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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
News
people
Sport
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn