Gusty Spence is dead? Who cares? Who was he?
Many will have never heard the name and most who know of him will harbour a vague awareness of somebody who was known for something once, probably in the North. Those over 50 may have a greater awareness of his notoriety but might find it hard to remember why he was notorious. And indeed that is probably an accurate reflection of the impact that Spence has made on Irish 20th century history. Nevertheless his life story has considerable value in getting to grips with the phenomenon of ‘Loyalism’ and the complexities underlying the label.
Augustus Andrew ‘Gusty’ Spence played a number of cameos in the drama collectively known as ‘the troubles’. He stars in a sordid prequel as a sectarian murderer in 1966, spectacularly walks back on set in 1972 as a rather unconvincing abductee, reappears in a dramatic act of contrition while declaring a Loyalist ceasefire in 1994 and finally announces a ‘putting out of reach’ of UVF weapons in 2007. However his greatest contribution was probably away from the public eye in Crumlin Road Jail and the cages of Long Kesh in the early to mid 70s when he moved away from simple sectarianism to a more nuanced view of the Northern conflict and influenced a younger generation of Loyalist to engage in peaceful political activity.
Gusty bursts on the scene in 1966 as the leader of a tiny gang in the Shankill Road area calling themselves the Ulster Volunteer Force after Carson’s volunteer force of 1912. In 1966 there was some tension in the North arising from Nationalist celebrations of the 50th anniversary of 1916, but there was little or no violence and there were no significant paramilitary bodies. The IRA was four years into a ceasefire and we now know had virtually ceased to exist as a military entity. However, many Ulster Protestants believed it was an ever present threat and there was no shortage of fiery marginal orators such as Ian Paisley prepared to raise a scare. Spence’s small group had already killed two people before the Malvern Street attack on four Catholic barmen led to their arrest by the RUC. The first casualty on 7 May 1966 was a 77 year old Protestant widow who was unfortunate enough to live beside a Catholic-owned bar in the Shankill (those were the days) and who died of severe burns seven weeks after the lads tossed a bomb through the wrong window. Undeterred on 27 May, they decided to kill the only republican they seemed to know by name, Leo Martin, whom one of the gang had met in jail. (Not a bad choice as it turned out. Leo Martin, who went on to be a founding member of the Provos in 1969, drove a black taxi for years and only died in February 2011). Luckily for him he was not at home that night. However not so lucky was James Scullion who was rambling his merry way home from the pub singing a republican song. The lads decided he me must be an IRA man and shot him. It took him three weeks to die.
On 25 June the group went cruising again up to the Clonard looking for the same Leo Martin and failing to find him they returned to the Malvern Arms in the Shankill. There was a lot of drink involved in these nocturnal operations. In the Malvern Arms they discovered their next and final victims. The four Catholic barmen from the International Hotel arrived for a late drink for which the house was well known. This was not unusual in pre-Troubles Belfast. Some or all of the barmen had southern accents and this sealed their fate. Spence told his mates he had overheard their conversation and they were IRA men and ‘they had to go’. The gang waited outside the bar and opened fire, killing Peter Ward aged 18 and seriously wounding two others. The fourth was lightly wounded as he ran away. However the Catholic barmen were not the only people in search of a late drink and a group of off-duty RUC men in the bar quickly identified the culprits.
The entire gang was rounded up and Spence received a life sentence. One of those seriously wounded, Liam Doyle, identified Spence as the man who repeatedly shot him. Spence always denied the murder of Ward and he may not have fired the shots that killed Ward. However he was clearly the leader of the murder gang and undoubtedly merited conviction on those grounds. These sordid acts in a time of communal peace were condemned by all sides of Unionism — even by Paisley who many suspected was linked in some way with these sporadic acts of anti-Catholic violence. Spence’s mini murderous campaign showed very little evidence of political thought, and yet he was not the typical Loyalist paramilitary murderer who would go on the rampage from 1972 onwards. Unlike most paramilitaries, Spence had actually been a soldier in the Royal Irish Rifles for four years and had served as a Military Police NCO in Cyprus before retiring due to ill-health in 1961. He worked for Harland and Wolff as a ‘stager’ — an aristocratic trade in the ship building world.
With the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, Spence became something of a hero for extremist Protestants and his UVF organisation revived and grew into a sectarian murder machine, while avoiding most of the racketeering that afflicted other Loyalist groups such as the much larger Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Fake £5 notes were printed with Gusty’s head replacing the Queen and his image appeared on many Loyalist memorabilia. To the amazement of many, Spence was given 6 hours parole in July 1972 at the very height of the Troubles to attend his daughter’s wedding. What was not so amazing was that he did not return to jail after 6 hours. The UVF claimed to have kidnapped him and for four months Gusty wandered around West and North Belfast at the height of the sectarian warfare of the summer of 1972 recruiting and re-organising the UVF. Gusty back on the Shankill provided an enormous boost to the UVF and he even managed to give an interview to ITV’s World in Action programme. When he was eventually picked up by a British Army patrol he claimed he had just escaped from the UVF and was trying to give himself up. Good man Gusty. What was not so funny though was the sectarian carnage of that summer and autumn. What did Gusty do that summer? There is no evidence that he carried out any killings himself and there are many conspiracy theories on why the authorities may have colluded in his escape, such as an effort to stem the tide of indiscriminate sectarian murders by Loyalists or to make the UVF a more effective organisation in fighting the Provos.
Back in custody, now in Long Kesh, he established military command over the growing number of UVF prisoners. He exploited the so-called Special Category status conceded by the British Government under pressure of a Provo hunger strike in June 1972. Spence ran the UVF Cage in Long Kesh on strict military lines imposing a command structure of officers and holding daily parades, foot drill and other training. In this he was relying not only on his own military training and service as a drill sergeant in the British Army but also on the example of the republican cages where both Provos and Stickies (Official IRA) operated on similar militaristic lines. This was viewed with some amusement by their Loyalist colleagues in the larger Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and to some within his own organisation he was just ‘a cunt in a cravat’. There was also a considerable age difference. Spence was now 40 and Loyalist gunmen and assassins pouring into Long Kesh at time were often very young and significantly younger that their republican counterparts. Some of these juvenile UVF members had no time for authority especially for a 40 year old ‘cunt’ like Spence and these would have included Lenny Murphy, Basher Bates and other future members of the Shankill Butcher gang. Other young murderers however were impressed by Spence and his questioning of traditional Loyalist reactionary violence influenced the development of a political awareness within this Loyalist underclass. Prominent among these were David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson who were later instrumental in helping Spence to establish the Progressive Unionist Party and in moving the UVF into a ceasefire in 1994 despite trenchant opposition from more sectarian members
To the surprise of many, Spence, who left school at 14 began reading politics and history including, it is said, such literary masterpieces as Dan Breen’s ‘My fight for Irish freedom’. He also began to establish contact with the Official IRA whose Marxist ideology (at the time) seemed to be more compatible with Loyalist concerns than the (then) more apolitical Provos. (For those who might be confused the Official IRA were the military wing of Official Sinn Féin which became Sinn Féin the Workers Party, which became the Workers Party which became Democratic Left and then took over the Labour Party and gave us the gift of present Ministers Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte who appear to suffer amnesia when asked questions about their political odyssey).
In 1977 Spence surprisingly called for an end to the UVF’s armed struggle from within Long Kesh. He got out of jail in 1984, two years early due to ill health and does not appear to have been active in paramilitary activity during the remaining ten years of the Troubles. He seems to have been mainly involved with community work and working with the PUP.
In October 1994, Spence formally announced a general ceasefire of all Loyalist organisations and flanked by other Loyalist leaders uttered his best known words “in all sincerity we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 20 years, abject and true remorse.” Indeed Spence is reputed to have written most of the ceasefire statement himself and was not just a senior figurehead. (David Adams of the UDP made a small contribution). The ‘cunt in a cravat’ had come a long way.
However, despite Spence’s efforts, Loyalism remained very divided and both the UVF and UDA contained many unreconstructed sectarian killers and petty criminals, who ran their own franchises, paying little attention to the central leadership. Extreme and violent figures such as Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright of the mid-Ulster UVF and Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair of the Shankill UDA were among those who delayed Loyalist decommissioning, fuelled internecine feuds and damaged the credibility of the Loyalist political parties. Spence himself was forced to leave the Shankill in 2000 during a feud and lived his final years in unhappy exile on the North Down coast.
His final public appearance was also somewhat disappointing. In May 2007 he was unable to announce UVF decommissioning and instead had to say that the UVF would keep its weapons but ‘put them beyond the reach of rank and file members’. In 2010, after another fatality in another UVF feud, Spence stated that ‘the UVF should stand down now. There is no reason for them to exist’. Unfortunately they do exist and the PSNI believe they were behind the sectarian rioting of 2010 and 2011.
Despite the failure to bring all Loyalists into constructive political engagement, an audit of Gusty Spence’s contribution to Irish history would have more positives than negatives. His appalling and ham-fisted sectarian actions of 1966 are more than balanced by his future espousal of peaceful political actions and by his positive influence on the younger generation of Loyalists. Spence served his time for the madness of 1966 and his greatest contribution was in helping to bring to an end the murderous chaos which he undoubtedly helped to ignite.
Slugger has an interesting take on Gusty