Obituary: Gusty Spence
Former hardline leader of the UVF who then became a champion of peace among loyalists Gusty Spence, who died on September 24, aged 78Gusty Spence was born in June 1933, the sixth of seven children born to Isabella Hayes and William Edward Spence.
Raised in Joseph Street in the Shankill area of Belfast, Augustus Andrew Spence left Hemsworth Square School on the Shankill at 14 and worked at various jobs until he followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Army in 1957.
In the Military Police he was promoted to sergeant and served in Cyprus before ill-health forced him to leave the Army in 1961. A member of the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry, ‘Gusty’ Spence earned the reputation of a “hard man” in spats with republicans .
With his elder brother, Billy a recognised Protestant activist, it was no surprise that members of the Spence family became involved in the rebirth of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1965.
Sworn into the-then legal organisation, Spence became the UVF’s military commander leading little more than 20 men. One of his first actions was the petrol bombing of a Catholic-owned pub on the Shankill in May 1966, an attack which resulted in the death of an elderly Protestant widow.
Three weeks later, the reborn UVF shot dead John Scullion, a 28-year-old Catholic civilian, as he walked to his home after its original target, prominent IRA member Leo Martin, could not be located at his Falls Road home.
The following month saw an event that led to Spence’s long incarceration in prison. Peter Ward, an 18-year-old Catholic, was shot dead and two of his friends wounded as they left the Malvern Street Arms in the Shankill area where they had been having an after-hours drink. The murder led to the banning of the UVF and Spence was arrested along with three associates. Within four months he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing.
Spence remained a UVF leader within Long Kesh prison where he instituted a stern military regime for those in its ranks who followed his path for their terrorist crimes.
Granted two days leave in July 1972 to attend the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth, he was ‘kidnapped’ by the UVF and prevented from returning to jail for four months during which he gave an interview to ITV’s World in Action in which he called for the UVF to increase its terrorist actions.
Returned to prison in November 1972, Spence then began to try to modify the UVF’s murderous sectarian activities and persuaded the leadership to declare a temporary ceasefire in 1973. Briefly legalised again the following year, the Volunteer Political Party was established on Spence’s initiative. But it would be a further 20 years before Spence’s influence upon the UVF brought about its ceasefire.
He reportedly resigned from the organisation in 1978 before being released from prison in 1984. In a watershed for loyalism, it was Spence who read out the statement declaring UVF, Red Hand Commando and UDA ceasefires in Fernhill House in October 1994 and apologised to the innocent victims of their terror campaigns.
He became a leading advocate of the 1998 Belfast Agreement within the loyalist fraternity and travelled to the US with David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson to brief American politicians.
In May 2007, Spence read out a statement on behalf of the UVF announcing that it would keep its weapons but put them beyond the reach of its members.