Gusty Spence was there at the start of the modern UVF, when the group began its reprehensible campaign against random Catholics under the guise of combating the IRA. That was 42 years ago, when John Patrick Scullion and Peter Ward were shot and Mr Spence went to jail for murder.
As a much older man, he was there at the beginning of the end, reading the 1994 statement that declared a joint ceasefire by the UVF and UDA. Now he hopes to be there for completion: making the announcement that the Ulster Volunteer Force, the organisation he founded, has finally disposed of its guns.
The UVF announced last year it would put its guns “beyond reach”, in another statement read out by Mr Spence. This appears to mean that the weapons are not accessible by the rank and file members of the UVF but still under control of its leadership.
Like much of the rest of Northern Ireland, Gusty Spence revealed when he read that statement, he
considered the gesture meaningless. He felt — and says so publicly today — the UVF should have gone the whole hog and decommissioned its guns.
PUP leader Dawn Purvis defends the inaction by saying there is no debate in loyalism about disposing of the guns. That’s really no argument, and at any rate, there is a debate now: Mr Spence just started it. Throughout the peace process, the primary focus has been on IRA guns, because of their direct ties to government through Sinn Fein. That was understandable but it gave loyalists the chance to avoid much, if any pressure, to dispose of their own weapons.
The attention given to IRA guns does not mean loyalists should have any less obligation to disarm. Decommissioning is not just right for the associates of those in political power, it is just right.
Loyalist weapons have not been silent since the ceasefires: they are a constant threat against Catholics. In those recent years, they have been used repeatedly on members of their own community and against police officers.
While “beyond reach” — and we have no idea what safeguards that entails — there is every possibility of the weapons coming into reach again.
The Northern Ireland Office has lately tried to put
pressure on the UVF and UDA to disarm by warning them that the time to legally decommission is starting to run out.
It’s been a clumsy attempt, because it’s an empty threat to groups that have shown no serious signs of decommissioning; and because outgoing Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan recently revealed that PSNI officers could come up with the intelligence to grab loyalist arms if they had to. This implied they aren’t trying to grab them now, nor would the NIO subsequently call on the PSNI to do so.
They should: if the police can find the guns, they should seize them, test them forensically and put people in jail if they can. That might focus loyalist minds on dealing with the issue.
But it would be far easier for everyone if the UVF, and the UDA, acted now. Get rid of the guns, and in a way that can be authenticated. There is no possible justification for keeping them. Give Gusty his wish.