The Shankill Butchers, a gang of eleven Ulster loyalists, are sentenced to life imprisonment on February 20, 1979, for 112 offences including nineteen murders. Many of the gang are members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that is active between 1975 and 1982 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The gang is based in the Shankill area and is responsible for the deaths of at least 23 people, most of whom are killed in sectarian attacks. The gang is notorious for kidnapping, torturing and murdering random or suspected Catholic civilians. Each is beaten ferociously and has their throat hacked with a butcher’s knife. Some are also tortured and attacked with a hatchet. The gang also kills six Ulster Protestants over personal disputes, and two other Protestants mistaken for Catholics.
Most of the Butchers are eventually captured and eleven of them come to trial during 1978 and early 1979. On February 20, 1979, the eleven men are convicted of a total of nineteen murders, and the 42 life sentences handed out are the longest combined prison sentences in United Kingdom legal history.
William Moore pleads guilty to eleven counts of murder and Bobby “Basher” Bates pleads guilty to ten counts. The trial judge, Lord Justice Turlough O’Donnell, says that he does not wish to be cast as “public avenger” but feels obliged to sentence the two to life imprisonment with no chance of release. Gang leader Lenny Murphy and his two chief “lieutenants,” however, escape prosecution.
In summing-up, Lord Justice O’Donnell states that their crimes, “a catalogue of horror”, are “a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry.” After the trial, Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Murder Squad in Tennent Street Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base and the man charged with tracking down the Butchers, comments, “The big fish got away,” a reference to Murphy (referred to in court as “Mr. X” or the “Master Butcher”) and to Messrs “A” and “B.”
Lenny Murphy is assassinated by a Provisional Irish Republican Army hit squad early in the evening of November 16, 1982, outside the back of his girlfriend’s house in the Glencairn estate. The IRA is likely acting with loyalist paramilitaries who perceive him as a threat.
The first of the Butchers to be released from prison is John Townsley, who had been only fourteen when he became involved with the gang and sixteen when arrested. Bobby Bates is released in October 1996, two years after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994. He reportedly “found religion” behind bars. He is shot and killed in the upper Shankill area on June 11, 1997, by the son of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) man he had killed in the Windsor Bar. “Mr. B”, John Murphy, dies in a car accident in Belfast in August 1998. William Moore is the final member of the gang to be released from prison in August 1998, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, after over twenty-one years behind bars. He dies on May 17, 2009, from a suspected heart attack at his home.
The investigations by Martin Dillon, author of The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder (1989 and 1998), suggests that a number of other individuals (whom he is unable to name for legal reasons) escape prosecution for participation in the crimes of the Butchers and that the gang are responsible for a total of at least thirty murders.
The Butchers brought a new level of paramilitary violence to a country already hardened by death and destruction.