Tuesday 20 February 2018

The flying winger who became the Butchers' nemesis

Alan Murray recalls a fearless, modest individual who was responsible for jailing many of the Shankill Butchers

Norman Waugh
Norman Waugh
Weapons used by the Shankill Butchers

Alan Murray

Jimmy Nesbitt, who died last week aged 79, never attempted to dine out on his rightful billing as the detective who worked tirelessly to put most of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang behind bars.

An RUC detective inspector when the bloodthirsty sectarian UVF gang was operating with frightening ferocity, he toured the Loyalist Shankill area with a Catholic man who fortuitously survived one of their attacks and encouraged him to pick out the thugs as they loitered on street corners.

His easy, comforting manner and his knowledge of the often drunken characters who filled the UVF's ranks on the Shankill enabled him to compile an arrest list for uniformed officers to work from in the succeeding days.

Jimmy's dedication to nailing those who barbarously waylaid unfortunate Catholics on the streets of north and west Belfast in the 1970s, hacked at their bodies and slit their throats is rightly legendary in the annals of policing in Northern Ireland.

Awarded an MBE in 1980, he never boasted of his successes against loyalist and republican paramilitaries alike.

But for one of those wicked tackles for which the former Leeds United hard man Wilbur Cush was renowned, Jimmy might never have become a detective. The thigh injury caused by Cush's desire to teach a young flying winger a lesson after being exposed once too often, ended any hopes that Jimmy had of pursuing a professional footballing career in England.

Football's loss was the RUC's gain, as Jimmy Nesbitt brought a mixture of his sporting determination and natural personal guile to trap some of the major paramilitaries in Belfast from his Tennent Street base in Shankill.

He recalled to me how he had a senior IRA man's mistress brought to Castlereagh Holding Centre, ostensibly to assist police with their enquiries while her married bomber boyfriend was being questioned. With the interview room door deliberately left open, the dolled-up married mistress's name was loudly announced for interview in the next room, and she was literally 'paraded' past her boyfriend.

Jimmy recalled how, within minutes, the bomber's attitude towards questioning changed, and he became cooperative lest his illicit relationship became known to his family and the mistress's IRA husband, his comrade-in-arms.

Jimmy Nesbitt's knowledge of both loyalist and republican paramilitaries and their ways saw him chosen to create the 'new identities' for the plethora of informants who emerged in the era of the 'supergrass' trials of the 1980s - characters like IRA man Christopher Black and UVF man Joseph Bennett.

That period in his police career, he admitted, was more nerve-wracking than previous tasks because of the inability, literally, of the supergrasses to keep their mouth shut once they were relocated in England.

Christopher Black invited his family from the Ardoyne to his new safe home in England without clearing it with Jimmy, causing panic within the RUC and the Metropolitan Police, and others similarly spirited away by Jimmy even used their true identities while engaging in social activities, instead of the assumed names he had created for them.

Throughout, Jimmy Nesbitt lived barely half a mile from the gates of Stormont within sighting distance of both the UVF and the UDA in east Belfast. His home bore no major security modifications, yet he always appeared relaxed and unconcerned about the constant threat from those associated with the Shankill Butchers.

He was, without doubt, one of the finest and bravest police officers ever to serve on this island.

Sunday Independent

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