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.

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  • SDLP supporter

    Obviously a decent man and an exemplary policeman. Sympathy to his family. May he Rest in Peace,

  • Michael Henry

    ” The arrest of the most notorious gangs of Sectarian killers ”

    But Nesbitt did not arrest the Master Butcher who killed over thirty people and was the well known leader of the Shankill Butchers-it was the IRA that took out Lenny-

  • mickfealty


    Seen from a constitutional point of view the IRA merely helped Murphy evade justice.

    Derick Henderson on (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8xf2, 25 mins in) Evening Extra said yesterday that his failure to apprehend Murphy was something Nesbitt regretted for the rest of his life.

  • carl marks

    From what I have read about him he seemed a decent man and a good cop, when he hunted the butchers his team was seriously undermanned in a seriously stretched police force, omerta was the rule in both republican and loyalist areas, so the odds were stacked against him from the start but when he did get evidence he used it.

    And let’s not forget because of his work over 200 families know the truth about the murder of a loved one, not a bad legacy.

  • Morpheus

    He talks about his experiences in this 4 part documentary

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScuNRlW6bEg
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auyFxQ0QcJA
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qcnlW08p2k
    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K86YVaiJmgw

    He comes across really well, a determined straight arrow

  • Dec

    As far as the Shankill Butchers go, Nesbitt is given far too much credit. He apparently never made the link between ‘Captain Long’, who announced the killings, and the Long Bar on the Shankill which was a renowned UVF haunt. Moore was seemingly able to roam Nationalist areas at will in an Orange taxi, and as stated above it took a survivor of the gang to point out to Nesbitt,as they drove up and down the Shankill, the men had attacked him. That this is described as his ‘first breakthrough’ speaks volumes.

  • mickfealty


    Maybe so, although my understanding is that he was very shy about taking any personal credit for that or any of the other convictions on his watch.

    You shouldn’t confuse sufficient evidence required for conviction with intelligence. All the Provos needed to deal with Murphy was a snitch from the loyalists and an ASU.

    But the Provos record on ‘taking out’ the loyalists who terrorised west and north Belfast (or indeed anywhere else) speaks (like Nesbitt’s own) volumes for its own effectiveness.

    There are several points in the Nolan programme where people rehearse their belief that the cops knew but allowed Murphy roam free.

    But here’s the thing, a sound detective cannot deal with hearsay or intel.

    Two things put these guys in the way of justice: one was the steady nerve and clear eyed testimony of Gerard McLaverty, and the other was the collapse of nerve amongst Murphy’s vicarious killing team.

  • Tacapall

    “He is thoroughly sound and reliable and upholds the best traditions of the Royal Ulster Constabulary”

    From a nationalist and now historical viewpoint when it comes to the integrity of the RUC, says it all really. Was this not the same man who denied May Bloods claim that the dogs in the street on the Shankill knew who the Shankill butchers were seeing as they were running their murder gang from public bars, was this not the same man who covered up the activities of the Glenanne gang and their conections to high ranking RUC officers like Harry Breen, the truth now outed by Anne Cadwallader and her book Lethal Allies and further outed by various investigations carried out by the HET.

  • mickfealty


    You pays your money and you takes your choice. The Nolan doc does have Nesbitt pointing out that if the community’s common knowledge comes with no detail, whatever you think you know you don’t have a conviction.

    As for Glenane, are you speaking about his investigation into the C4 documentary, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Nesbitt#The_Committee_investigation

  • Dec

    Mick, it’s either cock-up or conspiracy. The prevailing attitude around North Belfast is cock-up. Given the manner of how Murphy was arrested for possession of a weapon ( going back the next day to retrieve a revolver which he’d dumped in a hedge and telling soldiers he was looking for a lost fiver) gives an inkling into the intellect in question yet these people were able to torture and murder for almost a decade under Nesbitt’s watch.

  • mickfealty

    So the ‘cock up’ theory relies on the idea that Murphy was congentally ‘thick’, and therefore should have been lifted much earlier? That doesn’t address the need for the police to provide the court system with evidence.

    In the Nolan doc, he emphasises the fact that the scars identified clearly in evidence by McLaverty are a clear and cogent form of admissible evidence which give him the possibility of getting these guys into court.

    Bad character and hearsay are explicitly ruled out by statute as admissable evidence. As a rigorous cop, Nesbitt clearly knew this, which may explain both his literal presentation in Nolan and impressively high conviction rate.

  • Tacapall

    Mick all I know was that there was thousands at Lenny Murphy’s funeral including some senior unionist politicians. Was that because he was killed by the IRA or was that in recognition of his sacrifice for his identity. Theres more than enough evidence out there that would lead you to believe what I say is true rather than the assumption that a highly decorated member of the RUC was doing anything other than covering up for the actions of state agents. Simple answer – Prove me wrong.

  • MalikHills

    Did “the dogs in the street” not also know who led the West Belfast IRA, who murdered Jean McConville, who planned and organised the Bloody Friday bombings?Those men were not convicted, was that collusion too?

  • Dec

    The theory more relies on the fact that after 10 or so years, Nesbitt only arrested the killers after a survivor pointed them out to him. The fact that some of them began blabbing straight away does rather beg the question who, if anyone, Nesbitt actually pulled in for questioning over the preceding decade.

  • Mister_Joe

    Under the previous system of cards, and the rule about adverse comment on an obituary thread, would this comment have resulted in a Yellow? The D.I. seems to indeed have been exemplary, his team having solved 250 of 311 murders, an amazing clean-up rate compared to worldwide statistics.

  • mickfealty

    Well, it’s a matter of where you draw the line between legitimate expression of belief and man playing. I don’t believe Tac was guilty of the latter.

  • mickfealty

    Well, that may be. But you’re presenting absolutely no material grounds which challenges Nesbitt’s exemplary record.

    That record is all the more impressive when you think of just how deeply alienated much of the victims communities where from the RUC at the time.

    Helping the RUC would have been nearly as popular in some places as going against Murphy was on the Shankill.

  • mickfealty

    Dec, make that less than two years. Francis Crossen was killed 25 November 1975, and Gerard McLaverty was abducted on 10 May 1977.

    Where does the ten year thing come from?

  • Dec

    Well, I was referring to the years Murphy was murdering, 1972-82. Also it’s worth pointing out that senior members of the gang were never convicted, Messers A & B to borrow Martin Dillon’s terminology.
    Don’t you apportion any blame given that Nesbitt made no headway whatsoever in those 2 years given there were at least 13 catholic victims (probably 14) in what is essentially a square mile?

  • mickfealty

    Apportion blame? On what grounds? And on whom? Nesbitt? Or the Provos, for failing to protect their own communities from this menace? Or indeed, helping to give licence to psychopaths like Murphy through their own attritional actions?

    These days you will spot police forensic cordons up around a murder scene for 24 or even 48 hours. Back in the 70s the RUC sometimes had as little as half an hour before they themselves became targets.

    Operating in these circumstances this particular detective emerges with a clear up rate of approximately 80%, and you want to apportion him blame?

    The cops didn’t get Murphy early on because he seems to have killed the only witness in the Crum who could attest to that early murder. He could not be got under McLaverty’s direct evidence because because he was directing from prison.

    When the facts change, I will humbly and openly change my view on this. But given the large number of victims of loyalist and republican terror campaigns for whom no one has been brought to justice, I don’t really see your point here Dec.

  • Roy Walsh

    Hi Mick, is this the same sort of evidence frequently presented by the same police force, routinely accepted by unquestioning Judiciary and used to put wholly innocent Nationalists in the Long Kesh?
    Subsequent to the 1994 ceasefire many such innocent people have won their appeals.

  • mickfealty

    Hi Roy,

    The political egregiousness of Internment (detention without trial) was that it required no evidence, admissible or otherwise. Those who were rounded up in August 1971 were detained on the basis of intelligence reports, not rigorous evidence.

    The Diplock courts was an attempt to sidestep the all too real intimidation of Jurors. The point being that material presented still had to pass very tight rules of evidence, and the usual channels were open to appeal to higher authority within the court system: note the collapse of convictions sought via uncorroborated evidence through the supergrass system.

    There seems to be some incredulity abroad at the idea that an RUC might actually have performed his duties towards the general public scrupulously and well.

  • Tacapall

    “The point being that material presented still had to pass very tight rules of evidence, and the usual channels were open to appeal to higher authority within the court system”

    The majority of verdicts in the Diplock courts were guilty verdicts and of those a very high number had no other evidence other than a confession.


    “Hundreds of Northern Ireland ‘terrorists’ allege police torture So far the court of appeal in Belfast has heard 26 cases referred by the commission, and has overturned convictions in 24 of those”

  • mickfealty