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Ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson wanted pardon for terror chief Gusty Spence, state papers reveal

Declassified files reveal letters politicians sent on behalf of inmates

Gusty Spence
Gusty Spence

By David O'Dornan

Peter Robinson set up a meeting with a government minister to discuss jailed ex-UVF godfather Gusty Spence being handed the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

This newspaper reported last week on newly declassified files at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland which showed the then East Belfast MP made telephone calls to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in April 1984 concerning Easter parole for Spence and his eventual release date.

Now we can reveal that six months prior to the call, Mr Robinson wrote to Nicholas Scott MP, a Northern Ireland minister, to arrange a meeting, attended by he and Mr Spence's family, to appeal for a pardon.

The letter, dated September 26, 1983, reads: "Dear Minister, I have been approached by the family of Gusty Spence to see if you would be prepared to meet one or two of them along with myself concerning the exercise of the Royal Perogative (sic) of Mercy.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Credit: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Credit: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

"I am sure you are aware that Gusty has been parolled (sic) twice recently and I believe the family could give some assurances concerning his future intentions to enable you to make your decision."

In May 2014, there was an outcry after it was revealed by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers that 365 royal prerogatives of mercy have been issued in Northern Ireland between 1979 and 2002, in an answer to a question from MP Kate Hoey.

There were no figures for 10 years between 1987 and 1997, as the records had apparently been lost, but the NIO said the vast majority of pardons were not terrorism related.

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But a month later, the government admitted that royal pardons were given secretly to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland in return for information in cases dating as far back as the 1980s.

Sixteen were for terrorism-related cases in the years immediately after the Good Friday Agreement.

The royal prerogative of mercy, commonly known as a royal pardon, allows changes in sentences without the backing of, or consultation with, Parliament.

Gusty Spence, who died aged 78 in 2011, was once the leader of the UVF and one of the first of the loyalist terror group's members to be convicted of murder.

He was also for some time the UVF commander in the Maze prison before declaring that he had turned his back on violence and was pursuing politics with the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party and later in 1994 he announced the loyalist ceasefires to the media.

The new documents were unearthed by the charity Paper Trail, which supports victims and survivors of the conflict.

The letter penned by Peter Robinson in relation to Gusty Spence
The letter penned by Peter Robinson in relation to Gusty Spence

They include a note of the meeting between Mr Scott and Mr Robinson and the Spence family on Tuesday, December 6, at Stormont Castle, with Gusty's wife, brother and daughter.

Mr Robinson handed over a paper prepared by the family and points included that his crime was committed in 1966 and he was at the time the longest serving prisoner in Northern Ireland, having been inside for 17-and-a-half years.

The memo said: "Mr Robinson said that when Mr Spence was in control of the UVF compound (in prison) his was more of a restraining role - that of a father figure. He had persuaded the organisation to adopt a political rather than paramilitary role. Mr Spence then resigned his command of the UVF."

It added: "Mr Robinson said that the community as a whole felt a sense of injustice where Mr Spence was concerned.

"People like the Price sisters (Dolours and Marian) served short periods and were then released under the guise of suffering from anorexia nervosa. Therefore, the release of Mr Spence would not anger the community."

He also assured the minister that if Gusty was released "he would not be returning to a paramilitary environment" and wanted to spend time with his grandkids as he had missed out on his children growing up.

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