Recently one of the students on my School’s Master’s in Reconciliation Studies programme told me that the most powerful book he had read during the year was Give a Boy a Gun: One Man’s Journey from Killing to Peace-Making, by Alistair Little (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009). The book is the autobiography of a former UVF man, co-written with Ruth Scott, detailing his journey from paramilitary activity to conflict transformation and peacebuilding work.
Parts of Little’s story are relatively well-known. It was the basis of a BBC drama featuring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven. This film presented a fictionalised account of a proposed meeting between Little and the brother of the man he shot dead.
There’s much in Little’s book that is powerful, not least his accounts of growing up in Lurgan during the Troubles and his reflections on the choices he made which led him to become involved with the UVF.
Little’s not making excuses here, but he is providing a genuine insight into the process that he went through, including the emotive experience of funerals, the pressure from older boys, the thrill of rioting, and tensions in school.
That’s an eye-opener for someone like me who grew up in rural Maine in the US, or even for the middle classes of Northern Ireland who have little insight into life ‘on the ground’ in the toughest areas during the Troubles.
Little, who was just 17 years old when convicted of the murder, served 12 years in Long Kesh and the H-blocks. He provides a harrowing and sometimes surprising account of what he experienced there –uncomfortable reading for those who have thought little about how prisoners were treated during the Troubles.
Little’s prison story includes a religious conversion experience, a phenomenon that is sometimes mocked among loyalists as it carried with it connotations of going soft or ‘using’ religion to get jail time reduced. But Little’s conversion just made life more difficult for him. Acting from Christian conviction, he transferred from Long Kesh to the H-blocks. He writes (p. 108),
‘I’d arrived in the ‘H’ Blocks looking to continue my journey of discovery and personal transformation. Within a short time I’d become an angry and hate-filled man. … I was furious with this system that couldn’t recognise and support anyone who was trying to move away from violence, and didn’t care what happened to people.’
Little’s story also highlights the complex role that religion has played in Northern Ireland’s conflict. For example, Little is clear that the rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley was inspiring to him when he turned to violence. But Little also writes of the transformative effect of the Christian women who visited him in prison: Mrs Blackthorn from his hometown and a Quaker, Marty Rafferty.
For me, one of the most moving passages in the book was when Little recounted the story of a conversation between Marty and a prison officer (p. 108),
‘Later I learned that Marty had asked the prisoner officer who I was. ‘That’s your man, Little. Do you hear the hatred and bitterness in him? He’s a nasty piece of work.’
‘That’s not what I heard,’ replied Marty. ‘I hear pain and hurt.’
Little says he initially resisted having those ‘weak’ emotions applied to him. But Marty’s reframing of his story illustrates the potential that can be unleashed when someone helps another think about their own story in a different – and eventually transformative – way.
The book also details Little’s struggles on release from prison, including his experience of post traumatic stress and the challenge of having his peacebuilding work accepted as a worthy pursuit for an ex-prisoner.
Little reminds us that there are many in our society who believe that those who committed overtly violent acts during the Troubles should be socially stigmatised and psychologically tormented indefinitely. Further, he criticises a culture of snobbery that permeates some academic approaches to conflict transformation work. He writes in the concluding chapter (p. 221),
‘I understand why others believe I’ve no right to any positive quality of life, but I know too that through my struggles to understand my own history, I’ve learnt so much. The skills and insights I’ve acquired through that journey have been and remain a source of healing for many men and women, both victims and perpetrators. As I continue in this work, maybe those who hear my story will not begrudge me experiences of grace.’
As Northern Ireland continues to struggle to come to terms with its past, I wonder what some former paramilitaries can teach us about grace – and if we are willing to listen?