At 17 he murdered a young Catholic, now Alistair Little tries to reconcile old enemies. He talks about the latest killings in Northern Ireland, and why he doesn't want forgiveness
David SharrockThe Times
March 18, 2009
When Alistair Little was 14 years old he saw the coffin of his friend's father draped in the Union Jack at the wake house. He cried with the dead man's daughter, who had been hit in the legs by the bullets fired by IRA gunmen at her father. And he left that house with rage and revenge in his heart.
He joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Three years later he committed murder. “I've scored,” he told his mates as they drove away after killing James Griffin, a Catholic who had allegedly made threats to some of his Protestant co-workers. At least, that's what Little had been told, and that was enough for him.
It's hard to believe that the man I'm sitting with in a bookstore café in Belfast was once the boy with the gun. Quiet and intense, after spending 12 years in prison he now works in conflict transformation, running workshops for the traumatised in Ireland, Israel, the Balkans and South Africa.
You, too, can witness Alistair Little's transformation. Five Minutes of Heaven, a new film by Oliver Hirschbiegel, will be broadcast by the BBC next month. In it, Liam Neeson plays Little. James Nesbitt plays Joe Griffin, the brother of Little's victim, who witnessed the murder.
The film begins with a reconstruction of the murder but then veers into a “what if” scenario in which the killer and his victim's brother meet decades on from Jim Griffin's murder. In real life Little and Griffin have never met, but the film script by Guy Hibbert was based on detailed Griffins with both men, who were asked what might happen if they were to meet.
Five Minutes of Heaven is an unsentimental exploration of the relationship between a perpetrator and a survivor of one tragic incident in the long history of the Irish conflict.
The film poses searching questions about the nature of the unwanted ties that bind the two men together. It offers a complex, human response to the questions that had begun to emerge around the search for reconciliation, a phase into which Northern Ireland thought it had passed until last week's murder of three members of the security forces by republican terrorists.
”It's a solid piece of work, I can stand over it. There's obviously things in it which for me are difficult,” he says over tea and bagels.
Little has spent most of his life looking back with horror and regret at the moment when he took a life. He seems determined never to ease the remorse.
The film, like Little's story, offers no simple parables of forgiveness. It holds out the hope of redemption but Little, a child soldier of the UVF, struggles with that concept.
Joe Griffin was 11 years old when he watched from a few feet away as Little, 17, approached his terraced home in Lurgan, Co Armagh, and fired through the front window, killing his big brother Jim.
“If I'd known at that moment that he was Griffin's brother, I would have killed him, too,” he tells me, just as Neeson says in the film.
“Where I was at the time, I would have done anything - even getting on a bus and killing everyone. I've never met Joe, not since that day, staring through the mask at him. But in my head I've had a relationship with him from the moment I shot his brother.”
The interview takes place over two meetings. Originally we were to have talked about the film, his autobiography Give a Boy a Gun and his work running storytelling workshops through which people come to terms with the violence in their lives.
But since our previous encounter the recent killings in Northern Ireland have intervened. In these circumstances, any thought of reconciliation - that the time is right for healing the province's war wounds - has been swept aside. His calmness has been replaced with anger, not just about the killings and the danger that a new cycle of murder will ensue, but at the public and political responses to what happened.
“They are all saying that these killings can no longer be justified - does that mean, then, that murder was somehow justifiable in the past? There are probably thousands of people out there who have lost loved ones and are feeling as angry as I am right now.”
Little was thrown back into prison for another year after his release in 1986 for refusing to recommence his paramilitary activities and work for the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch as an agent. He was promised that he could carry a gun and even keep the money he would rob from banks and post offices while informing on loyalist leaders.
But it was too late for that: his journey away from the boy he had been and his rejection of violence had begun in prison. “It was probably after five years of studying in prison, looking at conflicts in other parts of the world, talking with fellow prisoners,” he says. “It wasn't one thing that changed me. There wasn't a moment. It's an ongoing journey, a process of change, a recognition of the suffering you have caused your family, then extending that to your enemy.”
After prison his loyalist comrades asked him if he wanted to get involved in the UVF again. He said no. He got on with his life, marrying and raising a daughter. The book, he says, was written in part so that she - now the same age as he was when he joined the UVF - could understand him better.
But he also wanted to write something that went beyond the stereotypical image of a loyalist as a “tattooed, iron-pumping druggie ... I was sick and tired of watching and reading about loyalists as sectarian thickos. I was brought up in a Christian home - my mother knew nothing about my UVF membership.” The book provides “the context of the time it [the murder] happened and the importance that young men attach to a sense of belonging.
“I'm not asking for forgiveness. I would never ask the family of Jim Griffin for that because I don't believe I have the right. Then people ask me: ‘Have you forgiven yourself?' That's a load of crap. I try to do the best I can with what life I have left. My main vocation is working with people.”
His work nowadays, with groups as diverse as prisoners in English jails, Zimbabwean refugees and Serbs and Albanians, is based on the idea that people telling one another their life stories builds deeper relationships and makes them less likely to resort to violence. Stories, Little has found, help to create a climate in which understanding can flourish, touching hearts as well as minds.
Such “conflict transformation” work is rarely spoken or written about. This year he will be in Israel, running workshops that bring together a small number of Israeli and Palestinian fighters. After that he is off to South Africa with a group from Northern Ireland for a “sustainable peace wilderness trek” in which the participants will be obliged to depend on one another for safety in a dangerous environment. In the past, that has meant former IRA men, police officers and loyalists taking turns to stand guard at night, looking out for the others.
When, in January, the Consultative Group on the Past published its proposals on how to move Northern Ireland beyond its bitter divisions, Little was unhappy with the idea that generated the most headlines: a £12,000 payment to the families of everyone killed in the Troubles, regardless of who they were.
It would mean, for example, that the family of the IRA bomber Thomas Begley, who blew himself up along with nine innocent Shankill Road shoppers, would receive the same payment as his victims' families. But he was even more annoyed when the Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, said that the proposal had been set aside from the rest of the £300 million plan because there was no consensus for it.
“No consensus? There was no consensus to let the prisoners out (in 2000, as part of the peace process) but that didn't stop them doing it. They can't even be honest about their motives,” he said.
“I am bitter and angry this week. It comes from that sense of frustration about ‘When are we going to tell the f*****g truth about what's going on here?'”
But truth is an elusive commodity in Northern Ireland. There have been staggering revelations about the extent to which the intelligence and security forces ran informers and “agents of influence” within all the paramilitary groups, but particularly the Provisional IRA. And there are bound to be more shocks ahead. For Little, the quest for truth is about going beyond “the scapegoating of everyone who went to prison as the guilty ones alone. Who was working for whom? Who was pulling the strings here?”
The problem, he believes, is fundamentally one of society's attitudes to violence. “Violence works. Of course violence worked for the republicans - it got them to the negotiating table. So when you hear them condemning this latest violence, is it because they believe that violence is morally wrong? No, it's because it's interfering with their political strategy.
“You know, when they stand there calling on the dissidents to stop, that they know violence worked for them. And the dissidents, listening to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and seeing where they have got to - they, too, will be thinking that violence works.”
Little has come from a meeting in which a republican told him that even though the murder of the policeman was wrong, he could not condemn it “because he said ‘I was once one of those young guys' who carried out the attack.”
One of those arrested and questioned about the recent attacks is a 17-year-old - the same age that Little was when he killed. “I know that, even though I detest violence, I am still capable of violence - and that scares me,” he says. “It's part of the human condition. I never want, ever again, to be part of violence but it disturbs me; it depresses me. Have I really changed?”
He finds it odd, as one who “helped to create all this”, to argue that calling the republican terrorists responsible for the attacks “criminals and traitors” will not stop them.
“There is an onus to talk to them,” he says. “But saying that in an emotionally charged atmosphere would be unpopular. Yet there are people sitting in Stormont (the Parliament building ) who shot and blew people up.
“There is a lack of real honesty. A lot of our political settlement is founded on deceit. Reconciliation is built on truth: if it isn't, it will fail.”
He is all too conscious that this week hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are grieving all over again because of the renewed violence. Every new tragic event brings back one's personal loss.
The past is always with him, making him doubt whether he has the right to be working with those who have suffered because of acts committed by people like him.
“There is a vocational element to my work which comes from me never wanting to be involved in violence again,” he says. “There's a spiritual element, too, about being a bad person, wanting to change and wondering if you can.
“Do I think I am a bad person? Yes... but not every day.”
He would like to talk to the “young boy that I was”, he says, to try to talk him out of taking the wrong path, making the wrong choices. But “there's no guarantee that he'd listen. The man I have become is one that my teenage self would want to kill.”