|Liam Holden @ Belfastmedia.com|
Not that he ever got much sympathy for that. There were others serving life sentences for killings they had not carried out. With too many, sympathy, being a finite resource, had a limited shelf life. Nobody expected the British to play fair and the attitude towards the innocent imprisoned was philosophical rather than harsh. More a feeling of impotence in the face of unaccountable judicial power. Innocent and guilty alike just had to sit it out.
Back then it was harder to convince a wider public that people were framed by the security services, their perfidy legitimised by judicial malfeasance. Since the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and a host of other cases, resistance to the idea that the forces of law and order in collusion with the judges might frame the innocent is a much less durable concept.
With the door was locked and the key deposited in the long stay box, Liam had the nickname "Para" tagged onto him, a less than oblique reference to the soldier he had been wrongly accused of killing. It was gallows humour, ironic in itself given that Liam had at first been condemned to a meeting with the hangman. He was the only defendant from a nationalist community during the North's violent conflict to have witnessed the judge don the black cloth and hear the chilling words "you will suffer death in the manner authorised by law." This was later commuted to life imprisonment. The precedent for rendering a death sentence for conflict offences commutable had been set in the case of loyalist Albert Browne convicted for the 1972 killing of a member of the RUC.
Liam was found guilty of killing Frank Bell, a member of a British terror regiment whose name became synonymous with massacre. Bell was eighteen years of age when he died. Despite baseless allegations that people were shot or disappeared for assisting dying soldiers:
A few sympathetic local people emerged from their homes with blankets for the stricken soldier. One produced a large ball of cotton wool.
Bell's grieving grandfather said at the time it was either the British army or the dole queue. Dead Paras will not evince much sympathy in Northern nationalist circles. Still, that a young man ever ended up in the sights of a sniper in West Belfast is a serious indictment of a state that preferred pushing unemployed teenagers into the gap of danger rather than investing political energy and economic capital into areas that most needed it: Ballymurphy where Frank Bell died and The Wirral where he lived.
Ballymurphy was a resilient working class community bonded in the crucible of British repression. With state violence producing street violence a ruthlessly efficient local IRA emerged which over the years threw up many operators and household names. The most renowned of these was probably the late Jim Bryson, reputed to have been a natural sniper, often taking out British Army soldiers with a single shot.
It was in that cauldron that a young chef's goose was cooked. Arrested a month after the killing of Frank Bell, Liam Holden was waterboarded by British Paratroopers, long before the term became part of the torture lexicon.
They started pouring a bucket of water slowly through the towel.The first thing I felt was the cold, then trying to breath and then sucking water in through my mouth and up my nose.It was like you were just drowning.
The collusion between the British security services and the judiciary ensured a double injustice. Firstly, Liam Holden was falsely convicted. Secondly, the family of Frank Bell were falsely told that the person responsible for the death of their teenage loved one had been brought to justice. A diet of legal lies served up for every end but justice. It took decades of campaigning to see it upended.
Upon release, Liam took up taxi driving. Often he called to the house to pick up a fare, as either I or my wife journeyed somewhere. When we learned he had died she instantly recalled him as a lovely man. We invariably liked it when we got him as a driver. Friendly and facilitating, I don't recall us ever having a political conversation. More about Arsenal and Liverpool. Liam was a Gunner but not the gun behind the death of Frank Bell.
⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.