Belfast Telegraph

Tributes paid to ex-UVF leader

Unionist politicians in 1960s Northern Ireland used sectarianism to foment division and protect their own political power, the funeral of a leading loyalist paramilitary has heard.

Augustus "Gusty" Spence, 78, was convicted for a sectarian murder in 1966 and was a figurehead of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which killed hundreds of people when the full violence of the Troubles erupted three years later.

But the veteran figure was also credited with being a driving force in delivering the loyalist ceasefires of the mid-1990s that helped bring an end to the decades of conflict.

Spence, who died in hospital at the weekend after a long illness, inspired loyalists to enter politics during the peace process and helped form the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

Its former leader Dawn Purvis told his funeral in the loyalist heartland of Belfast's Shankill Road that Spence became involved in violence in the 1960s. It was a time when Catholics hoped to benefit from political reform of the unionist dominated state, and when republicans were marking the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

In incidents carried out within days of each other in June 1966 Spence's gang killed two Catholic men, plus a Protestant pensioner murdered in a failed attempt to burn a neighbouring Catholic-owned bar.

Spence was convicted for the murder of one of the victims, 18-year-old Peter Ward, shot dead after being identified as a Catholic while he drank in a mainly Protestant pub. The loyalist leader always denied responsibility and his family are now challenging the conviction.

Spence argued for a ceasefire with republicans from as early as the mid-1970s and played a key role in encouraging young loyalists he met in prison to think of the reasons for their involvement in violence.

Ms Purvis told young loyalists at the funeral to read the political doctrines encouraged by Gusty Spence.

"Gusty was a man of war, he was also a man of peace," she said.

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