During the early 1990s, loyalist paramilitaries drastically increase their attacks on the Irish Catholic and Irish nationalist community and, for the first time since the beginning of the Troubles, are responsible for more deaths than the republicans. The Ulster Defence Association‘s (UDA) West Belfast brigade, and its commander, Johnny Adair, play a key role in this. Adair had become the group’s commander in 1990.
The UDA’s Shankill headquarters is above Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road. The UDA’s Inner Council and West Belfast brigade regularly meets there on Saturdays. Peter Taylor says it is also the office of the Loyalist Prisoners’ Association (LPA), and on Saturday mornings is normally crowded, as that is when money is given to prisoners’ families. According to Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack, the IRA have had the building under surveillance for some time. They say that the IRA decides to strike when one of their scouts spots Adair entering the building on the morning of Saturday, October 23, 1993. Later, in a secretly-recorded conversation with police, Adair confirms that he had been in the building that morning.
The IRA’s Belfast Brigade launches an operation to assassinate the UDA’s top commanders, whom it believes are at the meeting. The plan allegedly is for two IRA members to enter the shop with a time bomb, force out the customers at gunpoint and flee before it explodes, killing those at the meeting. As they believe the meeting is being held in the room above the shop, the bomb is designed to send the blast upwards. IRA members maintain that they would have warned the customers as the bomb was primed. It has an eleven-second fuse, and the IRA state that this would allowed just enough time to clear the downstairs shop but not enough for those upstairs to escape.
The operation is carried out by Thomas Begley and Seán Kelly, two IRA members in their early twenties from Ardoyne. They drive from Ardoyne to the Shankill in a hijacked blue Ford Escort, which they park on Berlin Street, around the corner from Frizzell’s. Dressed as deliverymen, they enter the shop with the five-pound bomb in a holdall. It is shortly after 1:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon and the area is crowded with mostly women and children. While Kelly waits at the door, Begley makes his way through the customers towards the counter, where the bomb detonates prematurely. Forensic evidence shows that Begley had been holding the bomb over the refrigerated serving counter when it exploded. Begley is killed along with nine other people, two of them children. They are the owner John Frizzell (63), his daughter Sharon McBride (29), Leanne Murray (13), UDA member Michael Morrison (27), his partner Evelyn Baird (27) and their daughter Michelle (7), George Williamson (63) and his wife Gillian (49), and Wilma McKee (38). The force of the blast causes the old building to collapse into a pile of rubble. The upper floor comes down upon those inside the shop, crushing many of the survivors under the rubble, where they remain until rescued some hours later by volunteers and emergency services. About 57 people are injured. At the scene during the rescue operation are several senior loyalists, including Adair and Billy McQuiston. The latter had been in a pub on the nearest corner when the bomb went off. Among those rescued from the rubble is the badly-wounded Seán Kelly.
Unknown to the IRA, if a UDA meeting had taken place, it had ended early and those attending it had left the building before the bomb exploded. McDonald and Cusack state that Adair and his men had stopped using the room for important meetings, allegedly because a sympathiser within the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) told Adair that the police had it bugged.
There was great anger and outrage in the Shankill in the wake of the bombing. Billy McQuiston tells journalist Peter Taylor that “anybody on the Shankill Road that day, from a Boy Scout to a granny, if you’d given them a gun they would have gone out and retaliated.” Many Protestants see the bombing as an indiscriminate attack on them. Adair believes that the bomb was meant for him. Two days after the bombing, as Adair is driving away from his house, he stops and tells a police officer, “I’m away to plan a mass murder.”
In the week following the bombing, the UDA and UVF launch a wave of “revenge attacks,” killing 14 civilians. The UDA shoots a Catholic delivery driver in Belfast after luring him to a bogus call just a few hours after the bombing. He dies on October 25. On 26 October, the UDA shoots dead another two Catholic civilians and wounds five in an indiscriminate attack at a Council Depot on Kennedy Way, Belfast. On October 30, UDA members enter a pub in Greysteel frequented by Catholics and again open fire indiscriminately. Eight civilians, six Catholics and two Protestants, are killed and 13 are wounded. This becomes known as the Greysteel massacre. The UDA states it is a direct retaliation for the Shankill Road bombing.
Seán Kelly, the surviving IRA member, is badly wounded in the blast, having lost his left eye and is unable to move his left arm. Upon his release from hospital, however, he is arrested and convicted of nine counts of murder, each with a corresponding life sentence. In July 2000, he is released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. In an interview shortly after his release, he says he had never intended to kill innocent people and regrets what happened.