COMMENT: The passing of former UVF leader Gusty Spence may give loyalists time to think about their efforts in making peace with the past, writes AARON EDWARDS
Rarely are students of Irish history afforded the opportunity to meet those individuals who have become so deeply engrained in the folk memory of the ‘troubles’.
I was one of the lucky few to have struck up a friendship with Gusty Spence, the founding father of the modern UVF and its most visible figurehead.
I had studied the UVF at close quarters since I was an undergraduate student and had the added insight of having grown up in the traditional hunting grounds for loyalist paramilitary organisations. Gusty had an aura about him, a mystique that perforated Protestant working class areas.
My first encounter with the veteran loyalist was in the coastal town of Donaghadee in 2004, almost a decade on from the loyalist paramilitary ceasefires. Gusty had retired to the neighbouring town of Groomsport and would call in to one of the social clubs on a Saturday afternoon.
At the time, I had just been commissioned to research the state of progressive loyalism, working closely with Billy Mitchell, a former UVF commander turned PUP strategist. Billy spoke reverently about how Gusty’s Damascene conversion from sectarian violence served to nurture his own political consciousness in Long Kesh in the 1970s. Others, such as Billy McCaughey, David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Dawn Purvis and Jim McDonald, had also been inspired by Gusty to throw their energies into helping to forge what later became the ‘peace process’. As Ervine once said of him, Gusty was the ‘alpha and omega’ of militant loyalism.
The report I subsequently co-authored with Stephen Bloomer was launched at the PUP’s annual conference in 2004. Though he did not make an appearance on this occasion, Gusty was on hand behind-the-scenes to guide our work. He recommended that we talk further with the UVF leadership, which we soon did in our follow-up pamphlet in 2005, and to challenge them to leave the stage by ‘asking hard questions’. It was tiring and unrewarding work, though it did ultimately feed into the UVF’s internal consultation process. That Gusty was approving of our efforts nonetheless spurred us on.
There was nothing new in his attitude.
For over 30 years, Gusty articulated a vision for the future that encouraged loyalists to exchange brute force for dialogue with their republican enemies.
Eventually, it paid off.
In May 2007, Gusty was asked to read out the statement heralding an end to UVF violence. That his hopes were soon dashed by the failure of the organisation to fully ‘civilianise’ hurt him deeply. While Gusty demonstrated that it was possible to lead by example and to make peace with the past, his only regret in his twilight years was that he could not persuade the UVF to do likewise.
Perhaps his passing will give loyalists time to redouble their efforts. Only time will tell.
This article originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 30 September 2011.