An ex-unionist paramilitary who grew up during the worst of the Northern Ireland troubles is visiting the isles this weekend. David Hamilton spent more than a decade in jail after becoming a member of a Protestant paramilitary group. But today, his message is one of peace and reconciliation. Ryan Taylor finds out more.
A gunman aimed a weapon at Belfast man David Hamilton’s head, and was prepared to pull the trigger.
Instinctively, Mr Hamilton reached out and forced the man’s aiming arm down. That earned the unionist terrorist three gunshot wounds – to his leg, and to his foot. As the unionist fighter lay cowering on the ground in a growing pool of his own blood, the gunman took aim again at his head.
This time, though, the weapon jammed, and David Hamilton’s life was spared.
Today, Mr Hamilton is as far removed from his previous life of militancy as it is possible to be.
Based in Manchester, he serves as a pastor in a Pentecostal church. He has written about his experiences and is visiting the isles this weekend to give an informal interview at the Islesburgh Community Complex on Saturday, followed by what has been described as a “full interview” at Lerwick Baptist Church the following day.
But he talks candidly about his past – about how he became locked in a cycle of paramilitary violence; about living in an environment that was filled with hate; and about his life being under threat even as he tried to move on from his, and Ireland’s, troubled history.
“I grew up in Belfast and was only a teenager when the troubles began. As a result of getting beat up by a group of Catholics for the only reason, they told me, because I was Protestant, I began to fight with Catholics.
“As the troubles progressed I got more frustrated with what the IRA were doing and I thought we should be fighting back against the IRA. So I joined a Protestant paramilitary group.”
As a teenager, he became part of the Ulster Defence Association, and later the Ulster Volunteer Force.
He describes how violence became a part of everyday life during the troubles.
“It’s hard to imagine this background, but we had shootings and bombings every single day. You could get beaten up just walking home from school by a group of Catholics. It split the whole community. That’s what happened then.”
He has rubbed shoulders with some of the most notorious characters from the troubles and describes how comradeship in early years later turned to hatred as the religious divide became too much for former friends to bear.
“I met men in jail who had grown up with me. One of them was Bobby Sands, who was the IRA hunger-striker.
“He and I played football together as boys. But we just felt it was safer to be involved in a gang. Then one night a man came into our youth club and asked for volunteers to join the UDA, and most of the gang members joined overnight.
“That’s what started my involvement then in the paramilitaries.”
Mr Hamilton served 12 years in jail for the part he played in bombing a factory, as well as taking part in armed robberies.
He had been given an extra year during his incarceration for bad behaviour.
Prison was not an easy ordeal to endure, either. Not least because it offered little protection from the violence raging on the outside.
“It was hard at that time because you were suddenly put in jail with men who were your enemies outside. There were men actually murdered in jail and there were men blown up in jail.”
But something happened while he was in prison which changed his mindset. He believed that God had spared his life.
“I’d been shot a couple of times. I’d been blown up. I always just thought I was lucky. But that night I believed it was divine intervention, not luck.
“My mother thought I was a hopeless case when the judge sentenced me. But she has seen me come home from prison a different person. And thank God it was for the good and not the bad.”
Following his conversion, Mr Hamilton gained a deeper understanding of Ireland’s difficult past than he had ever had before.
He studied Ireland’s history from within the prison walls, and believes – under different circumstances – he could have sided with the IRA.
“I realised it was bad – the way the Irish were treated. I could understand their reason for fighting.
“I could have easily been an IRA man. It just depended which side of the street you were on.”
But leaving behind a life of crime did not mean Mr Hamilton was out of harm’s way.
He recalls an attempt being made on his life as he spoke in church. Republican paramilitaries shot three men dead at the door, as well as another eight people inside. Mr Hamilton’s pregnant wife lost her baby through the stress of living through the troubles. The couple had to move to England because of ongoing threats.
But those were different times. Mr Hamilton is amazed that he is now able to return to his homeland, and even share the message of peace with those who were on the other side of the divide.
“I was actually in the Falls Road which is the main republican area in Belfast, and I actually sold some of my books there last year. It’s amazing that someone who was involved in the UVF could actually go up the Falls Road and speak to a church of 200 Roman Catholics, and be received and even welcomed.
“That shows there is a change in attitude.”
But what if people are unwilling to forgive him?
“I can understand that. It was that hatred that I had. The IRA blew up four members of my family in the Omagh bombing. Of course, people are angry. That turns into bitterness and they can get a hard heart. But what I have found is that hatred and animosity that I had did more harm to me than the people I was hating.”
He recounts tales of meeting people who have tried to kill him – including the man who shot him three times.
“You relive it all when you suddenly become face to face with the person who did the injury to you.
“Forgiveness is a message people need to hear for their own sake. But not only have I learned to forgive but I’ve met people who are willing to forgive me for my past. It works both ways.”
Our interview comes in the same month that the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombings were marked.
The massacre took place when an IRA bomb exploded near the war memorial during a Remembrance Day ceremony.
Mr Hamilton was in Enniskillen at the time, warning against the perils of violence, along with a former paramilitary from the Catholic side. He recalls tales of how plans emerged for a counter-attack against a Roman Catholic college. The two were later told they managed to stop a riot from taking place.
Ireland is now at peace. But there is a sense that peace is fragile. Only this week, again on Remembrance Day, a viable pipe bomb was discovered in Omagh. And a deadlock has existed for months following a failure between Sinn Fein and unionists to reach a power-sharing agreement.
“Last week, the group I was with walked to the gates of Stormont to pray that this impasse would end. I think it’s atrocious people cannot move forward. It’s appalling that they feel they are compromised if they come to some sort of reasonable understanding. I think it’s deplorable. What does the rest of the world think? It’s because, they say, of the Irish language.
“But if people want to learn it, let them learn it. It’s not worth all this trouble.”
• Father Ambrose Flavell, the Catholic priest at St Margaret’s Church in Lerwick, said the Catholic church had never condoned terrorism and was “delighted” when people turned away from it.
“I think the Catholic Church is on record as condemning all the terrorism of the troubles. We’re always happy to hear when people turn away from violence.”