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Liam Neeson and me, by a former UVF man

Former UVF prisoner Alastair Little
Former UVF prisoner Alastair Little
James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson in a scene from Five Minutes Of Heaven
Liam Neeson

Five Minutes Of Heaven, a powerful Troubles drama starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, is on TV this Sunday. Here, former UVF prisoner Alastair Little tells of his meeting with Neeson, who plays him in the movie — and his shock at the death of the star’s wife

Like everyone I was saddened by the news of the death of Natasha Richardson, the wife of Liam Neeson, not least because I'd actually got to meet the man recently.

Admittedly, you wouldn't expect someone like me, a former UVF prisoner who had served 12 years for killing a young Catholic man, to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of a Hollywood superstar.

But, in fact, it was precisely that event which brought us together.

For Liam plays me in the film, Five Minutes Of Heaven, which will be shown on BBC2 this Sunday night. The movie’s other star, James Nesbitt, plays Joe, the brother of the man I killed.

I think it’s a very powerful piece of drama about the human cost of the Troubles — and about the impact of one specific act.

And I also think Liam Neeson is one of the most genuine and warm people I have met, and my heart goes out to him as he copes with the loss of his wife and the prospect of bringing up their two young sons without their mother.

Five Minutes Of Heaven didn’t happen overnight, instead was a three-year process that began in 2006.

Back then, Owen Callagan, a programme maker, and Guy Hibbert, a writer, had asked if I would be prepared to take part in a programme looking at conflict and the journey from violence to non-violence.

I suppose they contacted me because I’d been one of the few ex-prisoners who’d been prepared to speak out about how I had shot a man, and the impact of that event on others — and myself — down through the years

Thus began a three-year process which involved them working between myself and Joe.

It was during one of the days of filming that I first met Liam.

I had no expectation that we would meet. But apparently just as I was thinking of leaving the set he asked someone: “Where is Alastair?”

Next thing he was walking towards me ready for a chat.

“Well Alistair, I am pleased to meet you,” he began, and we went on to talk about growing up in Northern Ireland.

He talked about his childhood and teenage years in Ballymena, and about how he did some boxing around the Lurgan area, which is the town that I am from.

Even though he’s a movie star and used to working with the rich and famous he showed great interest in my work in the field of reconciliation.

We got on to talking about the situation between Israel and Palestine.

“What a mess it's in!” he said, and I told him about the Combatants for Peace group, which is made up of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who are working together to end the violence.

“Why don't we hear more about those kind of people?” Liam wondered.

Like James Nesbitt, Liam was welcoming and pleasant.

And I honestly felt that he wanted to be there to talk with me, that he wasn't just dong this as part of his job.

I also felt reassured by the seriousness with which they all were taking the film.

When it was time to go Liam gave me a strong handshake. “Keep up the good work,” he told me.

Of course, it was a brief meeting, but I can say that I found Liam to be very genuine, warm and reassuringly down to earth.

It just seems so unfair that such an awful tragedy should happen to such a decent person.

The work on the film started around the same time that I began working with Ruth Scott, an Anglican priest from London, on a book ‘Give a Boy a Gun’, which has just been published.

Though it centres on my own particular story, essentially this isn’t a book about Northern Ireland.

Instead it shares much in common with the stories of young men caught up in stories of conflict across the world.

And my purpose in sharing my story isn't to help people understand the conflict here in greater depth, but to shed light on what turns an ordinary boy growing up in a loving family into a man of violence, and then what helps him turn his back on bloodshed.

My personal experience may be extreme, but there are common roots to the responses that shaped my story and those that are part of daily life for any human being.

Many people assume that violent men are the product of broken or inadequate families. Some are, but it's far from the whole picture, particularly in places where conflict is communal rather than individual.

In this book I’ve tried to be as truthful as possible in exploring what moved me to kill, and the long and painful journey through years in prison and reintegration in the outside world, to eventually working internationally with the victims/survivors and perpetrators of political conflict.

I’ve tried to be clear about the complexity of factors that determined my path for good and ill.

Inevitably home is my point of departure. Had I been born in any other part of the United Kingdom instead of Northern Ireland my story would not be different from that of millions of men who are born, live and die unknown to any but their immediate family and community connections.

But I was born in Lurgan in Northern Ireland.

Like many people at that time I began my teenage years surrounded by violence in my community — shootings and bombings featured almost as a daily occurrence in my area.

At 17 I killed a man. Too young to receive a life sentence, I served 12 years of an indeterminate sentence in Long Kesh and the H Blocks.

During that time I began the slow and painful journey away from violent conflict. This involved reflecting on my actions and their consequences and exploring the complexities of factors which had shaped my path, such as why I chose the way of violence when others in my community did not? What causes one traumatised young person to take up arms and another to walk away from the use of violence?

Also the wider issues, such as how do we tackle the legacy of the conflict as a society so that we do not run the risk of violence erupting again?

Mine is still an unfolding story. I hope in reading it — and in watching Five Minutes Of Heaven this weekend, some people will find it sheds light not only on their own experiences, but on the stories of other people and other situations close to them and far from home.

Give a Boy a Gun: From Killing to Peace-Making by Alistair Little, is published by DLT — Darton, Longman and Todd. Five Minutes Of Heaven is on BBC2 on Sunday at 9.40pm

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