Gusty Spence epitomised the paramilitary who became a peacemaker

 

The death of the former UVF paramilitary leader at the age of 78 is a timely reminder of his critical influence in prevailing upon loyalist terror groups to stand down and cease fire, writes SCOTT JAMISON

AUGUSTUS GUSTY Spence, the man who resurrected and reformed the Ulster Volunteer Force, died yesterday in a Belfast hospital after being admitted almost two weeks ago. He was 78.

Although he established the paramilitary group in the mid-1960s and was convicted of shooting a Catholic civilian at the time, he was also one of the key figures that brought the two main loyalist groups, the UVF and Ulster Defence Association, to ceasefire in 1994.

The Shankill Road man was sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually serving 18 years, after the death of a Catholic in Belfast in 1966. He became heavily involved in politics and was a key figure in the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF’s political wing.

Although taking more of a backstage role in recent years, Spence was the man who made the announcement in May 2007 that the UVF was putting its weapons “beyond use”.

Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis, who called Spence her friend and mentor, said he had made an immense contribution to the peace process.

“Gusty challenged many within loyalism to find a peaceful path. He committed himself to wanting something better and to working for something better,” she said.

Brian Ervine, brother of the late David Ervine, and the man who succeeded Ms Purvis as PUP leader, said Spence was “one of the pivots on which a page of Irish history turned”.

He added: “His contribution to peace is incalculable and without him, probably the paramilitaries would still be at war.

“He was an Irishman and looked upon himself as an Ulster Irishman as well as being British. He was really a role model for many young men who would follow.”

Sinn Féin North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said Spence would be remembered by “many nationalists as central to the sectarianism that gave birth to the modern loyalist paramilitary”.

He added: “Gusty Spence played a key role within loyalism in bringing the UVF into the peace process and announcing their ceasefires in 1994. This valuable contribution allowed the peace process to develop further.”

Although Spence was seen by many as a loyalist paramilitary godfather leading an organisation responsible for hundreds of deaths, he was also considered as being among the first on either side to recognise the need for peace between the communities in the North.

His father was a member of the original UVF, established to fight against potential Home Rule prior to the first World War. Although the organisation was stood down following the end of the war, the former military policeman brought it back in 1966 as a counterpoint to the IRA after sectarian clashes in Belfast.

However, it soon started targeting Catholic civilians as part of its terror campaign. John Scullion was the first victim of the Troubles when he was shot by the group on the Falls Road on June 11th, 1966.

He died two weeks later and Spence was one of three men charged with the murder, but the charges were later dropped.

Later that month Spence was in a pub on the Shankill Road when four Catholics arrived for a drink after work. Spence overheard their conversation and identified their religion, ambushing them as they left.

Eighteen-year-old Peter Ward was shot dead.

Spence was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in prison but escaped in July 1972 after being given six hours’ parole to attend his daughter’s wedding. He was on the run for four months, during which time he reorganised the UVF, before he was arrested and returned to prison where he remained until December 1984 when he was released due to ill health.

It was while in the Maze Prison that Spence turned to politics, bringing several UVF men around to that way of thinking, including the late David Ervine, who led the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF.

In October 1994, representing the “Combined Loyalist Military Command”, Spence announced that the UVF and Ulster Defence Association were going on ceasefire, while offering “abject and true remorse” to the loved ones of the “innocent victims” of the Troubles.

Despite the 2007 proclamation, the UVF has been involved in sporadic violence since, including orchestrating this summer’s rioting in the Short Strand area of Belfast and the shooting of Bobby Moffett in the Shankill Road in May 2010.

Following the latter incident, Spence called on the UVF to disband, saying “there was no reason for them to exist”.