Ulster Nice eyewitness: This is a new form of terror

Suneil Sharma was having a meal just feet from the promenade as the terror unfolded
Suneil Sharma was having a meal just feet from the promenade as the terror unfolded

A Northern Irish man who was a few dozen feet away from the carnage of the Nice attack has warned against any comparison with the violence of the Troubles, saying Islamist ideology is so extreme that it seems “unique”.

Suneil Sharma, a businessman from south Belfast and former member of the Policing Board, was among those present as gunman Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel purposely ran over pedestrians in the southern French city.

Shocked revellers run away from the scene of the attack on the promenade on Thursday night

Shocked revellers run away from the scene of the attack on the promenade on Thursday night

Mere weeks ago it had hosted legions of Northern Ireland fans as the squad played their opening Euro 2016 match in the city.

At time of writing, 84 people were dead and another 50 or so were said by French president Francois Hollande to be “between life and death”.

It is suspected that the gunman may have been inspired by the Islamic State group which has claimed a string of attacks against defenceless civilian targets on contientnal Europe in the last year.

Mr Sharma branded the mindset behind such atrocities “warped” and “appalling”.

The 57-year-old – who was born in the Province after his parents had migrated here from India in the 1950s – said that the reason he and his relatives are alive is because “lady luck smiled on us”.

The killer had driven past the ground floor restaurant in the Negresco Hotel just as Mr Sharma was finishing his dinner alongside his partner Wendy at about 11pm on Thursday night.

The hotel faces directly onto the promenade where people were being mowed down, and Mr Sharma estimates he would have been between about 30 and 65ft from the truck.

There was a kind of smoky glass between him and the street outside, so he did not directly see it striking people.

However, he soon saw terrified people and wounded victims taking refuge in the hotel lobby whilst the vehicle careered down the promenade.

At the time, he had been waiting for his two teenage sons (Ethan and Jude Sharman, 15 and 11), plus his brother-in-law Christopher Benson and his pair of teenage boys (Jai and Kelan Benson, 15 and 14).

They were in a nearby part of town. The plan had been for them to go out to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, marking a day of national celebration commemorating a key moment in the French Revolution.

Mr Sharma recieved a call from his brother-in-law to say that the children were running late.

“Shortly thereafter the pandemonium broke out,” he said.

“People were jumping over a small glass partition into the hotel terrace, jumping over hedges.

“It was just bedlam. People were just running up and down the street, just didn’t know what was going on.”

He said: “Pretty quickly the management locked down the hotel. Nobody was allowed in or out.”

The lockdown lasted for about three hours, and for a while the foyer became a kind of “hospital unit” for the injured.

The reason the group of children had not come to meet him was because they had been slow in ordering a pizza.

“Literally, they took 20 or 30 minutes longer to order a pizza,” he said.

“They were delayed, and the delay led to them not coming down.”

If the carnage had unfolded just as they were making their way to the hotel, they could well have been victims too.

He said: “Clearly lady luck smiled upon my family, and the family of my sister – there’s no question about that.”

One of the most remarkable things about the massacre was how “crude” it was, said Mr Sharma, who noted that it involved no sophisticated technology, but rather “a guy driving a bloody lorry”.

The murderer was a French-Tunisian, and Mr Sharma also said one likely consequence is that suspicion will now fall upon Tunisians living in France in general – even though they have no connection with the bloodbath.

He added: “That’s what terrorism does. It tries to make you suspicious of the ‘other’, and we must resist that at all costs.”

Tunisia is an overwhelmingly-Muslim country which had formerly been conquered and ruled by France.

It was there in June last year that an Islamic State-inspired gunman murdered 38 tourists on a beach.

Mr Sharma said he himself has “no particular faith” and that his own children are “members of one race – that’s the human race”.

“How any individual justifies the murder of 84 innocent people on the basis of some warped political agenda – and, even worse, some agenda that say ‘this is your route to eternal salvation’ – is pretty much beyond any right-thinking human being,” he said.

Having lived through the Troubles, he was asked if the attack made him think of any parallels between the Province’s bloodshed and that of Nice.

He replied that he was highly apprehensive about such comparisons, since Islamist extremism purports to offer a religious reward to those who deliberately target civilians.

He said: “I think we can learn lessons from our past, but I’d be very nervous about drawing any direct parallels between what happened in Northern Ireland and what’s happening in the current terrorist environment...

“This is a very different type of terrorism.

“The consequences [are that] innocent people got killed, and innocent people got killed in the north.

“But the ideology driving this is rare and unique.”

Mr Sharma is due back in the Province on Saturday.