The day after Gusty Spence died the Irish News had the story on the front page. The News Letter instead led with the story of an eighteen year old deeply religious maths student from Kilkeel who was studying at Queens and who was tragically killed in a road traffic accident. In many ways the News Letter’s position would be typical of the views of Northern Ireland’s unionist community and on this subject it picked the mood pretty accurately.
Firstly lest anyone suggest otherwise, everyone’s death is a tragedy for their friends and family. No one is without those who care for them and no one is wholly bad. The immediate aftermath of a death is not a time to character assassinate the deceased especially when the family, raw with grief, may have to hear or read the attack. However, moving on, a sober assessment including one from those highly critical of the deceased is necessary in order that the first draft of the person’s history is not sanitised.
The facts of Gusty Spence’s early adult life have been presented previously: he served with the British Army attaining the rank of sergeant before leaving on health grounds. Spence first became relevant in the history of Northern Ireland when he joined the UVF in 1965 and became the leader of its Shankill brigade the same year. Some recently have tried to present the reforming of the UVF, self proclaimed as it was to fight the IRA, as a response to Operation Harvest, the IRA’s Border campaign of 1956 – 1962. Operation Harvest was a fiasco yielding nothing more for the IRA than songs about Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon. It may have helped radicalise some in certain Protestant working class communities but the suggestion that the spectre of a failed campaign whose end was finally declared four years before the reinvention of the UVF, was the catalyst for that reformation is a revisionist myth promoted for self-serving reasons by the UVF.
Furthermore the vast majority of the IRA’s Border Campaign occurred in Fermanagh, especially South Fermanagh. Yet Gusty Spence and his cohorts were on the Shankill and it is unclear whether the Shankill UVF would have known then (or now) where Derrylin, Rosslea, Lisnaskea and Brookeborough were. The idea that the UVF were there to defend the Protestant / Unionist population of Ulster is shown to be untrue by the fact that they so rarely ventured at any stage to where the IRA campaign was at its worst. Furthermore the unionist population of Fermanagh of all social classes which suffered so much during the more recent IRA campaign always held the UVF in the same quiet, calm yet icy contempt with which they regarded the IRA.
The first actions of the UVF in 1966 included the murder of John Scullion on the Falls Road. Spence was arrested but never charged over this sectarian murder. Later, however, he was convicted for the murder of Peter Ward a Catholic barman ambushed leaving the Malvern Arms on the Shankill Road after having a drink with friends. Spence was convicted of Mr. Ward’s murder but always maintained his innocence. Matilda Gould was also killed when Spence’s Shankill UVF burned down the Catholic owned pub next to her house, killing Mrs Gould a 74 year old grandmother (who happened to be a Protestant).
Spence was convicted of only one of these murders (Mr. Ward’s) and protested his innocence of that crime. It is against that denial of responsibility that his claim so many years later in 1994 to “offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past twenty years, abject and true remorse.” must be set.
Spence found time when he escaped custody in 1972 to help in the reorganisation of the UVF and to improve it as a terrorist organisation; also appearing at a press conference as its commander. However, after his recapture and return to gaol it seems that something of a transformation began with Spence.
The standard narrative is that he renounced violence, took up politics and tried to reach out and make contacts with republicans; becoming a persuader for peace and a mentor to David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and later Dawn Purvis. There may be a certain truth to some of this. However, there is also a great deal of inappropriate and selective hero worship in this analysis. Spence’s speech in the Maze on the 12th of July 1977 is often quoted (especially on Slugger) as an example of how he was turning away from violence. However, it was the self serving peace of a terrorist. Describing Northern Ireland as a police state was hyperbole but maybe to be expected from a man who had the RUC to thank for ensuring that his crimes resulted in him wasting years of his life in gaol (criminals rarely have especially nice things to say about the police). The idea that the paramilitaries should make the peace in Northern Ireland was also problematic as they had absolutely no political mandate to make either war or peace. This was long before Sinn Fein had any significant mandate and the PUP has never had one. The contribution the UVF could have made to “making peace” would have been simply stopping trying to kill people: remarkably straightforward yet something even now they seem incapable of.
The lack of mandate has always been a problem for loyalist politicians like Spence. It would be unfair to say that they had absolutely no support and in the early days of the Troubles with the degree of chaos on the streets the paramilitaries did in some localised areas have a degree of support. However, neither the unionist nor nationalist working class communities in Belfast ever gave significant support to the sectarian murder of their counterparts from the other side. That along with the fact that most of the terrorists’ violence was actually directed at their own community resulted in working class unionists being held in a state of fear by the terrorists. This gave the UVF a degree of influence. In the privacy of the ballot box, however, working class unionists rejected loyalist paramilitary political representatives time after time. The rural working class on the other hand were more difficult to intimidate, the UVF et al. lacking a significant rural presence. Hence, in the rural parts of Ulster there was practically no presence of the UVF or their political stooges: that despite the vicious IRA campaign in some of those areas.
If Spence then was not credible as a politician, he was lauded as a peacemaker and a persuader to stop the loyalist terrorists from their murdering ways. There is probably a somewhat greater degree of truth in that. Spence may well have had his fill of sectarian murder and saw that it was immoral and self-defeating. Murdering working class Catholics did not make them oppose the IRA; rather it made working class nationalists angry and afraid, in turn making more recruits for the Provos. This remarkably unsurprising notion never seemed to occur to loyalist terrorists. Spence’s attempts to persuade loyalists to stop killing people seemed remarkably ineffective. If he was already making this argument prior to his release from gaol in 1984 it was clearly more than ten years before the UVF violence stopped. During the intervening period they committed many of the most revolting sectarian murders of the Troubles and managed to kill almost no republican terrorists (their supposed targets).
Leaving aside Spence’s past criminality this is one of the most serious charges against Spence and one which his apologists struggle the most with. Despite all his supposed pleading for peace the UVF (and UDA) carried on the murders, in the early 1990s even increasing them. Yet Spence did not walk away. After more than a decade of fruitless pleading for peace Spence would not walk away from them; would not unreservedly denounce them and would not go to the RUC with information which would have helped damage the organisation which he helped set up but which his views were supposedly then so far from. There comes a point when someone trying to change a group or organisation’s direction from within must accept that they have failed and that the honourable thing to do is to leave that organisation. To walk away from the paramilitaries or take more serious sanctions against them would of course have destroyed Spence’s prestige and his sole importance. That he valued that prestige and importance above the lives of the innocent Catholics (and Protestants) whom the UVF murdered is a charge against Spence which is difficult to avoid.
Spence had to keep his influence with the loyalist paramilitaries and their political mouth pieces because that was the only vehicle he had for influence. He would have been unlikely to make headway within either of the main unionist parties and would have had no credibility trying to set up his own non paramilitary linked party. Unionists simply would not have voted for him in adequate numbers to give him a political career and Spence had the intelligence to know that. He is said to have become highly disillusioned with the way the UVF carried on killing people after the ceasefire. That may well be so but hopefully some of the dismay was that he himself was one of the creators of this group of thugs.
Republicans may wish to believe that many unionists supported the loyalist terrorists: it makes them feel that they had more support for their own sectarian murder campaign than they actually had; furthermore it helps justify their claims that there was a war here in Northern Ireland. Liberals may also choose to pretend that there was a war and that both unionists and nationalists supported their respective paramilitaries in large numbers: that helps justify the moral gymnastics the Liberals have been enthusiastic supporters of. Most unionists, however, regard Spence and his cohorts as a murderous harbinger and even as precipitants of the horrific violence visited upon Northern Ireland. They regard his conversion to peace as self serving and partial and as such his death though sad is less newsworthy than that of a talented Godly teenager with so much to offer society. As so often from a unionist perspective the News Letter called it exactly right in its coverage of Gusty Spence’s death.