Gusty Spence: Loyalist paramilitary who became a force for peace dies aged 78
One of the most prominent figures in Belfast's loyalist paramilitary underworld, who was involved in the earliest outbreak of the Northern Ireland Troubles almost half a century ago, has died at the age of 78.
Augustus "Gusty" Spence evolved from early militancy into a committed peacemaker, in a dramatic change which happened during his 18-year prison sentence.
Although his attempts to build a loyalist political wing similar to Sinn Fein proved unsuccessful, his abandonment of violence was yesterday acknowledged by republicans and others.
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said he had made a valuable contribution to the peace process, adding: "Many nationalists will remember him as central to the sectarianism that gave birth to the modern loyalist paramilitary.
"However, he did dedicate himself to peace and reconciliation for much of his later life, so he will also be remembered as a major influence in drawing loyalism away from sectarian strife."
He was linked to the murders of two Catholic men in 1966, several years before the full-scale troubles broke out. A one-time military policeman, he was charged with the murder of a man walking in the Falls Road district of Belfast, but the charges were dropped.
He was however convicted of the murder of a teenage Catholic barman, Peter Ward, who was shot dead in a Shankill Road street after leaving a local pub.
Mr Spence got a 20-year life sentence. He was Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) commander in the Maze prison, then known as Long Kesh, for some years, but showed an unusual openness for a loyalist. He learnt the Irish language, struck up relationships with jailed republicans and eventually issued a number of calls for an end to violence.
He continued to call for a loyalist ceasefire on his release in 1984 after serving 18 years behind bars. Although the UVF made some moves in this direction, it mostly remained wedded to violence, claiming almost 600 lives in the course of the troubles.
Mr Spence persisted, however, in behind the scenes contacts with, among other elements, republicans and the Irish government. When the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994 he was instrumental in persuading the UVF and other loyalists to follow suit.
Some of his proteges, notably David Ervine, took part in negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
In 2007 the UVF announced that it was putting its weapons "beyond reach" and would cease to exist as a paramilitary organisation.
Mr Spence was ill for some time before his death, suffering from asthma and a heart complaint.