Northern Ireland news

Forty years ago the notorious Shankill Butchers gang were jailed for their `catalogue of horror' bringing their reign of terror to an end

FORTY years ago today, 11 members of the notorious Shankill Butchers were sentenced to more than 40 life sentences for the murders of at least 19 people. Marie Louise McConville looks back on the history of the grizzly gang, who carried out one of the most terrifying killing sprees in the history of the Troubles.

Some of the knives used by the Shankill Butchers in their attacks. Picture by Pacemaker
Marie Louise McConville

ARMED with cleavers and axes the Shankill Butchers roamed the streets of Belfast looking for random Catholic victims to torture and kill.

In the mid-seventies, security forces were stretched to breaking point by the high profile actions of republican and loyalist paramilitary gangs, and so were perceived to have turned a blind eye.

Though many members of the gang were said to be members of the UVF, targeting innocent Catholics, the group also turned on their own at times, killing Protestants they had mistaken for Catholics.

The gang became known for kidnapping and brutally murdering the Catholics they picked up.

Lenny Murphy who was leader of the Shankill Butchers gang. Picture by Pacemaker

Each would be viciously beaten and tortured with weapons including hatchets, and each would have their throat hacked.

The commander of the Shankill Butchers gang was Lenny Murphy who joined the UVF after leaving school.

In May 1975, following his release from prison, Murphy formed his own paramilitary gang, one of which was a former worker in a meat-processing factory from where he had stolen a number of large knives and meat cleavers.

Other members of the gang were Lenny Murphy's so-called sergeants William Moore and Bobby `Basher' Bates.

In November that year, Murphy and his gang began roaming Catholic areas to find a target to abduct.

Francis Crossen (34), a Catholic father-of-two, was walking towards the city centre when he was hit over the head with a wheel brace, dragged into a car and driven to the Shankill area where he was brutally beaten. During the attack, a glass bottle was shoved into his head.

Shankill Butcher Robert 'Basher' Bates pleaded guilty to 10 counts of murder. Picture by Pacemaker

The victim was dragged into an alley off Wimbledon Street where Murphy used a butcher's knife to cut his throat almost through to the spine.

Thomas Quinn (55) and Francis Rice (24) also met their deaths in a similar way.

Both abducted and killed, their bodies were separately found in February 1976.

In March 1979 Murphy was arrested and held on remand on an attempted murder charge after he tried to kill a Catholic woman in a drive-by shooting.

In his absence, he told his accomplices that the `cut-throat' murders should continue.

Shankill Butcher William Moore pleaded guilty to 11 counts of murder.

Cornelius `Con' Neeson (49) was attacked by Moore and Bates, who were armed with a hatchet, on Cliftonville Road on August 1, 1976 and died a few hours later.

In October 1977, Murphy was jailed for 12 years after pleading guilty to a firearms charges.

Murphy's accomplices were also ordered to resume the killings.

Three more Catholic men from north Belfast were subsequently kidnapped, tortured and hacked to death.

They included Stephen McCann (21), a Queen's University student, who was murdered in October 1976, Joseph Morrissey (52), who was killed in February 1977, and Francis Cassidy (43), a dock-worker who was killed on March 30, 1977.

The three victims were dumped in various parts of the greater Shankill area.

In May 1977, Gerard McLaverty (24) was forced into a car while walking down Cliftonville Road.

 The slashed wrists of Gerard McLaverty who survived an attack. Picture by Pacemaker

He was driven to a disused doctor's surgery on the corner of Emerson Street and the Shankill Road where he was beaten with sticks, stabbed and had his wrists slashed.

He was dumped in a back alley however survived and was later able to identify members of the gang who were arrested and charged.

On February 1979, 11 members of the Shankill Butchers were convicted of a total of 19 murders and handed 42 life sentences.

Moore pleaded guilty to 11 counts of murder and Bates to 10.

The disused doctor's surgery at the corner of Emerson Street and the Shankill Road where Gerard Laverty was attacked by the Shankill Butchers

Trial judge, Lord Justice O'Donnell said the gang's crimes were "a catalogue of horror" and "a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry".

He had sentenced both Moore and Bates to life imprisonment with no chance of release.

However, Bates was freed two years after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, and Moore released under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

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