James Nesbitt (RUC) dies: An exemplary modernising cop in the chaos of 70s Belfast

James Nesbitt who was a Detective Inspector in the RUC’s C Division at Tennent Street Station in the heart of the Shankill from 1973 onwards has died.

Nesbitt was and remains most famous for leading the team which effected the arrest of one of the most notorious gangs of sectarian killers in the early history of the Troubles, the Shankill Butchers.

What gained them the notoriety was less the number as much as the way in which they dispatched their victims and their apparent willingness to kill even on suspicion that the victim was Catholic. And the long time it took to arrest them and get a conviction.

In fact Nesbitt was a moderniser, bringing calm, modern method (and teamwork) to the detective team at C Division. He was one of the most highly decorated policemen in the UK.

His first breakthrough in the Butcher’s case came after their last victim, Gerard McLaverty survived the assault and was able to give direct evidence against the men involved his attack.

In 2012 the journalist Bobby Hanvey wrote of Nesbitt…

ONCE you’ve met Jimmy Nesbitt you’ll never forget him. Being in his company is like visiting an oasis of permanent calm. Gentle in manner, extremely soft spoken and a dapper dresser, Jimmy has seen the results of madness, hatred and mayhem in close-up. He has interviewed some of the most ruthless killers on the face of this planet and studied the darkness of their eyes for clues

One such murderer once told Nesbitt in interview that…

…he had been advised by a leading UVF man from Mid-Ulster that the best thing to do was to keep on committing murders. This way, you would forget them because you always remember your first victim and if you kept killing they would all eventually disappear – become jumbled up and none would stand out in your mind”

Nesbitt joined the RUC in the middle of the IRA’s border campaign, and saw action against the IRA in his first posting at Swatragh, the force found itself completely unequal to the mass murder campaigns squalling all around them from 1971/2 onwards.

He is one of the few figures from the RUC to publicly emerge from that period with a largely unchallenged and exemplary record. Not because others did not exist, but because old cops tend not to talk about (let alone propagandise) their ‘wartime’ experiences.

Nesbitt’s actual record speaks fairly eloquently for itself. He and his team are thought to have investigated a total of 311 killings and solved around 250.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty