Forty years ago, Ulster was in the midst of a cycle of sectarian violence and every day the death toll was rising. In the year 1973 alone 250 people were killed, 5,018 bombs were planted and there were 1,007 explosions.
On one day, 2 February 1973, three people were killed in Belfast by paramilitary organisations, two on the Springfield Road and one at Ballysillan.
The two who died on the Springfield Road were James Greer, a twenty-one year old Protestant, who was shot dead by republicans. He was a glazier and was working in the firm of Campbell Brothers on the Springfield Road when two armed men walked into the workshop and lined up the employees. They singled out Greer, one of only two Protestants working at the firm, and murdered him. The Protestant was killed and the Roman Catholic staff were ignored.
Also that day Patrick Brady, a twenty-eight year old Roman Catholic, was abducted and shot dead. At the inquest a detective said it was a confusing case but according to Lost Lives 'reliable loyalist sources' said that the UDA were behind the killing. Brady had been a member of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association, a nationalist vigilante organisation which described itself as a 'people's army'.
The other victim that day was Robert Burns, an eighteen year old Protestant from the Sunningdale estate and an apprentice mechanic. He and five others young people had just left the youth club at Eglinton Presbyterian Church and they were standing near the junction of the Oldpark Road and the Ballysillan Road. IRA gunmen opened fire from a passing car and Robert was heard to shout to the others to get down. Robert was shot dead by the gunmen and four of his friends were hit by gunfire but survived. Here is what Lost Lives says of the murder:
One of the survivors said the gunfire came from a yellow Mini with two or three people inside. A short time later an army foot patrol found two youths inspecting a yellow Mini in a garage in Ballycarry Street, off the Oldpark Road, a mile from the shooting. A crowd throwing stones and bottles attacked the soldiers, forcing them to withdraw. When the soldiers returned in an armoured vehicle they came under heavy fire from the same weapon used to kill Robert Burns.
An RUC detective-constable told the inquest that the two youths found with the car and its owner knew nothing about the crime. The shooting appeared to have been a sectarian assassination, since all those shot were Protestants, he said. He added that it was in all probability carried out by a republican grouping, probably the IRA.
Three days later, on 5 February, Seamus Gilmore, an eighteen year old Roman Catholic who worked at the Mount Pleasant filling station on the Ballysillan Road, close to Sunningdale, was shot by three loyalist gunmen, believed to have been members of the UVF. Gilmore lived nearby in Rosscoole Park and it was suggested that the shooting was in retaliation for the earlier killing.
I have detailed the deaths on that awful day as a reminder of what Ulster was like in the early 70s. There are still people in our society who are intent on violence but thankfully the terrible carnage of those days is in the past. Nevertheless, in most cases, the perpetrators have not been brought to justice and the families of innocent victims are left with no sense of closure after the loss of their loved ones.
The events of that day are also a reminder of what the campaign by the Provisional IRA was really like. Sinn Fein and other republicans often argue that there was a particular difference between the IRA campaign and those carried out by loyalist paramilitaries, that loyalist killings were sectarian but that republican killings were not. Indeed such claims form one strand of the Sinn Fein strategy of rewriting history.
But the murder of James Greer at his workplace and the murder of Robert Burns as he stood with other young friends were as sectarian as they could possibly be. Sinn Fein must not be allowed to forget and we must continue to press them to acknowledge that the campaign of violence by the Provisional IRA was indeed sectarian. Republicans seem to think that Protestants are sectarian but that republicans couldn't possibly be sectarian. The events of that terrible day forty years ago blow that fiction apart.