I was privileged to have interviewed Detective Superintendent Jimmy Nesbitt twice in 2010 and 2011. He was an amazing man – his razor sharp memory and good humour despite having investigated some of the most heinous crimes during the troubles – and I learned an enormous amount about the visceral nature of loyalist paramilitary murders from him. Jimmy was one of the RUC’s most decorated detectives and will be remembered for bringing the Shankill Butchers murder gang to justice. These are just a few reflections on his life and career:
Aaron Edwards: Jimmy Nesbitt was a credit to the RUC
Detective Superintendent Jimmy Nesbitt, who died last month aged 79, was one of Northern Ireland’s most respected detectives.
I had the privilege to meet and interview Jimmy during the writing of a short book on the Troubles a few years ago and found him to be extremely candid about his experiences in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years in the course of my research but to me Jimmy Nesbitt was one of the most impressive.
He was affable, good-humoured and generous with his time and his memory was razor sharp as he described for me the layout of crime scenes, what the victims were wearing, even down to what they had in their pockets and who in the victims’ families he informed about the deaths of loved ones.
As Jimmy told journalist Martin Dillon, it was in relaying news to families that really hit him hard, ‘not simply seeing the bodies but witnessing the heartbreak and tragedy of the living and knowing that in those people it would remain’.
But it was in Jimmy’s recollection of his pursuit of the Shankill Butchers murder gang that I found a driven detective who could recall the forensic detail of countless interviews with those who were responsible for these grisly murders.
His depiction of the gang’s leader Lenny Murphy was particularly chilling. Murphy was a dedicated member of the UVF who was cool and calm under pressure, even during long hours of police interrogation.
Often regarded as a psychopath, Murphy could be ruthless, cunning and calculating.
Some police officers who worked on the Butchers case were unconvinced that Murphy was so one-dimensional. “When you talked to him he was intelligent”, one officer told me. “There was nothing sadistic in the murders. They were carried out without fuss and in a cold, premeditated manner.”
This squares with Martin Dillon’s own conclusions about the gang. He argued that despite the heinous nature of their crimes, ‘the defendants were declared by a psychiatrist to be sane and not suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. I suspect the same analysis would have applied to Murphy had he ever been so tested’.
Although the RUC detectives who investigated the Butchers gang have since been criticised for the length of time it took to bring the killers to justice, this overlooks the severe constraints on police investigations at that time.
Whether it was the inability of the RUC to venture into nationalist areas without military support or the lack of manpower in addressing thousands of other terrorist incidents, the force was resilient but poorly equipped to deal with the onslaught of murder and mayhem.
We know, for example, that in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper 304 detectives formed the investigation team – in the case of the Butchers it fell to a squad of only 11. They eventually succeeded in securing convictions, with 42 life sentences handed down.
In his service with the RUC it was reported that Jimmy solved 250 murder cases out of 311 and was awarded a record 67 commendations, making him one of the most successful detectives in British history.
I know that Jimmy will be sadly missed by those who knew him but he will forever be remembered as one of the most dedicated and professional detectives of the Troubles.
This article originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 24 September 2014.