Gusty Spence died in hospital this weekend aged 78.
He served in the British army for five years and was stationed in Cyprus. He was approached to join the UVF in 1965, and soon became its leader in the Shankill. Under his watch, terror raids by local UVF men resulted in the death of civilian Protestants and Catholics. Spence was arrested shortly after the UVF was declared illegal in June 1966.
His daughter Liz describes his arrest in the book Children of the Revolution.
We were all in the house when he was arrested. It was a wee tiny kitchen-house we lived in. I remember the police coming in and us having to get up out of our beds and just searching all of the house. It’s funny now; my mummy laughed at it years later. My mummy hadn’t a clue what was going on. She says, ‘What are you looking for?’
And they said, ‘Guns.’
And my mummy said, ‘Well, hold on a minute,’ and she went and got this wee bucket; it was my brother’s toy guns. And she actually brought them out to them and said, ‘There you are.’ And she was genuinely serious, because she hadn’t a clue what was going on. They took my daddy away and my mummy and my aunt tried to keep everything quiet from us. But I could read the papers, so I saw what was going on.
Spence went on hunger strikes to get the loyalist prisoners political status.
In the summer of 1972, Spence was granted two days home leave from prison to attend his daughter Liz’s wedding to Winston Churchill ‘Winkie’ Rea (former leader of the Red Hand Commando). After the wedding we absconded and went ‘on the run’ as his daughter recalls:
… he didn’t get arrested again until October or November … They searched the whole of Northern Ireland for him and where was he most of the tie? Either in my mummy’s house or my house … We dyed his hair every other week, changed it all different colours. It was a lot of ducking and diving, but we did it. He was caught coming out of Glencairn. It was the two tattoos on his hands gave him away: my name and our Sandra’s name. It was a wee eighteen-year-old soldier.
Having been ‘kidnapped’ while being driven back to prison, Spence spent the next four months reorganising the UVF and giving a television interview. At that stage while calling for increased action against the Provisional IRA, Spence wanted to stop the UVF’s pattern of random murders of Catholics.
Back in prison, Spence became the UVF commander in the Maze. Military discipline and training was part of his regime. Inmates were exposed to his increasingly political thinking and his disillusionment with the use of violence to bring about political change. Figures like David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson were among his ‘disciples’.
In the summer of 2000, during the loyalist feud, Spence was exiled from his Shankill home by Johnny Adair’s C Company (UDA). Spence’s hose was ‘wrecked’; his daughter’s house was ‘set on fire’. He linked his wife’s death – only a few years later – with the these events.
Aside from the atrocities he led while a paramilitary, Spence is probably best remembered as the figure who read out the 13 October 1994 statement announcing the loyalist ceasefire, and then on 3 May 2007 read out the statement about UVF decommissioning, which included the sentences:
In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past twenty years, abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict.
Seemingly unafraid of examining (and redefining?) his identity, he learnt Irish, was happy to be an ‘Ulster Irishman’ as well as British, and developed a friendship with Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich.
A husband, a father, a killer, a peace-maker.
Gusty Spence was another complex figure who contributed much bloodshed and evil to Northern Ireland society. Yet through prison and release, and working through the Progressive Unionist Party, he later helped bring new thinking into loyalism, and helped open the door for the relative peace of today.
Who will be the inside voices who will now help finish the journey that loyalism has yet to complete?
Update – Henry McDonald’s obituary in the Guardian, and two clips from UTV:
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.