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From killer to victim: Basher's death sums up the futility of the Troubles

Robert "Basher" Bates, who was gunned down in Belfast yesterday, was an icon. To some he represented the very worst that the troubles has produced: to others he was testimony that even the most brutal terrorist might not be beyond redemption.

Two decades ago the 10 murders he was involved in were among the most barbaric ever seen. He shot some of his victims but others he killed in the most cruel fashion, he and his associates wielded butcher's knives, axes and cleavers on random Catholic victims. The Shankill Butchers slaughtered human beings as one would animals.

The horror of those killings took Belfast to a new low. Yesterday his death conjured up the most appalling vista of all: that the IRA was intent on regenerating the troubles. The relief was palpable when it emerged that he had been killed not by the IRA but by a loyalist, in what is thought to have been personal revenge for the murder by Bates of a close relative, 20 years ago in a bar room brawl.

Basher Bates was one of hundreds of convicted killers released after serving an average of 15 years behind bars. There are hundreds of unsettled personal grudges in Northern Ireland: quite a few people know, or think they know, who killed their fathers or other loved ones. Yet this seems to have been the first personal revenge killing of a released prisoner.

While loyalist groups have accounted for close on 1,000 of the 3,500 victims of the Troubles, the ferocity and awfulness of the Shankill Butchers' killings have remained in the public memory for two full decades.

A book dwelling on the graphic details has been a local bestseller for 20 years, and can still be picked up in many of the garage shops of Belfast. It was, for example, the favourite reading of Thomas Begley, the young IRA man who four years ago carried a bomb into a Shankill Road fish shop, killing himself and nine Protestants.

Bates was not the prime mover in the Shankill Butchers gang: that was UVF man Lennie Murphy, who was shot dead by the IRA in 1982. But he was one of the leading lights during their two-year reign of terror, and one photograph of him, looking like an unshaven, unkempt dullard, has remained lodged in the communal memory as a vision of a psychopathic killer.

The judge who gave him 16 life sentences for his killings told him, correctly, that his actions "will remain forever a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry." When he told him he should remain behind bars for the rest of his natural life, society shuddered and hoped it had heard the last of Basher Bates.

But Northern Ireland has a scheme, not found in the rest of the UK, for the release of even the most notorious killers, and more than 300 loyalists and republicans have been quietly freed over the last decade. Many of these former lifers engross themselves, as Bates seemed to be doing, in community or welfare work.

As the years passed in jail, Bates was at first a difficult prisoner, then a troubled soul and finally a remorseful born-again Christian, praying fervently for forgiveness. One who knew him in prison said of him: "He's now a shell of a man, very quiet and inoffensive in a bland kind of way. The hair has gone, he's prematurely bald. He has found the Lord and he's no threat to anyone."

Basher Bates made a long and painful journey from merciless assassin to man of God. His personal odyssey seemed to be over: neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen the fateful circularity which in the end transformed him from killer to victim.