Northern Ireland

Belfast pensioner's regret for saving IRA killer from rubble of Shankill bomb

Believing he was a victim, Jim Verner (66) pulled IRA man Sean Kelly from the rubble of the Shankill bombing in 1993
Believing he was a victim, Jim Verner (66) pulled IRA man Sean Kelly from the rubble of the Shankill bombing in 1993

A Belfast pensioner who pulled survivors and the dead from the rubble of the Shankill bombing has said he regrets saving the life of an IRA member behind the attack.

Ten people were killed including two young girls after two IRA men, Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly, entered Frizzel’s fish and chip shop with a bomb on October 23, 1993.

They had intended to assassinate the leadership of the UDA at a meeting upstairs, but the device exploded prematurely.

Kelly survived the blast, but Begley was killed along with the shop owner John Frizzell (63), his daughter Sharon McBride (29), Leanne Murray (13), Michael Morrison (27) and his partner Evelyn Baird (27) as well as their daughter Michelle (7), George Williamson (63) and his wife Gillian (49) as well as Wilma McKee (38).

Speaking to the Sunday World, Shankill pensioner Jim Verner (66) said he had used his bare hands to drag as many as he could from the rubble, including an injured Kelly.

“Instead of saving Sean Kelly’s life that day, I wish I had strung him up from the nearest lamppost. I have suffered every day since,” he said.

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Mr Verner said he was speaking out for the first time after his application for a Troubles pension was turned down.

Kelly had suffered facial injuries and damage to his leg, and was unconscious when Mr Verner and a friend dragged him to safety across the road.

Sean Kelly (centre),  pictured in 2018 at a controversial commemoration at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast for his fellow Shankill Road bomber Thomas Begley. Picture, PA
Sean Kelly (centre), pictured in 2018 at a controversial commemoration at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast for his fellow Shankill Road bomber Thomas Begley. Picture, PA

Believing he was a victim, they comforted him while they waited for the emergency services to arrive.

Encouraging ambulance workers to take him to the nearby Mater Hospital, Kelly received emergency surgery before being moved to a different hospital for his safety.

After helping Kelly, Mr Verner had returned to rubble to help out mother of two Wilma McKee (38), caring for her in the same way as an ambulance arrived, but she later died of her injuries.

That Saturday evening, Mr Verner said he learned that the 22-year-old man he had saved from the bomb site had been Kelly.

He told the Sunday World that if he had known his identity at the time, he would have “strung up Sean Kelly to the nearest lamp post.”

“Do you know I couldn’t even attend the funerals of those who died because I was so ashamed I had saved the life of the man who had killed them?

“It has been on my mind every day since.”

Mr Verner said it took him another 20 years before he felt he could attend the anniversary commemoration on the Shankill.

“I did what I could for him and when the first ambulance arrived, I urged the medical staff to take him to hospital.

"Later, when I discovered who I had saved, I felt sick.

“From doing my best for the dead and dying, I suddenly became the man who saved the IRA man who had killed nine people on the Shankill. It floored me.

“I still have great difficulty dealing with this and at one stage I was so depressed I even contemplated taking my own life. The feeling of depression never leaves me.”

Mr Verner, a father of three, said an application for a Troubles pension because post traumatic stress disorder was turned down.

Although recognising the “heroic” role he had played that day, a letter from the  Victims’ Payment Board, said: “The panel regrets you are not entitled to Victims’ Payment in respect of injury caused by a Troubles-related incident.”

On the day of the bombing, he had been with his wife visiting her mother on Berlin Street, an area of the Shankill he was born and raised on.

“I was nearly 36 at the time and I was standing at the sink washing a cup and looking out the window when I heard the blast and saw the smoke.

“I knew instantly what it was and where it was and I raced to the scene. I was 120 yards away from Frizzell’s and I was there in less than 30 seconds.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I later discovered that I ran past an IRA man who was acting as the getaway driver.

“The front of the shop had been demolished and I ran right up onto the rubble and then I saw a man on the ground.

“I later learned it was Sean Kelly. He was one of the IRA men who delivered the bomb to Frizzell’s fish shop.

“Sammy Spence and I lifted him up and carried him across the road.”

Mr Verner said it angered him that 30 years later, Kelly appeared to be treated like "a republican celebrity" and questioned if he had qualifed for  compensation for his injuries.

Kelly was later convicted of nine counts of murder and received a life sentence on each count, but was released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Now aged 51, he is currently a Sinn Féin activist and election worker.

In 2018, he apologised for his actions while attending a controversial public memorial in Belfast for fellow Shankill bomber Thomas Begley.

"The motives for our actions have been misrepresented, but I know that is of little consequence for the families of those civilians who lost their lives on the Shankill that day,” he said at the time.

"I am truly sorry for the loss of life and injuries suffered on that day, but there is nothing I can say that can bring any comfort to the families of the victims."