The gang was named for its late-night kidnapping, torture and murder (by throat slashing) of random Catholic civilians in Belfast.
The Shankill Butchers is the name given to an Ulster loyalist gang—many of whom were members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)—that was active between 1975 and 1982 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was based in the Shankill area and was responsible for the deaths of at least 23 people, most of whom were killed in sectarian attacks. The gang was notorious for kidnapping and murdering random civilians from the Catholic community; each was beaten ferociously and had their throat hacked with a butcher’s knife. Some were also tortured and attacked with a hatchet. The gang also killed six Protestants over personal disputes, and two other Protestants whom it mistook for Catholics.
Most of the gang were eventually caught and, in February 1979, received the longest combined prison sentences in United Kingdom legal history. However, gang leader Lenny Murphy and his two chief “lieutenants” escaped prosecution. Murphy was killed in November 1982 by the Provisional IRA, likely acting with loyalist paramilitaries who perceived him as a threat.
According to Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Butchers brought a new, frightening level of paramilitary violence to a country already hardened by death and destruction. The judge who oversaw the 1979 trial described their crimes as “a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry”.
Much of what is known about the Butchers came first from Martin Dillon’s The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder (1989 and 1998). In compiling this detailed work, Dillon was given unlimited access to the case files of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland), which eventually caught the gang. Eventually Dillon had to leave Northern Ireland for his safety, an indication that his writing and the people he referred to but couldn’t name, accurately represented at least some of the gang’s activities.
The commander of the Shankill Butchers gang was Lenny Murphy. At school he was known as a bully and would threaten other boys with a knife or with retribution from his two older brothers. Soon after leaving school at 16, he joined the UVF. Murphy often attended the trials of people accused of paramilitary crimes, to become well acquainted with the laws of evidence and police procedure.
On 28 September 1972 Murphy (aged 20) shot and killed William Edward “Ted” Pavis (32) at the latter’s home in East Belfast. Pavis was a Protestant whom the UVF believed was selling weapons to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Murphy and an accomplice, Mervyn Connor, were arrested shortly afterwards and held on remand in Belfast’s Crumlin Road prison. After a visit by police to Connor, fellow inmates suspected that he might cut a deal with the authorities with regard to the Pavis killing. On 22 April 1973, Connor died by ingesting a large dose of cyanide. Before he died he wrote a confession to the Pavis murder under Murphy’s duress. However, Murphy was brought to trial for the Pavis murder in June 1973. The court heard evidence from two witnesses who had seen Murphy pull the trigger and had later picked him out of an identification parade. The jury, however, acquitted him due in part to Murphy’s disruption of the line-up. Murphy’s freedom was short-lived: he was re-arrested immediately for a number of escape attempts and imprisoned, then interned, for three years.
In May 1975, Murphy was released from prison, where he had been married to Margaret Gillespie and during which period a daughter had been born to the couple. He spent much of his time frequenting pubs on the Shankill Road and assembling a paramilitary team that would enable him to act with some freedom at a remove from the UVF leadership (Brigade Staff). Murphy’s inner circle consisted of two people whom Dillon was unable to name for legal reasons but whom he called Murphy’s “personal friends”. These were a “Mr A” and John Murphy, one of Lenny’s brothers (referred to as “Mr B”). Further down the chain of command were Lenny Murphy’s “sergeants” William Moore and Bobby “Basher” Bates, a UVF man and former prisoner. Moore, formerly a worker in a meat-processing factory, had stolen several large knives and meat-cleavers from his old workplace, tools that would later be used in more murders. Another prominent figure was Sam McAllister, who used his physical presence to intimidate others.
On 2 October 1975, the gang raided a drinks premises in nearby Millfield. On finding that its four employees (two females and two males) were Catholics, Murphy shot three of them dead and ordered an accomplice to kill the fourth. By now Murphy was using the upper floor of the Brown Bear pub, at the corner of Mountjoy Street and the Shankill Road near his home, as an occasional meeting-place for his unit.
On 24–25 November 1975, Murphy adopted the method that gained the Butchers infamy far beyond Belfast. Using the city’s sectarian geography (which remains to this day) to identify likely targets, Murphy roamed the areas nearest the Catholic New Lodge in the hope of finding someone (likely to be Catholic) to abduct. Francis Crossen (34), a Catholic man and father of two, was walking towards the city centre at approximately 12.40 a.m. when four of the Butchers, in Moore’s taxi, spotted him. As the taxi pulled alongside Crossen, Murphy jumped out and hit the man with a wheel brace to disorientate him. He was then dragged into the taxi by Benjamin Edwards and Archie Waller, two of Murphy’s gang. As the taxi returned to the safety of the nearby Shankill area, Crossen suffered a ferocious beating. It is clear that he was subjected to a high level of violence, including a beer glass being shoved into his head. Murphy repeatedly told Crossen: “I’m going to kill you, you bastard”, before the taxi stopped at an entry off Wimbledon Street. Crossen was then dragged into an alleyway and Murphy, brandishing a butcher’s knife, cut his throat almost through to the spine. The gang then dispersed. Crossen, whose body was found the next morning (Tuesday) by an elderly woman, had become the first of three Catholics to be killed by Murphy in this “horrific and brutal manner”. “Slaughter in back alley” was the headline in the city’s major afternoon newspaper that day. A relative of Crossen said that his family was unable to open his coffin at his wake because the body was so badly mutilated.
A few days later, on 30 November 1975, an internal feud led to the deaths of two members of a rival UVF company on the Shankill and that of Archibald Waller, who had been involved in the Crossen murder. On 14 October of that year, Waller had killed a Stewart Robinson in a punishment shooting that went wrong. With the sanction of the UVF Brigade Staff, he in turn was gunned down by one of Robinson’s comrades in the UVF team based in the “Windsor Bar”, a quarter of a mile from the Brown Bear pub. Enraged, Murphy had the gunman, former loyalist prisoner Noel “Nogi” Shaw, brought before a kangaroo court in the Lawnbrook Club, one of his Shankill drinking-dens. After a pistol whipping, Murphy shot him in front of his whole unit of about twenty men and then returned to finish his drink at the bar. John Murphy and William Moore put Shaw’s body in a laundry basket and Moore dumped it half a mile away from the murder scene.
Murphy’s other cut-throat victims were Joseph Quinn (55) and Francis Rice (24). Both were abducted late at night, at the weekend, in the same area as Crossen. Quinn was murdered in the Glencairn district of the Upper Shankill in the early hours of 7 February 1976 and Rice a few streets from Murphy’s home at about 1.30 a.m. on 22 February 1976, after a butcher’s knife had been collected from a loyalist club. Quinn’s body was not found until mid-evening, after a phone call to a Belfast newspaper, while Rice’s was found about six hours after his death. Murphy’s main accomplices on both occasions were Moore and Bates, while Edwards was party to the killing of Quinn and another man and two women, whom Dillon did not name, were accessories to the murder of Rice.
By this time the expression “the Butchers” had appeared in media coverage of these killings and many Catholics lived in fear of the gang. Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, head of the CID Murder Squad in Tennent Street RUC base and the man charged with tracking down the Butchers, was in no doubt that the murders of Crossen, Quinn and Rice were the work of the same people. Other than that he had little information, although a lead was provided by the woman who found Rice’s body. The previous night she had heard voices in the entry where the body was later found and what she thought might have been a local taxi (those in Belfast being ex-London type black cabs). This had led to William Moore’s taxi being examined for evidence, as were all other Shankill taxis, however the Butchers had cleaned the vehicle thoroughly and nothing incriminating was found.
Under Murphy’s orders, Moore destroyed the taxi and bought a yellow Ford Cortina, which was to be used in subsequent murders.
Early on 11 March 1976, Murphy attempted to kill a Catholic woman in a drive-by shooting; arrested later that day, he was put on remand on an attempted murder charge. In a subsequent plea-bargain, Murphy pleaded guilty to a firearms charge and was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment on 11 October 1977. Shortly after Murphy’s arrest, he began to receive visits from “Mr A” and “Mr B”. He told “Mr A” that the cut-throat murders should continue in due course, partly to divert suspicion from himself.
Another Catholic man who fell victim to the gang was Cornelius Neeson (49), attacked with a hatchet by Moore and McAllister on the Cliftonville Road late on 1 August 1976. He died a few hours later. A brother of Mr Neeson’s, speaking in 1994, declared: “I saw the state of my brother’s body after he was butchered on the street. I said, ‘That is not my brother’. Even our mother would not have recognised him”.
Later that year “Mr A” informed Moore, now the Butchers’ de facto commander, of Murphy’s orders to resume the throat-slashings. Three more Catholic men from North Belfast were subsequently kidnapped, tortured and hacked to death in the same way as before. The victims were: Stephen McCann (21), a Queen’s University student murdered on 30 October 1976; Joseph Morrissey (52), killed on 3 February 1977; and Francis Cassidy (43), a dock-worker who died on 30 March 1977. Moore proved himself an able deputy to Murphy, committing the throat-cuttings himself and encouraging the gang to use extreme violence on the victims beforehand. In particular, Morrissey was attacked with a hatchet wielded by Arthur McClay, whom Moore had brought to prominence after Murphy had been jailed. The three victims were dumped in various parts of the greater Shankill area. The other gang members involved in one or more of these cut-throat murders were Sam McAllister, John Townsley, David Bell and Norman Waugh. “Mr A” played a prominent part in the planning of Moore’s activities.
Capture and imprisonment:
Late on Tuesday, 10 May 1977, Gerard McLaverty, a young Belfast man whose family had recently left the city, was walking down the Cliftonville Road. Two members of the Butchers approached him and, posing as policemen, forced him into a car where two of their comrades were seated. The gang, who had spent the day drinking, drove McLaverty to a disused doctor’s surgery on the corner of Emerson Street and the Shankill Road where he was beaten with sticks. He was then stabbed, had his wrists slashed a number of times by Moore and McAllister, using a smallish knife, then dumped in a back entry. Uncharacteristically, he had been left for dead by the gang but survived until early morning when a woman heard his cries for help and called the police. In compliance with previous orders, news of the assault was given to Inspector Nesbitt. At first he did not attribute particular significance to this message, as the Butchers had left no one alive before; but on discovering the nature of the assault and the use of a knife, he came up with an idea that was to permanently change the course of his inquiries. Taking advantage of the aftermath of a loyalist paramilitary strike and local elections, Nesbitt had a sufficiently well recovered McLaverty disguised and driven by police around the Shankill area on Wednesday 18 May to see if he could spot the men who had abducted or attacked him. Within a short time McAllister and Edwards were identified, and Nesbitt had a breakthrough that enabled him to widen his net. The next morning a large arrest operation swept into action and many of McAllister’s associates, including Moore, were taken into custody. At first under intense interrogation, the suspects admitted only to their involvement in the McLaverty abduction but Nesbitt, seizing on McAllister’s references to the size of a knife used on McLaverty, had his team of detectives press the case and eventually most of the gang admitted their part in the activities of the Butchers. Further arrests followed and the overall picture became clearer.
The salient point emerging was that Lenny Murphy, the commander of the unit, was the driving force behind the cut-throat murders and other criminal activities. A number of the Butchers implicated him and his close associates “Mr A” and “Mr B” (John Murphy) in numerous paramilitary activities but later retracted these claims for fear of retribution from the UVF Brigade Staff. Lenny Murphy, in prison, and Messrs “A” and “B” were interviewed several times in connection with the Butchers’ inquiry but revealed nothing during interviews. Without corroborative or forensic evidence, the state prosecution service decided that they would not face charges.
The rest of the Butchers came to trial during 1978 and early 1979. On 20 February 1979, eleven men were convicted of a total of 19 murders, and the 42 life sentences handed out were the most ever in a single trial in British criminal history. Moore pleaded guilty to 11 counts of murder and Bates to 10. The trial judge, Lord Justice O’Donnell, said that he did not wish to be cast as “public avenger” but felt obliged to sentence the pair of them to life imprisonment with no chance of release. However, Bates was freed two years after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 and Moore released under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Martin Dillon’s own investigations suggest that a number of other individuals (whom he was unable to name for legal reasons) escaped prosecution for participation in the crimes of the Butchers and that the gang were responsible for a total of at least 30 murders. In summing-up, Lord O’Donnell stated that their crimes, “a catalogue of horror”, were “a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry”. After the trial, Jimmy Nesbitt’s comment was: “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”. At this time Gerry Mac Laverty lived under Northern and Republican police protection in Dublin, where he had been given a cover name.
Murphy’s release and death:
His sentence for the firearms conviction complete, Lenny Murphy was released from prison on 16 July 1982. One day later, his killing spree resumed when he beat to death a local Protestant man with a learning disability in the Loyalist Club in Rumford Street. His body was dumped in a back alley over a mile away. Murphy then began to assemble a new gang.
On 29 August 1982, Murphy killed Jim Galway (33), a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier from the Lower Shankill area who had been passing information to the UVF and was involved with its Ballymena units. When suspicions of being an informer fell upon Galway, Murphy decided to kill him. Galway was shot in the head at a building site in the village of Broughshane near Ballymena and buried on the spot. His decayed body was not found until November 1983; he had not been seen since leaving for a short holiday at the end of August 1982. The location of the body was pointed-out in 1983 by someone in custody for other charges.
On 5 September, Murphy killed a former UVF prisoner, Brian Smyth (30), in a dispute over money owed for a car. Murphy poisoned the man in a Shankill club before shooting him from the rear of a passing motorcycle as he sat in a car driven by Murphy’s friend and leading Red Hand Commando member Sam “Mambo” Carroll.
Early on Friday 22 October, UDR soldier Thomas Cochrane was kidnapped by the IRA. The next evening, although he had been warned by the UVF Brigade Staff against abducting anyone, Murphy kidnapped a Catholic, ostensibly to demand Cochrane’s release in exchange for the Catholic hostage. He hijacked a black taxi, which one of his men drove to the Falls Road. Joseph Donegan, a middle-aged Catholic man on his way home, hailed the vehicle and got in. Murphy immediately attacked the man as the taxi was driven back to the safety of the Shankill. At a house owned by Murphy in Brookmount Street, Donegan was tortured sadistically by Murphy, who according to Dillon, pulled out all but three of his teeth with pliers. Murphy’s associate, Tommy Stewart, then battered Donegan to death with a shovel. “Mr A” was party to these events. Murphy then telephoned a prominent Catholic politician, Cormac Boomer, to demand that Cochrane be set free. Murphy ordered that Donegan’s body be removed from his house but the plan was disturbed by passers-by and the victim had to be dumped in an entry behind the house. After its discovery on the morning of Monday 25 October, Murphy and two others were arrested; but without evidence that Murphy had been party to this crime it was not possible to charge him. Cochrane’s body was found a week later.
Murphy was assassinated by a Provisional IRA hit squad early in the evening of Tuesday 16 November 1982 outside the back of his girlfriend’s house in the Glencairn estate (where four of the Butchers’ cut-throat victims had been dumped). No sooner had he parked his car than two gunmen emerged from a van that had been following him and fired a hail of more than twenty bullets into Murphy, killing him instantly. After several days’ speculation as to those responsible for the shooting, the IRA issued a statement claiming responsibility for what it termed Murphy’s “execution”:
“Lenny Murphy (master butcher) has been responsible for the horrific murders of over 20 innocent Nationalists in the Belfast area and a number of Protestants. The IRA has been aware for some time that since his release recently from prison, Murphy was attempting to re-establish a similar murder gang to that which he led in the mid-1970s and, in fact, he was responsible for a number of the recent sectarian murders in the Belfast area. The IRA takes this opportunity to restate its policy of non sectarian attacks, while retaining its right to take unequivocal action against those who direct or motivate sectarian slaughter against the Nationalist population”.
The location of the murder, in a loyalist stronghold, and the timing of the shooting to coincide with Murphy’s movements suggest that the IRA received help from UVF members who deemed Murphy “out of control” or, equally plausibly, that information had been given by an enemy of Murphy’s. Dillon suggests that Jim Craig, a leading Ulster Defence Association (UDA) godfather whose protection rackets had made him rich and feared in equal measure, fitted the bill. He was known to have clashed with Murphy on the latter’s release from prison earlier that year and may have wanted him out of the picture. In support of this theory, Craig was later executed by his UDA colleagues for “treason”, an inquiry having found some evidence of his part in the murder of other top loyalists by the IRA.
Murphy’s family denied that he had a violent nature or was involved with the Butchers: “My Lenny could not have killed a fly”, said his mother Joyce. She also accused the police of continual harassment of her son since his recent release from prison and said that he was planning to leave the country as soon as his divorce came through. The UVF gave Murphy a paramilitary funeral attended by thousands of loyalists and several unionist politicians, at which Mr A and John Murphy played prominent roles. On his gravestone in Carnmoney cemetery were inscribed the words: “Here lies a soldier”. Murphy’s headstone was smashed in 1989 and had to be replaced.
Moore, Bates and McAllister shot and wounded a member of the Windsor Bar UVF unit a few hours after the murder of Noel Shaw in November 1975. Murphy and Moore shot dead Edward McQuaid, a Catholic man, on the Cliftonville Road on 10 January 1976. On 9 February 1976, Murphy and three of his gang shot and killed two Protestant men, Archibald Hanna and Raymond Carlisle, wrongly believing that they were Catholics on their way to work across the Shankill. Bates was involved in a gun attack on a bar in Smithfield, not far from the Shankill, that killed several people, both Catholics and Protestants, on 5 June 1976. Other Protestants who met their deaths at the hands of the gang included two UDA men. The first was Thomas Easton, who made the mistake of becoming involved in an argument with McAllister, and died after being hit by falling beer-barrels on 21 December 1976. McAllister’s guilty plea to a manslaughter charge was accepted by the Crown. The second was James Moorehead, a former police reservist, beaten to death by McAllister, Bates and Moore in the toilets of the Windsor Bar on 29 January 1977. McAllister received a minor punishment shooting for the murder of Easton. Members of the gang also carried out a bombing mission on the Falls Road that killed a Catholic boy of ten years on 10 April 1977. Murphy’s brother John was heavily involved in the latter incident, along with “Mr A”. The gang utilised the services of the UVF’s leading bomb expert James “Tonto” Watt to plant the device, although Watt was not a member of the Brown Bear platoon. Several of the Butchers, including John Murphy, were questioned about a serious assault in April 1977 in Union Street, near Belfast city centre, on a man they believed wrongly was a Catholic. John Murphy received three years imprisonment for his part in this incident.
Several sources indicate that Mid-Ulster UVF’s brigadier, Robin “The Jackal” Jackson from Donaghcloney (now deceased) contacted members of the gang in the Shankill, “Mr A” in particular, and had them make an attempt on the life of journalist Jim Campbell, northern editor of the Sunday World newspaper, in May 1984. Campbell, whose investigations put the spotlight on Jackson’s activities, was very seriously wounded but survived.
All members of the Butchers gang were released a number of years ago. The first to be freed was John Townsley, who had only been 14 when he became involved with the gang and 16 when arrested. In October 1996, Bates was released; he had reportedly “found religion” behind bars. Bates was shot and killed in the upper Shankill area on 11 June 1997 by a relative of the UDA man he had killed in the Windsor Bar. “Mr B”, John Murphy, died in a car accident in Belfast in August 1998. In July 2000, Sam McAllister was injured in an attack during a loyalist feud. William Moore was the final member of the gang to be released from prison in August 1998, after over twenty-one years behind bars. He died on 17 May 2009, from a suspected heart-attack at his home and was given a paramilitary funeral by the UVF. With Moore now deceased, the only senior figure still alive is “Mr A”.
In November 2004, the Serious Crime Review Team in Belfast said they were looking into the unsolved death of Rosaleen O’Kane, aged 33 at the time of her death, who was found dead in her home in September 1976. Her family and authorities believe the Shankill Butchers may have been involved in her death.
The following were members of the gang and were convicted of various crimes.
Lenny Murphy (1952–1982)
John Murphy (1950–1998)
William Moore (1949–2009)
Robert Bates (1948–1997)
Sam McAllister (1955–)
Benjamin Edwards (1951–)
John Townsley (1961–)
Norman Waugh (1952–)
Arthur McClay (1953–)
David Bell (1953–)
Edward McIlwaine (1953–)
Photo: Front cover of The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder by Martin Dillon.