Tensions mount as IRA bomber released over shooting

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A former IRA bomber whose arrest over a so-called punishment shooting in Northern Ireland triggered a political row has been released unconditionally, it was disclosed.

Sean Kelly, 39, was once jailed for life for an attack at a fish shop on the loyalist Shankill Road which killed 10 people.

New tensions emerged between the First and Deputy First Ministers after police questioned the convicted IRA bomber about a so-called punishment shooting.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness clashed over the detention of Sean Kelly, 39, once jailed for life for an attack at a fishmongers shop in Belfast which left 10 people dead.

He was detained by detectives investigating the shooting of an 18-year-old in the city’s republican Ardoyne district.

After being in custody for 36 hours police released Kelly without charge - but by that stage a full scale row had developed between the two sides heading up the powersharing administration at Stormont.

Mr Robinson claimed Kelly’s detention raised potentially grave concerns about the future of the peace process - a claim which Mr McGuinness dismissed as ridiculous.

Hours later Kelly, who had been in custody since early Wednesday morning, was told he was free to go.

It is understood detectives had been granted an extension to keep him in custody for a further period, but then released him after some people made it clear they were not prepared to make witness statements to investigating officers.

The teenager was shot twice in the legs at shops close to his home and at one stage was dangerously ill after one of the bullets severed his femoral artery.

Another damaged his bladder. His hospital condition tonight was described as “stable”.

It is understood police have ruled out any involvement by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.

Kelly received nine life sentences for the 1993 bombing at Frizzell’s fish shop on Belfast’s Shankill Road.

Ten people, including one of his terrorist associates, were killed when a 5lb device went off prematurely. The intended targets were loyalist paramilitaries who had been due to meet in a room above the shop.

Kelly was pulled from the rubble and lost an eye and the power of his left arm and was left with several facial scars.

He was jailed two years later, but then released as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement when hundreds of loyalist and republican prisoners were set free. He retained close connections with Sinn Fein, one of the two main parties in the Northern Ireland Executive.

After it was revealed that Kelly was in custody, Mr Robinson said he would be asking for a meeting with the PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott.

He said: “The family of the man who has been shot has indicated the involvement of those associated with Sinn Fein in this attack.

“This connection raises potentially grave consequences for the process and we will want to meet with the chief constable to establish the background of this case and how the police are able to conclude that it is not paramilitary linked.

“We will be monitoring very closely the facts of this case as they arise and the Sinn Fein response to them.”

Mr McGuiness said Mr Robinson’s comments were ridiculous. The violence related to loyalist protests in recent weeks represented a serious challenge to the political process.

“We in Sinn Fein kept our nerve,” he said.

“The assertion that this shooting in north Belfast, which I unreservedly condemn, and the facts of which are at this stage under PSNI investigation and are unclear, should threaten the political process is frankly ridiculous. The DUP should keep their nerve.”

Kelly is loathed by loyalists, especially in Belfast, because of his involvement in the Shankill bombing, and this is not the first time he has been at the centre of a political row between unionists and nationalists.

He was sent back to jail in 2005 when his licence was revoked by the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain amid allegations the republican had become involved in terrorism again.

He was held for a month at the top security Maghaberry Prison and freed just 24 hours before the IRA declared an end to its armed campaign.