them the organisers were the families and that should have been that. They then targeted Mark and wanted to get him arrested. We wanted to stay calm and not do anything stupid like get arrested for assault because that’s what these cops wanted”.
The incident led to the suspension of one of the arresting officers while the other was “repositioned” and, according to PSNI chief constable, Simon Byrne, contributed to his “worst week” since he was appointed to the position in July 2019.
Byrne was already under criticism for the failure of the PSNI to intervene when a gang of masked loyalists marched in the Pitt Park area of East Belfast only a few streets away from the Ormeau Road and just days before the anniversary memorial.
Relatives of those killed, and survivors, including Sykes, have spent almost 30 years seeking the truth behind the attack on the bookies including the allegation that members of the RUC Special Branch were involved. A report by the Police Ombudsman remains unpublished many years after its completion and is believed to contain significant information involving collusion, and about two guns that were used.
Former Chief Constable of the London Metropolitan Police, John Stevens, recommended the prosecution of two RUC agent handlers after he investigated the killings. That never happened. Instead, one of the guns turned up in a display in the Imperial War Museum in London a few years ago, even while the criminal inquiries into its use on the Ormeau Road were supposedly still proceeding.
The VZ 58 automatic rifle was among those imported from South Africa in a shipment arranged by Brian Nelson, an agent of British military intelligence, and supplied to the UDA/UFF and other Loyalist organisations in 1988.
A British army issue 9mm Browning pistol used in the bookmakers attack was removed from the Malone UDR barracks in Belfast in January 1989 by Ken Barrett, another British agent inside the UDA/UFF who was convicted of the killing of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in February 1989. It was then given to British agent, William Stobie, who supplied a different gun used by the UDA/ UFF to kill the solicitor.
Stobie returned the Browning to his RUC Special Branch handler who gave it back to him soon after. It was handed over to the gang which used it to kill Aidan Wallace in the Devinish Bar in south Belfast in December 1991. Three others were injured, including an 8-year-old boy who lost an eye. It was then used in the bookmakers attack on 5 February 1992. In May 1992, the gun was recovered by the RUC at a vehicle checkpoint on the Ballyskeagh Road on the outskirts of Belfast near Lisburn. In the car was a UDA/UFF team believed to be en route to carry out another killing.
Forensic and other evidence collected after the attack on the bookmakers pointed to four known members of the UDA/UFF in south Belfast while subsequent investigations, including the Stevens inquiry, identified the members of the RUC who handled the Browning and their agents inside the loyalist gang. The full report and a subsequent one by the Police Ombudsman have never been published.
The refusal of the British government to progress the investigations into the Ormeau Road and other attacks involving security force collusion and to provide truth and justice to victims and survivors is a major source of anger and bitterness in nationalist and some loyalist communities.
Forensic evidence pointed to four known members of the UDA/ UFF while the Stevens inquiry identified the members of the RUC who handled the Browning and their agents inside the Loyalist gang. The full report has never been published
The recent incident at the memorial has added to the tensions fuelled by Brexit, and most recently the debacle surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol which has disrupted supply chains from the UK into the North. In recent weeks, a lorry driver transporting goods to the port lost his eye when a wheelie bin full of rocks was thrown from a bridge on to his truck by thugs believed to have been protesting against the ‘border’ on the Irish sea. A few loyalists armed with tins of paint prompted the withdrawal of port staff inspecting goods and enforcing the new regulations on good entering the North.
Much of the tension has been driven by DUP and other politicians who are now complaining about the impact of Brexit, which they so vigorously encouraged and promoted over the past four years.
Meanwhile, there is growing momentum within the wide Nationalist and Republican community for constitutional change and in particular for a referendums, north and south, on Irish unity.
The Good Friday Agreement includes a provision for a referendum when the British Secretary of State believes that there is a likelihood that it would result in a vote by citizens of the North for an end to the Union. Brexit has exposed a new fault line in the internal politics of the North, with over 56% of people, including many from the Unionist community, voting to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
In the most recent Westminster elections, support In elections since, the vote for the DUP and UUP has declined and the numbers supporting non-unionist parties has steadily increased. In the most recent Westminster elections, support for Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party exceeded that for the main Unionist parties.
The Remain vote, which according to opinion polls, has grown steadily during the fraught years of Brexit negotiations, has contributed significantly to the widening debate about constitutional change.
It is perhaps not surprising that the professionals, lawyers, academics and others across civic society who are calling for constitutional change include those who are also campaigning for human rights and justice for those who suffered during the years of conflict.
Niall Murphy of Belfast solicitors KRW Law LLP is the solicitor for Mark Sykes and the other families seeking answers about the attack on the bookies on the Ormeau Road in 1992. He is a board member of campaigning group, Relatives for Justice, which has carried out detailed research into the Ormeau Road and other atrocities involving collusion between loyalist gangs and the security forces.
He is also the secretary of Ireland’s Future, a civic society group campaigning for a referendum and, in advance for an all-island Citizens Assembly to debate and discuss what a new Ireland might look like for those who will vote in both jurisdictions on unification.
Over the past three years, it has involved thousands of people in public meetings, in appeals to the Irish government and others for an open, resourced process of planning for a referendum, not least to avoid the mess created by the Brexit vote in the UK.
A gathering of 2000 people in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in January 2109, addressed by senior figures from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and the leaders of Sinn Féin and the SDLP displayed the strength of feeling among the broad Nationalist community in the North about Brexit and the support for the Ireland’s Future initiative.
Efforts by some, including recently by Unionist commentator Newton Emerson in The Irish Times to describe Ireland’s Future as an example of Sinn Féin outsourcing its campaign for unity, only served to strengthen the resolve of Murphy and the independent coalition of professionals, community activists, academics, journalists and human rights advocates that formed Ireland’s Future.
They include Independent senator, Frances Black, public relations and hospitality business owner, Gerry Carlile, the deputy director of Relatives for Justice, Andree Murphy, human rights advocate and journalist, Patricia MacBride and Irish News columnist, Brian Feeney.
Over recent months, due to Covid-19 restrictions, Ireland’s Future has campaigned online with a series of debates involving constitutional experts, economists and health professionals on the nature of, and prospects for a United Ireland.
In February, over 30,000 watched a fascinating discussion between a number of people from a Unionist background who advanced their views as to why a date for referendums, north and south, should be set and detailed plans prepared for new, reconfigured, political arrangement on the island put in place by the Irish government.
The former editor of Fermanagh weekly, the Impartial Reporter Denzil McDaniel, former British soldier Glenn Bradley, trade unionist Mark Langhammer and Baptist minister, Rev. Karen Sethuraman, called on the Irish government to make plans for constitutional change and a referendum. They are underwhelmed by the Shared Island initiative announced by Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, last year.
“The shared Island project which is laudable in its objective of fostering better relationships across the island is limited in its ambition if it is a political holding operation to keep the demands of an advancing Sinn Féin at bay”, McDaniel argued.
These concerns reflect a frustration with political Unionism, its disastrous Brexit strategy and its refusal to accept that it is no longer in the majority and that many of its former supporters can be persuaded to at least examine their prospects in a new Ireland.
“Unionism is turning too many Unionists into persuadables and turning too many persuadables into wanting constitutional change. This is not a minor cut but a haemorrhage”, one prominent loyalist said following the Ireland’s Future broadcast.
Already significant research on constitutional, economic and social issues pertaining to arrangements for a new Ireland are underway, including by the ESRI, the Arins project involving the Royal Irish Academy and universities in Ireland, the UK and the US, as well as by several academics and lawyers.
Former DUP leader, Peter Robinson and East Belfast MP, Gavin Robinson, have encouraged their party colleagues to get involved in the discussion or get left behind, as a referendum is inevitable within a decade
However, the political debate has largely centered on the timing of any referendum with Sinn Féin arguing for a poll within five years and the government parties as well as the SDLP supporting a more cautious and gradual approach.
In the North, the former DUP leader, Peter Robinson and East Belfast MP, Gavin Robinson (no relation), have encouraged their party colleagues to get involved in the discussion or get left behind, as a referendum is inevitable within the next decade.
Civic Unionism has also responded to the growing influence of Ireland’s Future and the support it is generating across Ireland and at senior levels in the Biden administration in the US with influential Congress democrat Richie Neal participating in a widely viewed online discussion with Ireland’s Future supporter and journalist, Martina Devlin, earlier this year.
The warning to Boris Johnson from the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Nancy Pelosi, during the final stages of the Brexit negotiations that the US would never agree a trade deal with Britain if there was a return to a hard border in Ireland did not go unnoticed or unheeded.
A new campaign to Make NI Work is an attempt to rally civic-minded Unionists around progressive social and economic policies that would maintain the Union while encouraging all-island economic co-operation.
Meanwhile the traditional unionist parties, and the DUP in particular, are focused on halting the tide of history in the post-Brexit era and are largely in denial of the political, demographic and economic trends that will continue to erode their support and potentially the existence of NI itself.
Having helped to create the monster of Brexit that threatens to further weaken the already dependent economy of the North, and as large swathes of its middle-class voters desert to Alliance, the Greens and other alternatives, the DUP is expected to lose its position as the largest party in the Assembly following elections in 2022.
It faces the prospect of a First Minister from Sinn Féin in the Executive, followed not far down the road by a government in Dublin led by Mary Lou McDonald. Is it any wonder that Peter RObinson is now suggesting that in order to defeat the Northern Ireland Protocol, and presumably the British-EU trade agreement, the DUP may have to collapse the already shaky institutions at Stormont, sooner rather than later.
“Is the scrapping of protocol more important than the continued operation of the Assembly?”, Robinson asked in mid-February. Be careful what you wish for.