The Killing of Frankie
The Killing of Frankie
27 March, 2008
At the funeral of Brendan Hughes, Bap McGreevy came up to me and shook hands. We exchanged a few words, nothing more than the usual banter. It was the same any time our paths crossed. We had known each other for a long time, having first met in an Omeath bar in 1972; both of us underage drinkers. Rules were much less stringently observed then. Different times they were, indeed, where the fear of thugs was not as heightened as it is today. I would find myself in his company on many subsequent occasions, most of it in the jails where he had established a reputation for being one of the characters in that banged up world. He pretty much did things his own way. That was how he faced up to his long incarceration. Frank was never conventional, for a time earning himself the affectionate ribbing ‘Frankie Bonkers.’ Everybody has their own funny tale about him. There are not many people either in jail or out who can bring tears of laughter to the faces of others. Frank did it with me. Neither screws nor fellow prisoners found much to complain about in the person of Frank McGreevy. On the day of Brendan’s funeral no one had any inkling that the next tricolour draped coffin to make its way up the Falls followed by thousands would contain the remains of Bap.
There is a particular sadness about the life and death of Frank McGreevy. He was seriously let down by the North’s policing regime on at least two separate occasions. Each resulted in consequences that were horrendous. The first, life imprisonment; the second, life ended. In February 1976 he was arrested by the police, brutalised in Castlereagh detention centre and forced to sign a statement admitting to a killing he was completely innocent of. I was in Castlereagh at the same time as him and along with others tried to raise his spirits by shouting moral support to him from our cells. But ultimately he had to face his tormentors alone in their interrogation chamber where they battered him until he confessed to what he did not do. Three weeks later I was in the same prison van as him, making the depressing journey from Belfast Petty Sessions to Crumlin Road Jail for a lengthy stay on remand. Later that year I shared a cubicle with him and two other Lower Falls men in Long Kesh’s Cage 13 while we were awaiting trial. In jail people quickly learn who are there courtesy of trumped up charges.
Thirty two years on the same police force could again be found failing abysmally to exercise a duty of care towards Bap. Despite repeated reports to the police about thugs on the rampage they were allowed to go on their not so merry way nonchalantly observed by the supposed forces of law and order. Their port of call was Bap’s house where they proceeded to murder him with sadistic viciousness. Little wonder that during Frank’s funeral mass the officiating cleric said that the community ‘must at least have the security of knowing the judicial system is on their side and not on the side of the criminal.’
His death was so brutal that people hardened over the years by exposure to an environment of violence were left aghast. It took place in the same constituency where Harry Holland was butchered by thugs in an earlier orgy of wanton violence. The parallels with the McGreevy killing are startling. In both cases neither life would have been lost had the police responded to distress calls from vulnerable members of the West Belfast public alerting them to the immediate threat posed by weapon wielding thugs. Those believed to be responsible in each killing have a long violent history. Even this failed to rouse the PSNI from its somnolence.
‘The dam is bursting’ is how one Sinn Fein representative described the deluge of anti-social behaviour raging through West Belfast. His party has been lambasted for doing little. Criticising Sinn Fein or the local MP for the rising tide of violent criminality in West Belfast may vent some pent up frustration but in the end produces only temporary relief, a palliative for annoyance rather than a panacea for the scourge. Why would a British police force find a cure for anti social behaviour in Belfast before finding it for the problems in London where youth violence frequently produces murder? Where Sinn Fein stand accused it is on grounds of deceiving people about what acceptance of the PSNI could deliver. It can hardly be deemed guilty of creating the circumstances that led to the murder of Bap McGreevy.
The PSNI were welcomed into West Belfast by some community ‘stalwarts’ on the grounds that people would feel free to walk up and down the Falls Road without fear of rape or worse. What a coming down to earth with a bump that has proved to be. Acceptance of the PSNI has changed nothing on the ground. People walk through their streets in the evenings like blanket men going on a wing shift. Relaxed is not a way to describe journeying through parts of West Belfast on foot in darkness. The liberation struggle produced neither liberty nor safety where it matters most – on the streets where ordinary people go about their daily lives.
That the problem is by no means specific to West Belfast has been demonstrated in the Republic by the leader of the Irish Labour Party Eamonn Gilmore who stated that Ireland, having been liberated from everything else, now needs to be freed from crime. There is no need to drift into infantile starry eyed leftism in order to put this into perspective and make the point that while crime is a scourge that needs tackled, prioritising it over all else is a useful device with which to avoid tackling other shackles that Ireland needs unchained from such as poverty and shabby public services. Nevertheless, Gilmore is tapping into a vein pulsating with the red anger of a resentment grounded in a sense of social impotence. With young thugs burning children in cars in Limerick’s Moyross much of this resentment is directed against current youth culture.
There is some discussion on the alienation of young people and how this might contribute to the violent path of gang affiliation that some of them go down. As a perspective it is not without merit but should be held up against another which sees gangs as a power hierarchy through which ambitious thugs hope to rise to the top through the use of violence against the vulnerable. From this perspective gang members are not victims denied social opportunities but are an enemy within that needs to be met with the same determination that human rights abusers from without receive.
While there should be no rush to push people, regardless of their crime, into the custody of gangs of screws with their penchant for violence, imprisonment per se unlike, say, rape, slavery or torture is not a denial of human rights. The violation of those rights is minimised when those who threaten them have physical space inserted between them and their intended victims.
The quality of life depreciates in proportion to the rise of gang culture. The haul against it will be no short one. Bap McGreevy will not be the last victim to have his life wrenched away through gratuitous violence. In a world of uncertainty one thing remains immutable: the PSNI will deliver real justice to West Belfast on the same evening that a real Santa delivers toys.