Detective who led hunt for ‘Butchers’ had stellar career

Detective Chief Inspector James Nesbitt.
Detective Chief Inspector James Nesbitt.

Few people who lived through the Northern Ireland conflict experienced man’s inhumanity to their fellow man as vividly as former RUC detective Jimmy Nesbitt.

Although best known for having led the team that eventually brought the Shankill Butchers gang to justice, the quiet and unassuming police officer witnessed unspeakable horrors on an almost daily basis over many years.

As a detective chief inspector at Tennent Street in Belfast, he is credited with directing the investigation of more than 300 murders - solving almost 250 of the cases. He is also reputed to have been awarded the highest number of commendations (67) in the history of UK policing.

After a short illness he died on August 25 - just one month short of his 80th birthday.

Born in Belfast, he attended Model Primary School and Belfast Technical School. His first job was as a sales rep for a linen company before realising his dream of becoming a police officer. Having joined the RUC in 1955, the young constable spent his early service in Co Londonderry before being posted to Musgrave Street CID.

He married his wife Marion in 1967 and had two sons. Marion passed away in 2004. In 1980 he was awarded an MBE in recognition of “his courage and success in combating terrorism”.

A BBC documentary about the hunt for the Shankill Butchers - broadcast in 2011 - omitted much of his own tribute to the team of officers who helped bring the “savages” to justice. He later told the News Letter: “I told them [the programme makers] that I worked with a team of totally dedicated, highly professional and experienced detectives who sacrificed their personal lives and their family lives to carry out these investigations — and that a seven-day working week was the norm, and an 18-hour day not unusual.”

Despite his unflinching fortitude in confronting some of the Province’s most ruthless killers, he was deeply wounded by comments made by the daughter of one murder victim.

He said claims that his team could have done more to prevent the Shankill killings saddened him greatly.

“It’s an awful, awful thing to have your father killed like that, but then to believe that it was allowed to happen, and that if it had been Protestants being killed then it wouldn’t have happened — that’s very sad.

“We were professional detectives. If people are being murdered you give everything to try solve them and catch the killers. We weren’t interested in the religion of who was killed — the religion part only came into it because it provided us with a motive. We couldn’t have done any more,” he said.

The author of a book on the Shankill Butchers, Martin Dillon, said those years took an emotional toll on everyone involved - including Jimmy Nesbitt, who he described as “a very special individual” and “undoubtedly the most professional detective in Northern Ireland”.

His funeral service was held at St Mark’s Parish Church, Dundela, on Friday, August 29. He is survived by sons James and Mark, daughters-in-law Jill and Michelle and four grandchildren.