Knife crime is a major concern in mainland Britain. In Northern Ireland, it is relatively low level, but the effects can still be horrific. Here, PHILIP BRADFIELD talks to the family of one of the most callous knife crimes in recent times – the murder of Catholic schoolboy Thomas Devlin in 2005
The brutal and random stabbing of a 15-year-old youth in north Belfast in 2005 robbed him of his future – and his family of the chance to see him growing up, his mother says.
Penny Holloway has spoken to the News Letter about the murder of her son Thomas Devlin only 400 yards from his front door on an August evening in 2005.
In her case the killers were found to have deeply sectarian attitudes. In 2010 Nigel Brown, 26, of Whitewell Road, and Gary Taylor, 23, from Mountcollyer Avenue were given 22 and 30 years respectively for the brutal murder, which sent shock waves across Northern Ireland.
Now almost 13 years later, the retired director of conciliation and arbitration for the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast said both her son and wider family have been robbed by the very deliberate decision to take his life. He is survived by his twin siblings James and Megan.
She was speaking to the News Letter as part of a series on knife crime among young people and in Northern Ireland schools.
Penny is conscious every day of the gaping hole in their lives where Thomas should have been.
Now she treasures beautiful memories of her son.
“He was always a bit of a character, a very good sense of humour,” she told the News Letter.
“On one occasion he asked a classmate to come and see his ‘wee’ dog. In fact it was a Great Dane. She nearly had a heart attack when she saw the size of it.
“After he died we discovered he was very popular at school.”
Penny grew up in Wales and met her husband Jim Devlin when she was studying in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
“Jim and I brought all of our children up to be neither one nor the other [Protestant or Catholic].”
Thomas went to Cavehill Primary School, Boys’ Brigade and Scouts and mixed widely.
The night he died, Thomas had been moving between houses with friends to play computer games.
“Three of them went back to our house and they had gone down to the garage at Fortwilliam to get drinks and crisps.”
Penny was out for a meal when the police phoned.
“We went down the road and saw all the police and ambulances. We did not know at the time that one of his stab wounds was catastrophic and it would not have been possible for him to have survived.
“He was probably about 3-400 yards from home. It was really not far at all.” She never got to speak to him again.
“It was just a random attack. At the end of the trial the judge said they [the attackers] had ‘deeply ingrained, bitter sectarian attitudes towards Catholics’ but that he could not be sure that the attack was sectarian.
“What I would say is that he was on his own street. He should have been entitled to walk up his own street.”
His friend was also stabbed once when he went to try and help Thomas but his backpack protected him.
“He has left an enormous hole in our lives, not just for us as his parents but also he had aunts and uncles and cousins.
“We now have a granddaughter so his niece, as she would have been, will never know him and he will never know her.
“All of those life events they will miss him for, but it is the fact that he has been denied that opportunity by somebody is the worst thing – that somebody took a decision to actually kill him.
“And we have been denied the opportunity of sharing his life and his achievements.”
To bring something positive out of the tragedy, the family set up the Thomas Devlin Fund in 2006. It has since made grants to dozens of young people with the same love of the arts as Thomas, to help them develop their talents.
Penny still has family links to Wales but has no idea why knife crime in Great Britain would be more common than here, aside from the observation it is more frequent in urban areas.
But one of the strongest messages from police in Great Britain, she said, is that young people who carry knives for protection often end up stabbed with the weapon they carried for their own safety.
The PSNI did a lot of excellent work in Northern Ireland after Thomas was killed in raising awareness about knife crime in schools, she added.
It is important to raise awareness “as early as possible” because as a surgeon in Scotland once noted, “it only takes one stab wound to kill”.