Photography by Brian Moody
Alistair Little joined the Protestant paramilitaries at the age of 14. Three years later, too young to receive a life sentence, he was detained under the Secretary of State’s Pleasure (SOSP) and served a 13-year prison sentence in Long Kesh and H-blocks. Since his release he’s been working for projects that aim to tackle the causes of violence. He has trained with Michael Lapsley in South Africa and has been a facilitator of the Healing of Memories in Northern Ireland for the past five years. He has also run workshops in Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and in England, and has written a book titled Give a Boy a Gun. His story has been told in an award-winning film, Five Minutes of Heaven.
I joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) when I was a lad. I joined because I wanted to avenge the death of my friend’s father, who had been shot dead by Republicans. I remember going to the funeral and seeing his young daughter. She had been shot in the legs screaming for her daddy. I thought my father would be next, and at the age of 14 I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity to retaliate, I would. My experience is that people easily turn to violence when their voices aren’t being heard, or when they feel under threat. It’s a human response to pain and hurt.
So, when I was 17, I walked into the home of a man I didn’t know and shot him dead. I had asked to do it.
My journey to renouncing violence took place during my 12 years in the Maze Prison. It was a slow and painful process. There was huge cost in terms of loneliness and isolation. But I came to realise that people who use violence – myself included – see things only from one angle. They don’t see that if you use violence yourself, you encourage revenge and hatred in others. You end up with a never-ending circle of violence.
I live with the consequences of my actions every day. I know what I have lost in terms of inner peace. If I were able to live that moment again, I know I would do things differently. But I don’t think I have a right to ask for forgiveness. It only adds insult to injury, and places yet another burden upon relatives and family members. In most cases, asking for forgiveness is more about the needs of the perpetrator than the needs of the victim, or of the family who have lost a loved one.
And some people can’t forgive. But that doesn’t mean they’re weak, or that they’ll be consumed by bitterness or anger. I’ve met people who haven’t been able to forgive, but who haven’t allowed the event to paralyse them. It just means that as human beings they’ve been hurt beyond repair. Who are we to say they should forgive?
Unfortunately reconciliation and forgiveness have been politicised, so for me they’ve lost their value. The only thing to give me hope is working on the ground with people who know the human cost. When someone who has suffered extends the hand of friendship or forgiveness to someone like me, it’s hard not to be moved and inspired.
Three years ago I was sitting opposite a Catholic woman whose husband had been targeted by paramilitaries. After listening to my story, she told me she had come face to face with the thing she feared most, and what she found most disturbing was that she didn’t hate. A few months later, when tensions were high in Northern Ireland, she was the first person to ring me to let me know she was thinking of me.