Kelly: Spence was 'major influence' in move away from violence

A member of Sinn Féin has said that the former loyalist paramilitary leader Gusty Spence was a "major influence" in loyalism's movement away from violence in the North.

A member of Sinn Féin has said that the former loyalist paramilitary leader Gusty Spence was a "major influence" in loyalism's movement away from violence in the North.

The former UVF leader died in hospital this morning aged 78.

He organised the modern Ulster Volunteer Force, a killing machine responsible for hundreds of sectarian murders during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly said many nationalists would remember Spence as someone central to the sectarianism that gave birth to the modern loyalist paramilitary.

“However he did dedicate himself to peace and reconciliation for much of his later life so he will also be remembered as a major influence in drawing loyalism away from sectarian strife,” he added.

Spence was jailed for life for the murder of a Catholic barman in 1966 and served 18 years in prison but later became involved in politics and announced the loyalist paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 which helped underpin political power-sharing.

In 2007, he announced that the UVF and the Red Hand Commando would cease to exist in their previous form.

A former leader of the UVF’s political wing, the Progressive Unionist Party, said his commitment to peace began shortly after he was imprisoned.

Dawn Purvis said: “His contribution to the peace process was immense.”

Spence, from the Shankill Road heartland of loyalist Belfast, was the first paramilitary chief in Northern Ireland but also the man who took the earliest steps towards ending UVF violence.

In May 1966 the group of gunmen said it was declaring war on the IRA.

While republicans were the expressed target, the attacks that followed were undeniably sectarian.

Spence was initially held over the murder of the first victim of the Troubles, 28-year-old John Scullion, who was shot by the UVF in the Falls Road area of Belfast.

The charges were dropped but later in 1966 he was given life imprisonment for the murder of Peter Ward, 18, who had called into a Shankill Road bar with Catholic workmates and was shot dead as he left.

His conviction, which he always denied, has been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission by his family after new evidence was produced.

During his time in the high-security Maze prison the former military policeman began to consider politics.

After his release in December 1984, Spence was a key figure in developing UVF thinking and the PUP.

His position was recognised when in October 1994 he was chosen to announce that the main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and the Ulster Defence Association, were declaring ceasefires in response to an IRA cessation.

Spence said loyalists offered “abject and true remorse” to the loved ones of all the innocent victims of the Troubles.

Ms Purvis added: “Shortly after he was jailed, Gusty, after a period of reflection on his own life, quickly started to challenge other loyalists coming into prison to reflect on their own lives.”

Another former PUP leader, Brian Ervine said: “His contribution to the peace is incalculable and without him, probably the paramilitaries would still be at war.

“He was an Irishman and looked upon himself as an Ulster Irishman as well as being British.”

Spence’s biographer Roy Garland said he challenged loyalist preconceptions, forming a relationship with Catholic primate Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich. He also sent a letter of condolence to the widow of Joe McCann, an IRA man, praising him as a soldier of Ireland.

Despite the 1994 ceasefire the UVF was involved in sporadic violence including several murders.

Following significant political pressure, the UVF said in 2007 that it was decommissioning its weapons. Spence was again asked to read the statement.

Since then the UVF has faced more political pressure over the killing of Bobby Moffett last year and the PUP failed to win an assembly seat in fresh elections. The organisation was blamed by police for orchestrating rioting this July in East Belfast.

Spence died in a Belfast hospital after several years of poor health.

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