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Packie's years of terror

When I was a boy I loved playing football and one of the guys I regularly had a kick-about with was Bobby Sands, a neighbour of mine in Rathcoole, in north Belfast. Back then, I knew him as Sandsy. I was a Protestant and he was a Roman Catholic, but at that time I didn't really understand what that meant. I just thought he was a great wee fella.

When I was a boy I loved playing football and one of the guys I regularly had a kick-about with was Bobby Sands, a neighbour of mine in Rathcoole, in north Belfast. Back then, I knew him as Sandsy. I was a Protestant and he was a Roman Catholic, but at that time I didn't really understand what that meant. I just thought he was a great wee fella.

But as we grew up and the Troubles started, I lost track of what happened to Sandsy. Then, years later during the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze prison, our paths crossed again.

I was a loyalist prisoner, and I'd heard the name Bobby Sands bandied about as the first republican prisoner to start refusing food. It meant nothing to me until one morning at breakfast someone showed me a photo of him and I gave a start. "Good grief, I know him," I said. "That's Sandsy."

It's funny how we'd gone our separate ways, yet ended up in the same place for the same reason for different causes. Like I said, I didn't become in any way political until I reached my teens. I'd been born in Cookstown and then, when I was eight, mum, dad, my three sisters, brother and myself all moved to Belfast. Dad was a butcher and had got a new job in the city, and we settled in Rathcoole. In those days it was a big estate, with both Protestant and Catholic families living there.

If you'd asked me then what I wanted out of life I wouldn't have had much of an idea, apart from, perhaps, joining the Army. But everything changed when I was 13. One day I was walking home alongside the Glen River when I saw five boys up ahead. They were Catholics, but I was friendly with them and so I walked towards them. But as I got closer one muttered something about beating me up.

Next thing they just pounced, punching and kicking me. Afterwards they threw me in the river. I wasn't badly hurt, just bruised. One of the boys looked at me and saw that I was puzzled as to why I'd been attacked. 'We did that because you're a Protestant,' he told me.

And in that instant I made a decision - there'd be no more Catholic friends for me. And, if there was going to be fighting with Catholic lads, then I'd make sure I was with Protestant boys. Two years later I joined the Rathcoole KAI. I still have that name tattooed on my arm - the initials stood for Kill All Irishmen. That was a skinhead tartan gang and there were about 400 of us in it. We saw ourselves as protecting local Protestants and we were always rioting and fighting with Catholics, the police and the Army. I loved it, and there was a sense of belonging and safety.

I remember going to Londonderry on Easter Monday and getting covered in blue dye when the police turned a water cannon on us. I thought it was a great laugh until I got back to Belfast and the police kept noticing the dye and giving me a beating because they knew what I'd been up to.

But it was no deterrent. I was a young man with a mission, and that was to rid the area of Catholics, whom I now saw as the enemy. I also began to think that while rioting was all very well, it went nowhere near far enough to counter the threat posed by the IRA.

They were bombing, shooting and killing, and they seemed to be getting away with it. The idea was to get all the Catholics out of Rathcoole, barricade it off, and make it a safe area for Protestants. So, I started to make petrol bombs and burn Catholics out of their homes.

People might wonder how I could just lob a bomb into someone's house and run off, never waiting to see if a family escaped the flames, but even now I can't really explain that. I just did it without ever stopping to think about consequences. And yet, in the middle of it all, I had some warped sense of decency. For example, our next door neighbours were Catholics and my mum was very friendly with them, so I made a conscious decision to never target that family.

But in every other way I was raging totally out of control. As a boy, one of my Catholic friend's fathers had a car - a rare thing in our area - and I used to walk down to Whitehouse Chapel every Sunday to meet them and get a ride home in it. One day I walked down as usual and my friend said, 'You'll have to walk it up. My dad is going to an IRA meeting.' Years later, at 15, I remembered that conversation, so I went down to the chapel and torched it. I'd got it into my head that they were holding IRA meetings in there and I thought I'd put a stop to that. Shortly afterwards I torched a Catholic school as well.

On another occasion I was walking down a street in broad daylight and a mate pointed out a house and said a Catholic family lived there. I walked over to a wall, lifted up a breeze block and threw it through the living room window. If someone had been sitting on the sofa they'd have been dead. At 17, I was asked to join the UDA. Because I'd been a gang leader in Rathcoole KAI, I was immediately made a corporal.

There was no joining-up ceremony, but soon there was plenty of action. We did a lot of training and, for the first time, I handled a gun. Straightaway that gave me real buzz. Why use a stick or a hammer to riot when you could use a gun? This was a real chance to strike back at the IRA - on their terms.

After three months I was allowed to bring the gun home. I hid it in my bedroom but my mother found it and told my father. He grabbed me by the throat, pinned me against the wall and told me on no account to ever bring a gun into the house again. So I didn't - I hid it in the dog kennel in the garden instead.

Months later my reign of mayhem came to an, albeit, brief end. I was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and petrol-bombing and jailed for nine months. No matter what anyone says, being driven into a prison is no laughing matter. I was definitely shocked to find myself in the compounds in Long Kesh. But I got used to it - and I learned more about terrorism in there than I'd ever done outside. We had bomb-making classes and our own guns in jail. When people refuse to believe me that we had weapons in the prison I just point how, years later, Billy Wright was shot in jail.

UVF leader Gusty Spence was in charge in the compounds, and everyone looked upon him as a sort of father figure. I decided to switch from the UDA to the UVF, because it seemed more militant. Doing so certainly confused the police for a while after I got out of prison. They noticed I was no longer mixing with UDA men and thought I'd changed my ways. One policeman in particular be- friended me, telling me he was glad to see I had wised up. Later, when I was arrested and quizzed about UVF activities, he came round to the station and gave me a going over.

I spent a further three months at a young offender's centre for non-payment of fines, but once I got out of there I moved on to much more serious stuff.

I did more armed robberies and was involved indirectly in murder. I was arrested as a team member in 1978 and some of those sentenced with me went down for murder. That team was involved in shootings, bombings, murders and it was just by the grace of God that I didn't actually kill anyone. I can remember times when I left the house with a gun and thought 'by the time I get back here tonight, I will have killed a person.' I was going out to do something. But perhaps the person was not there or did not turn up. Today I thank God for that.

That time I was sentenced for 11 years, and it was tough. By now I was married and had an eight month old baby son, David. I missed my wife and child, and worried about how they were getting on. Of course, I started to adapt to prison life but every morning, when I woke, there was always that initial thought: 'Oh no, I'm in jail.'

It was hard on my family, too. After my sentencing, my mother had called in with an uncle of mine. She was very upset about how long I'd been put away for and she cried 'It's no use, David will never change.' But an old lady, Annie Beggs, a committed Christian, was also in the house and she said to mum 'Stop crying, I'm going to pray for him and ask God to change his life.'

On New Year's Day 1980 I went up to my cell in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail and started drinking a cup of tea. A thought came into my head about becoming a Christian; that it was time to change. I picked up a Gideon Bible, lay down on the bed and read for a while. I thought about my life, and about all the things I'd done to other people. I'd narrowly escaped death myself - once in Belfast a guy had come up behind me with a gun but I'd turned around just in time and pushed his hand down. I ended up being shot three times in the foot instead. I'd been stabbed many times in fights - I have hundreds of stitches all over my body - and I was once hit on the head with a hatchet. I reckoned that if God had kept me alive, then maybe God could change my life. So I knelt down in my cell and prayed.

I felt a change in me almost at once. The next morning I told people I'd become a Christian. My nickname is Packie and they started taunting me 'Ah Packie's joined the God squad.' But their jeers didn't fizz on me because I felt a peace inside me.

A couple of years later my marriage ended after I found out my wife was living with someone else. I tried to get my wife to change her mind and be reconciled with me, but she would not. Admittedly, I thought 'C'mon God, here I am trying to live a good life and now you do this to me.'

But God did a healing in me. After I was paroled I saw my wife one day. I had loved her and yet this time I felt nothing. God had touched my heart and released me from that. I settled back in Rathcoole, where my old friends in the UVF wanted to know if I was coming back to the organisation. I declined and they said they'd be watching me to make sure I was genuine about my religious conversion.

But I was quite a radical Christian and carried my Bible about with me, and I think they were convinced.

I worked with Prison Fellowship for four years, going round churches giving my testimony. I also studied at Belfast Bible College and started working as an inter- national evangelist, spending alternate months at home and abroad, preaching in 15 different countries.

Ten years ago I moved to Manchester, as an assistant pastor with the Apostolic Church. Now I'm ordained with the Assemblies of God ministry. Until recently I also worked with a drug rehabilitation centre, ironically often helping young men with alcohol problems from both sides in Northern Ireland who had fled the paramilitaries.

I married Sharon in June 1984 and we have three children: Adam, 19, Jonathan, 17, and April Joy, 9. Sharon also has a daughter, Louise, from a previous relationship. She lives with us, and I'm in regular contact my son, David. I've felt a lot of guilt about what I've done. Once at a church meeting a woman stood up and said 'You petrol bombed us out of our home'. It was embarrassing, but she forgave me. But I'm a victim, too.

Relatives of mine have been hurt in bombings - most recently at Omagh. When I heard that news I knelt by my bed and prayed for my injured relatives, but also for the bombers.

Of course, I've encountered cynicism about my faith. One night I was at a church when a pastor, unaware of my background, said he didn't put much stock on prison conversions. 'A year later you never hear tell of these people,' he said. Well, 25 years on, here I am. I blame it all on that old lady, Annie Beggs. It was her who put me on a Wanted poster."

÷Interdenominational Divine Healing Ministries celebration of the 25th anniversary of the conversion of David 'Packie' Hamilton, tonight, St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, 8pm. Also taking part, Sister Margaret McStay and Brother David Jardine.