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Book reviews >

Dark the past that lies behind

Nicholas Frayling on turning away from sectarian violence

Give a Boy a Gun: From killing to peace-making
Alistair Little, with Ruth Scott
DLT £12.95
Church Times Bookshop £11.65

ALISTAIR LITTLE was 14 when his friend’s father was killed by an IRA gunman. Consumed with hatred, Alistair joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Three years later, he killed James Griffin, a Roman Catholic. “I’ve scored,” he boasted.

This book, the result of long conversations with Ruth Scott, an Anglican priest, is Alistair’s story. He describes the almost daily riots and sectarian killing in Lurgan, his home town, as he tries to explain what turns a boy from a loving, stable family into a terrorist gun­man. It is a portrait of a dysfunc­tional, abnormal society, where “the extraordinary felt ordinary.”

He spent 12 years of an indeter­min­ate sentence in prison, including Long Kesh and the notorious H Blocks, and the descriptions of life “inside” are harrowing. His early experiences on his release (on licence for life) are revealing of a society that had not moved on, at least as much as he had; for Alistair used his years in prison to reflect on his actions and their consequences, and to try to learn “what causes one traumatised young person to take up arms, and another to walk away from the use of violence”.

In recent years, he has worked in conflict resolution and restorative justice, running workshops in Ireland, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans, and South Africa: there are some lovely descriptions of trekking in the bush. It is important, he stresses, that people who have been caught up in conflict engage in this work, and he has sharp observations about detached academics, who must find him an uncomfortable facilitator.

This is an important book, for what it reveals about the character­istics of conflict, formed over gen­era­tions: the identity of a commun­ity which is “always claimed at the expense of the other community”. It is also an inspiring personal story, told with great courage; it is a tribute to Ruth Scott that the vivid­ness of conversation is not lost in the written word.

An editor might perhaps have shortened the last part of the book, in which the author’s work in conflict resolution is described in great detail. I found the references to group dynamics repetitive, though significant in the context of the story.

Alistair is more reticent about the part faith has played in his life. He says “the fear of God” instilled in Sunday school was an important factor in turning him away from violence. He describes a special encounter with God in prison “in a new way . . . even though I would not call myself a Christian”.

I suspect I will not be the only reader of this book who will thank God that Alistair Little has told his still-unfinished story, and pray that he will find the inner peace that eludes him, and release from the “legacy of guilt and darkness from which I think I shall never be free”.

The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling is the Dean of Chichester, and the author of Pardon and Peace: A reflection on the making of peace in Ireland (SPCK, 1996).

To place an order for this book through CT Bookshop

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