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A View North: Son of a gun! Belfast a place like no other

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

I know that Belfast’s name is in the ring for the European Capital of Culture designation for 2008, and I know too that it is leaving the bad old days of murder and mayhem behind it, being determined to produce culture at a great rate. So it is with a twinge of guilt that I sit down to pen this column concerning Belfast’s other great product: gunmen.

I know that we shouldn’t keep harping on the past. We should listen to Gerry Adams’s advice to always be moving the situation forward. But the problem is my native city’s past is so peculiar, so bizarre in many ways, that it just keeps thrusting itself in front of your nose.

During an idle moment with a Belfast visitor recently, we were talking about our city’s famous sons. We soon realized that we could come up with far more sons of the gun than sons of the cloth, or any of other profession for that matter. Off the top of my head I drew up a list of over 20 names, from the early 1970s onward. That was just for starters. There were doubtless many more than I had never heard of, whose identities remain unknown to the public, and perhaps even to the police.

They were gunmen, but some also made their names as all-round killers, sometimes employing the knife, and the odd bomb if they had to.

Those who appear on my list, and are dead, thus safe to name, are: Joe McCann (Official IRA, active 1970-72), James Bryson (Provisional IRA, active 1970-73), Lennie Murphy (UVF, active 1972-82), Patrick McAdorey (Provisional IRA, 1970-71), Gerard Steenson (INLA, 1975-87), Paul Marlowe (Provisional IRA, active 1971-76), Ned McCreery (UDA, active 1971-77), Sean Savage (Provisional IRA, active late 1970s-88), Danny McCann (Provisional IRA, late 1970s-88), Gino Gallagher (INLA, active 1983-1996), Glen Greer (UDA, active 1988-97), Frank Curry (various loyalist groups, active 1972-99), and Stephen McKeag (UDA, active 1988-2000).

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Some might think it unfair to associate someone like Joe McCann with Lennie Murphy; McCann took on soldiers (though he did take part in the attempted assassination of a government minister, John Taylor), and Murphy targeted civilians. However, this is not to explore moral distinctions between some killings and others, or to rank the individuals in terms of bravery or depravity. It is merely to draw attention to the fact that, unusually for such a small place, Belfast was able to produce so many men willing to kill.

The live list is also incomplete in that there are probably as many again that I don’t know about as there are on it. I will not name them, of course, except where they have been convicted. Among the most prominent are Davy Payne (UDA, active 1972-77), and John White (UDA, active 1972-77). They are interesting because they were among the first of the present Trouble’s generation of hit men to come from the Shankill Road. This area stands out as among the most prolific in Belfast in the numbers of killers it had sent forth into the streets and one of its most prolific periods was 1973, when White was in charge of the UDA there. The home of the UDA’s “C” company, the Shankill continues to act as a kind of nursery for gunmen.

The same is true of the Falls Road area, including the old district around Leeson Street, and the newer housing estates up the road, such as Ballymurphy. It was from the latter that James Bryson sprang, one of the first of the new generation, of post-1969, IRA gunmen. He was quite flamboyant, and seemingly indifferent to personal security. One volunteer I knew told me how he once saw Bryson in broad daylight lug a heavy machine gun on one shoulder and climb a wall to open fire on a heavily defended army base a few hundred yards away. He was shot and fatally wounded, along with Gerry Adams’s brother-in-law Paddy Mulvenna, who died on the spot, as he drove around Ballymurphy with rifles protruding from the open windows of their car. Bryson was described by Adams as a “dear friend.”

North Belfast rivaled the Falls and Shankill areas in the numbers of gunmen it has produced. Patrick McAdorey, shot dead during an internment operation gun battle, was one, thought to have been involved in a triple murder that shocked Northern Ireland — the shooting of three teenage, off-duty Scottish soldiers, two of them brothers, in March 1971. His two accomplices, still alive, were among the early Provisional IRA’s most renowned — or infamous — killers. One of them has since become a Sinn Fein councilor.

Some gunmen are more associated with organizations than with areas. Gerard Steenson is an example. A former member of the Officials, he joined the fledgling INLA, claiming his first victim (the Officials’ Belfast O/C, Liam McMillan) when he was still a teenager. Steenson went on to take part in or organize a dozen other killings. The fact that he came from the Falls was secondary to his links to INLA. Somehow he seemed to embody this new, unpredictable and dangerous splinter group which over its history was so fertile when it came to hit men with catchy nicknames. (Steenson’s was Dr. Death. Then there was Mad Dog, Cueball, Harry O, the Ghost, Sparky, etc.) The question as to why Belfast is so “creative” when it comes to gunmen is a complex one. It is not a recent phenomenon. Gunmen stalked the city’s streets in the early 1920s, and again in the ’30s and early ’40s. The scale is striking too. Consider that for most of the last 30 years the city’s population hovered near 300,000 — no more than a large Midwestern town or a neighborhood in New York — and the per capita ratio of gunmen becomes quite staggering, especially in view of the fact that they generally come from a few small, confined districts. What makes the question even more interesting is that between one outbreak of violence and the next, Belfast remained a law-abiding, crime-free city. Clearly, the explanation for their proliferation is not primarily psychological, for if there was a built-in tendency to kill, it would not suddenly go away. The answer definitely lies in the history of the city, and the sanction that it confers on those who are willing to kill in the name of their community.

For more about Jack Holland click on to www.jackholland.com

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