Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has said a 1993 IRA attack on the leadership of the UDA death squads in west Belfast in which nine civilians died “cannot be defended”.
Mr McGuinness issued a strongly critical statement this week on the 20th anniversary of the attack. It followed a commemoration on Sunday to remember IRA Volunteer Thomas Begley, who died in the premature explosion on the Shankill Road on October 23rd, 1993.
A UDA meeeting in an upstairs room was the IRA’s intended target, but for reasons unknown, the bomb exploded suddenly and without warning.
Begley died instantly and another IRA Volunteer, Sean Kelly, was badly injured in the attack. Kelly attended the unveiling of a memorial to his dead comrade and his “closest and dearest friend” at the weekend.
The commemoration was attended by a number of senior republicans including north Belfast Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly.
Representatives of the Republican Network for Unity and the 1916 Societies were also present at the event. Former republican prisoners formed a guard of honour while a colour party paraded along Ardoyne Avenue.
A PSNI helicopter buzzed overhead as Ardoyne republican Eddie Copeland introduced Sean Kelly to a specially erected platform.
A plaque dedicated to the dead IRA man was unveiled by his father Billy.
Speaking at the unveiling, Sean Kelly issued a brave apology for an IRA operation that went disastrously wrong. He said the IRA had no intention to target civilians during the attack.
“It was an IRA operation that went tragically wrong - gone wrong in the sense that civilians that were not the target tragically lost their lives and many were injured,” he said.
“That was not our intention. That was not the intention of the IRA.”
He added: “I offer no excuse that will change how any of these innocent people and families will think about myself or thomas or the IRA as a result of this operation.
“I am truly sorry for the loss of life and the injuries that were suffered that day and for the suffering the families have endured.”
But relatives of those who died rejected his apology. Alan McBride said he accepted that a UDA meeeting in a room above Frizzell’s fish shop was the intended target “so I’m not suggesting for a minute my wife was the intended target” - but he said his wife “wasn’t even considered” and that the potential for innocent civilians to get caught in the explosion was “huge”.
“I don’t really believe [Kelly],” he said.
Meanwhile, in a party magazine, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness condemned the attack. He said: “The fact is this tragedy was caused by republicans. The reality of republicans’ responsibility for it; the grief and heartache created for the bereaved; and, their understandable feelings about what happened must be acknowledged.”
The Deputy First Minister said he had dedicated himself to peace to ensure the likes of the Shankill bomb would never happen again.
“The result of that IRA action 20 years ago cannot be defended. However, I do not, as a republican leader, seek to hypocritically distance myself from the loss of so many innocent lives on the Shankill and the scores of people injured.
“At the weekend, Sean Kelly made what I believe was a genuine attempt to apologise for the terrible human loss created on that day.
“I endorse that apology and the apology made to all innocent victims by the IRA many years ago.”