A pro-British gang claimed responsibility Thursday for gunning down New Year’s Eve revelers in a Belfast pub, the outlawed group’s second deadly attack on Catholics since its commander was assassinated in prison.
The Loyalist Volunteer Force admitted it killed Eddie Trainor, 31, and wounded five other Catholics inside the Clifton Tavern in religiously polarized north Belfast, long a favorite hunting ground for Northern Ireland’s rival paramilitary groups.
The Loyalist Volunteer Force - committed to toppling Northern Ireland’s prevailing paramilitary truces and peace negotiations - said in a statement to Belfast media that it “carried out the New Year’s Eve attack in retaliation for the death of a true loyalist, Billy Wright. This is not the end.”
Wright, 37, was killed last weekend in the Maze prison outside Belfast. Known as “King Rat,” he had a reputation for killing Catholic civilians in retaliation for Irish Republican Army violence.
Three imprisoned members of the Irish National Liberation Army, an IRA splinter gang opposed to the larger group’s cease-fire, are charged with shooting Wright five times in the back using smuggled handguns.
Wright’s successors immediately retaliated by shooting to death a security guard, 45-year-old Seamus Dillon, and wounding three other Catholics outside a rural hotel. They pledged more attacks on the province’s minority community.
When Wright was buried Tuesday in his hometown of Portadown, pro-British factions ordered shops to shut in his honor and more than 3,000 Protestants lined the procession route.
Wright had Portadown, 30 miles southwest of Belfast, as his main power base when he defected last year from Northern Ireland’s oldest pro-British paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
His organization’s claimed ability to strike in Cliftonville, a north Belfast neighborhood where support for the rival Irish Republican Army runs high, will raise concerns of defections within the ranks of other pro-British paramilitary groups who are involved in peacemaking.
The two traditionally dominant groups - the Ulster Defense Association and smaller UVF - have representatives in the Belfast peace talks. The delegates secured their seats at the negotiating table by maintaining ceasefires since October 1994.
“The attack last night, and the other two incidents, were clearly designed to undermine the peace process and, in fact, end the cease-fires,” said Belfast Mayor Alban Maginness, the first Catholic to hold the post.
The negotiations on the future of the British-ruled province began in June 1996 and are supposed to resume Jan. 12 under the direction of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Police and witnesses said two gunmen - one armed with a submachine gun, the other with a pistol - invaded the Clifton Tavern about 9 p.m. Wednesday. Panicked customers tipped over tables for cover as the gunmen fired at anyone they saw.
Police said the gunmen were backed up by several comrades in the nearby Protestant Shankill district. A Protestant family was held hostage while the killers used their car to drive to the pub less than a mile away.