Questions raised over terrorist's home visits: A loyalist gang leader finds God and hopes for early release. David McKittrick reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOURTEEN years ago a Belfast judge told a group of loyalist terrorists that the murders they had committed were so cruel and so revolting as to be beyond the comprehension of a normal person. He told the gang of 11 that their actions 'will remain for ever a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry'.

The judge was correct: a decade and a half later the actions of these men, the 'Shankill Butchers', are still remembered with a particular shudder.

Members of the gang killed 17 people, half a dozen of them in the most gruesome fashion, using knives, meat cleavers and hatchets. In one typical attack they bundled a drunken Catholic roadsweeper into a taxi, fractured his skull with a heavy wheelbrace, then drove him to a quiet spot where they bashed his head with a baton and cut his throat back to the spine with a butcher's knife. Even hardbitten Belfast found their bloodletting shocking.

One of the gang's leaders, Robert 'Basher' Bates, an unshaven 30-year- old with long unkempt hair, received 14 life sentences. Recommending that he should never be released from prison unless he contracted a terminal illness, the judge told him: 'I mean life imprisonment to mean life imprisonment.'

The gang received a total of 42 life sentences, along with 1,892 years in concurrent jail terms. Society believed itself rid of the Shankill Butchers.

It came as something of a shock, therefore, when it recently emerged that Basher Bates has for some years been allowed home on parole during the summer and at Christmas.

The news led to a tabloid furore and a chorus of disapproval. A brother of one of those killed said: 'The Shankill Butchers deserve the same as their victims and they should just rot in hell, they couldn't be human.'

The judge was presumably surprised to learn that Bates has been back on the streets half a dozen times. Many others said Bates should never be released; some said he deserved not compassionate parole but capital punishment.

The one-time Butcher has undergone a religious conversion in prison. According to Ian Major, a Baptist missionary who works with prisoners: 'Bobby has changed, he's been changed internally. He has come to Christ. I suppose a secularist would say he's had some sort of psychological turnaround, but he has a new outlook on life.'

There will always be scepticism about jailhouse conversions and whether they are genuine or designed to secure earlier release. But one of the surest touchstones is the collective opinion of the group of 25 or so born- again Christians in Maghaberry prison. One source said: 'They live together 24 hours a day - they can spot a fake a mile off, and they're satisfied Bobby is absolutely genuine.' Bates is now a hardworking prisoner and head of the unit in Maghaberry which translates school and college textbooks into Braille for the blind. He has severed his paramilitary links and is a model prisoner. One source said: '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. Really, the only question is how much time he has to do before he's seen to have paid for the awful crimes that he committed.'

A welfare source added: 'The notion that he's gone Christian is for real. He's a broken, spent force. He has repented and he is remorseful. The question is how long you keep someone like him in in order to satisfy society. There is no risk factor involved.'

Bates's paroles have been given under prison rules which allow most life prisoners summer and Christmas home leave after they have served 11 years. Contrary to some reports, he is not on a pre-release programme, and it is understood he will probably not be considered for final release before the turn of the century.

His case highlights, however, the fact that more than 250 prisoners given life imprisonment for terrorist murders have already been released into the community. The authorities, and most local politicians, are quietly happy with the scheme, though the bulk of public opinion is probably in favour of sterner treatment.

The question is whether those like Bates should be locked up and the key thrown away; or whether society should treat him with a compassion he never showed to his victims.

(Photograph omitted)