The Shankill Bomb: BBC documentary dishonours the dead and the living

Review: BBC’s programme about a 1993 Belfast bomb wallows in horrific detail

What is gained by reporting carnage in such minuscule, exhaustive detail – the severed feet, missing eyes?

What is gained by reporting carnage in such minuscule, exhaustive detail – the severed feet, missing eyes?

 

In the immediate shock of devastation, as medical personnel and citizens sift through the wreckage of a bomb blast in a public place, every thought is permissible, no matter how strange or inappropriate.

One emergency responder to the Shankill Bomb, on October 23, 1993, remembers being handed a large plastic sack in an ambulance, heavy with body parts, which he prayed would not rip open.

Another remembers a grim surrealism caused by the IRA bomb in Frizzell’s fish shop, busy at the time with Saturday afternoon customers. “You could see eyes in the rubble,” he says, evenly, “and it was nearly impossible to distinguish whether it was human eyes or fish.”

What people remember of this awful time is impossible to govern – trauma shatters the moment, pain holds on to detail, time bends – but what Stephen Nolan’s documentary The Shankill Bomb (BBC One, Monday, 9pm) levers up and includes for substance is a more deliberate choice.

Such details border on the uncanny, ghoulish and transfixing; an indirect way to again feel the atrocity and disorientation of the Troubles.

But, like those responders, Nolan’s film sifts through the wreckage of the event indiscriminately, quickly becoming so laden with awful and emotive detail, gratuitously solicited and shared, that it only becomes numbing. A glimpse of horror is more affecting than a binge.

This, unfortunately, is what happens when the bag rips.

The film briskly establishes the day, the hard-working decency of the Frizzell family, the innocent appetites freighted with foreboding: “Michelle loved the crabsticks.”

Journalist Brian Rowan sketches the context: 1993, the year of the Warrington bomb, was already “one of the most violent years since the earliest days of the Troubles”.

Loyalist paramilitaries, threatened by the peace process, and under the bloodthirsty leadership of the UDA’s Johnny Adair, had begun to kill more people than their Republican counterparts. The IRA were determined to assassinate him, believing he was to meet with other UDA members in a room above the fish shop.

From there, though, the documentary shifts to the epicentre of horror, where it stays. What did Charlie Batler, a taxi driver at the scene, see? “I seen slaughter,” he replies. Paddy McGlinchey remembers “a living hell”.

Nolan, a presence throughout, pursues as sensationalist a line as possible: “I’m wondering what they were experiencing,” he says of the victims, with the intention of recreating it for the viewer. To that end, his questions are simple to the point of fatuous: “How close were you?” he asks Gina Murray, the bereaved mother of 13-year-old Leanne.

You could argue that giving those affected the opportunity to speak – to tell their story, as journalists like to put it – is respectful and therapeutic, a necessarily uncensored demonstration of the consequences of political violence.

But what is gained by reporting carnage in such minuscule, exhaustive detail – the severed feet, missing eyes, impaled shoulders, or, most distressingly, the removal of the girl’s body which felt “like lifting jelly” – or lensing so much personal distress?

Nolan’s interviewees frequently choke on their words, while their interviewer routinely drops his chin to his chest. At what point does respect for suffering become exploitative?

If the loyalist reprisals – including the summary execution of Catholic delivery men, elderly and young people in their homes, and the Greysteel pub massacre - are not explored to nearly the same extent, that may be more a consequence of the cowing effect of endless violence, rather than a prioritising of sectarian suffering. But it does show the necessity of making difficult choices even with material of such gravity.

Why, then, does Nolan conclude by bringing the remarkably stoic Gina back to the site of the bomb, where she lost her daughter 25 years ago, finding her unable to cross the road into the searing pain of memories?

“You just can’t,” observes Nolan. “Are you OK?”

That question comes too late to sound sincere. Is such an approach the best way to honour the dead? Or the living?