Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Spence pivotal in ending UVF's war

The death of Gusty Spence marks the end of a remarkable chapter in the recent history of Northern Ireland, and of loyalism itself. He will be remembered as a man who played a pivotal role in the foundation of the modern and murderous Ulster Volunteer Force which committed hundreds of sectarian murders in the Troubles.

Paradoxically, Spence also played a major role in bringing about the loyalist ceasefires, partly because of the authority he commanded during an 18-year prison sentence after his conviction for the murder of a Catholic barman in 1966.

Gusty Spence first came to prominence when Northern Ireland seemed to be emerging from decades of community apartheid. Captain Terence O'Neill was trying to lead the Unionist Party into a more liberal path, but he failed, due to many factors.

One of these was the resurgence of armed loyalism in which Spence had a role. As such, he played a part in establishing the loyalist violence which so terrorised the Catholic community during the Troubles. Gusty Spence seemed most unlikely to tread the road to Damascus, but that is precisely what he did.

Spence was a thinker, and realising that violence created only a bloody deadlock, he set about educating his loyalist colleagues on the importance of a political way forward.

That was no easy task, but Spence persisted. He later played a crucial role, announcing with remorse the loyalist ceasefires in 1994, and in 2007 the eventual disbandment of the UVF and the so-called Red Hand Commando.

Without Spence's guiding influence it is doubtful if and when the loyalists would have moved along the path of politics. His achievement has been hailed by his own community, but also by Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein who recognised Spence's later dedication to reconciliation.

Gusty Spence, for worse and for better, was an important player in the history of his times. He was part of the problem and also a part of the solution. The pity is that he set out on the road to violence in the first place.

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