The Worst Murder the Best

Reading about the stabbing of an old friend Paul 'Handy' McGoran in the West Belfast street where I used to live caused me to trawl through the files and folders in search of a piece written for The Blanket shortly after the fatal stabbing of Harry Holland. The pressure of preparing to move house meant the article never made it to The Blanket and until today it lay alongside so many other pieces at varying stages of composition but which failed to make it to completion. A further article in the same genre, dealing with the murder of Frank McGreevy, was also 'rescued' from the forgot about folder where it too became the victim of electronic dust. It will be posted mid week.

The Worst Murder the Best
October 2007

Harry Holland who was knifed to death in the middle of last month is a victim of modern society where knife crime and gang culture are flourishing. He is also a casualty of the myth that West Belfast nationalist areas would somehow be much safer to walk through once support for the PSNI was forthcoming. His murder demonstrates that support for the police did much to safeguard political careers but little to safeguard the streets. Why a British police force would operate more effectively against Belfast hoods than against their Liverpool counterparts was a question considered unhelpful to the peace process. People in West Belfast claim – and have yet to be refuted – that they feel more vulnerable now than at any time during the past four decades.

When Harry Holland was reportedly observed at the Sinn Fein ard fheis enthusiastically applauding the party’s decision to support the PSNI he was expecting to be afforded the protection of that force. Like so many others before him he was let down by it.

Harry Holland at his age stood no chance when confronted by the power, speed and aggression of youth. Thrown into a situation where he opted to defend his hard gained property one of the thugs trying to steal it thrust a sharp instrument into his brain. It was gratuitous violence. Harry could have been thwarted by a punch or a push.

It is not as if West Belfast was unaware that lurking in its midst were elements intent on bullying to the point of murder. Harry Holland’s death was not an isolated incident but as his MP points out, something that was waiting to happen. A local woman threatened by the same knife wielding gang a mere hour or so before the attack on Harry rang the police to complain. Nothing was done. Where the thugs have a previous history of knife use the authorities including the PSNI should be hit up the face with it so that they can no longer wash their hands of culpability for the fate of those they have failed.

It could as easily have been someone other than Harry Holland. His killers had threatened repeatedly to stab anyone getting in their way. Time out of number the police were made aware of fears in the community only to ignore them. On one occasion police threatened locals with prosecution on the basis that the locals in question had used reasonable force to restrain one of those who later went on to murder Harry Holland.

It will come as no surprise when the justice system eventually grinds its way to a verdict in this case that those who end up in the dock could be found to have been aided and abetted by atrocious parental standards. One can imagine the type of perverse reasoning likely to emanate from that quarter:
Harry Holland must have been looking trouble if he was on the street at that time of night. My poor son was out playing with his wee friends when Harry Holland viciously head-butted his screwdriver which he only carried for helping elderly people get into their cars because being old they forget their keys.

This is the type of parenting that would openly gloat at the possibility of a couple of Sinn Fein members being jailed for the ‘crime’ of restraining a thug son engaged in terrorising other members of the public going about their daily business. And our judiciary will be only too willing to find mitigation in such excuses. If proper background knowledge on the killers of Harry Holland is not thrust beneath the noses of the judges the judiciary will throw his killers back onto the streets after a couple of years. The judiciary, chauvinistically indifferent to the malaise of crime in West Belfast, will find some reason to promote its own pseudo liberal tolerance and ignore the people who are forced to live under the regime of fear. As Victor Hugo would have phrased it ‘there is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.’

This is to make no claim that jail is the panacea to the problems that afflict our society. All too frequently the inmate population is made up from the uneducated and mentally ill. Violence has for long been a central feature of prison management techniques. Jailing for the sake of jailing is nothing other than revenge. Sweet tasting as it might be it creates an appetite that is never sated and as the prison population increases few stop to ponder that so too do the crime statistics in society.

Yet if adequate geographic and physical space is not inserted between the thugs that killed Harry and the rest of society then the other Harry Hollands out there, the aged, the weak, the helpless face a human rights crisis where theirs are trampled over. In the absence of imprisonment how are people to be protected from those who murdered Harry Holland? Society has not yet evolved to the point where alternatives to prison safeguard potential victims from aggressors.

The demand for the killers to serve no less than thirty years is unlikely to be fulfilled given the likely tender years of those involved. But neither should it be seen as a mere right wing clamour for vengeance and punishment. It is an expression of appreciation for the life of Harry, a statement that his life is no less valuable than someone from a different social class. It is also a protest against that life being taken away. Few people demand that joyriders who kill someone in the course of their selfish pursuit be locked away for 30 years. Here death, while wholly without justification, is considered a by-product. In the case of Harry Holland death was the intent.

Prison should not be for those who fail to pay fines, get into debt, make nuisances of themselves. It should be reserved exclusively for those whose penchant for violence poses a danger to others they might come into contact with. It should not be to punish those who go there but to protect the innocent who do not. The people of West Belfast will need protected from the killers of Harry Holland – for a very long time.


  1. "People in West Belfast claim – and have yet to be refuted – that they feel more vulnerable now than at any time during the past four decades."

    Are these the same people who have endorsed the current SF strategy and especially support for policing and participation on the Policing Boards.

    Are the chickens coming home to roost?