Picture or Brian Rowan
Brian Rowan

It was a conversation that she could never have imagined having. The kids in her sitting room were chatting about the tributes they wanted to pay to her son and to their friend.They were talking to Penny, Thomas's mother, on the eve of a funeral for a murdered boy who was just fifteen.

The following day, in a packed church, there were poems and prayers and tributes and tears, and there was the question: Why?

Thomas Devlin lived and died in a place touched by the very worst of Northern Ireland's Troubles".

In north Belfast almost a hundred teenagers, aged between thirteen and nineteen, lost their lives in a period spanning June 1970 to July 2005. They were soldiers, police officers, civilians, loyalists and republicans. They are the so-called "war" dead. But Thomas was too young to know much about that war.

He would have been just four in the year of the original ceasefires of 1994 - the start of Northern Ireland's "new beginning". And, it was in that new beginning, in a developing peace, that Thomas was murdered.

He was stabbed five times on a street just a couple of hundred yards from the safety of his home. Thomas was a Catholic who was murdered by a Protestant, but this was not one of the many killings in Northern Ireland that have come to be labelled as "sectarian".

This was not a murder that was planned over a period of weeks and months. It was not what we call a paramilitary killing. It was a random attack on Thomas and his friends as they walked home after buying some sweets in a nearby garage.

We live in a place where there is still a culture of violence, and, among some, a mindset that tells them they can murder and get away with it.

Thomas's killer is known, known like so many other killers throughout the course of Northern Ireland's "Troubles".

And, in our "peace", killers are still sheltered, and, in some places, there are people who are still afraid to talk to the police for fear of reprisal. In the new Northern Ireland, this is the residue of our war.

Finding the evidence to bring Thomas's killer before a court has so far proved elusive.

I didn't know Thomas Devlin, but I know his father, Jim. For many years, he was a colleague of mine at the BBC in Belfast. At his son's funeral - on that sad day in north Belfast - I stood, like so many others, in a long line waiting to say something to Jim and Penny and not knowing what to say.

But those who knew Thomas, those kids who had spoken to his mother in her sitting room the night before, said it all for all of us. The boy who was murdered was just a child - a kid of fun and of many friends. He loved music and computer games, meeting with his chums at the City Hall, and he liked being late for school.

What was the man who killed him thinking? What is he thinking now?
Thomas's family want those who know something about this killer to say the something that might bring this man before a court.

Jim and Penny have lost a son, James and Megan a brother, and the many, many, kids who packed the church, and who said so much for and about Thomas, have lost a true friend.

We are all asking: Why?

Brian Rowan was the BBC's security editor in Belfast. He is a writer and broadcaster and has written three books on the peace process.