The loyalist gunman turned peacemaker we should never forget

IT’S not often the death of an elderly man, someone you barely knew, pulls you up short.

And especially when the name of the man is synonymous with a way of life that was, to many of us, unforgivable.

But I stopped what I was doing when I heard of the death of Gusty Spence. I was in company at the time, with friends who remembered his image from the 1960s. Oddly enough, we had been discussing the prospects of Martin McGuinness in the Presidential election. My friends were astonished when I said that if you wanted to know someone who was genuinely committed to peace — for its own sake — and someone who was prepared almost to lay down his life for peace, Gusty Spence was the real thing.

There was no political calculation with him. Or to be more exact, the calculation he made was that it had been terribly wrong ever to have sought to justify the killing of other human beings on either sectarian or political grounds. He told me once that it didn’t matter whether a man served his time for a crime. Sometimes, you have no choice but to spend the rest of your life atoning. And not just for the things you did, but for the thoughts you had and the callousness you displayed.

I first met Gusty Spence in odd enough circumstances. It was the autumn of 1993. There was no republican or loyalist ceasefire then, and the final paragraphs were being drafted in the Downing Street Declaration, the document that led ultimately to the first ceasefires. A lot of work went on behind the scenes in those months, seeking to ensure that nationalist and republican opinion would be supportive of the declaration. Key players — from shadowy IRA figures to leading churchmen — were briefed on a regular basis about the ongoing process.

Part of the assumption underlying that work was that the British side of the equation would be doing something similar to prepare unionist and loyalist opinion. But we couldn’t be sure of that – and one of the painful memories of earlier phases on the process, especially the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, was of how little work had been done by the then British government to win support for that agreement among the people it was close to.

So when an opportunity came up for me to meet some loyalists and to test out their thinking, it was agreed that it would be a worthwhile thing to do. Since there was still no loyalist ceasefire, I went to Northern Ireland with one of my then colleagues in the Labour Party, Brian Fitzgerald (he was a Labour TD at the time, although he fell out with the party subsequently). Brian had developed a relationship with David Ervine particularly, and we thought that if we were “caught” at a meeting with him and his colleagues in the Progressive Unionist Party (the PUP), we could describe it as a “party-to-party” meeting.

Brian and I went north without knowing exactly who we were going to meet. When we discovered, late in the day, that Gusty Spence would be there, I remember a shiver going down my spine. My only image of Spence was a newspaper photograph of the time, showing a lantern-jawed thug in military uniform , the uniform of the UVF.

There was no doubt that Spence had built a reputation as perhaps the leading hard man of loyalism. He had served most of a life sentence for the murder of a young Catholic, Peter Ward, in 1966. He was quoted in a book about the Shankill Butchers as saying “At the time, the attitude was that if you couldn’t get an IRA man you should shoot a Taig, he’s your last resort”.

Of course I should have expected him to have changed — I was meeting him more than a quarter of a century after the photograph was taken, and 10 years after his release from prison. But it was still a shock to be ushered into the presence of a twinkly-eyed, pipe-smoking grandfather figure. He was 60 then, and had lived a lot of life.

We talked for several hours the first time we met. Apart from discovering that indeed they had been told absolutely nothing by their own government, and were extremely fearful that the forthcoming declaration could represent a total sell-out of their identity, we learned a lot that day.

Most of it was from Gusty Spence, although I can still remember a question David Ervine asked me – “tell me, Fergus, in what way will you feel more Irish if you force me to give up my feeling of being British?” (I can remember the question in part because I hadn’t then, and still haven’t, any answer to it.)

But Spence was the revelation. This was a man who had come to believe that violence solved nothing, and that random sectarian violence was the worst of all. He believed in politics, and especially in class politics. In all my years dealing with Northern politicians, he and David Ervine, and later David Adams of the UDP, were the people to whom religion and tribe meant least. They wanted to be involved in a politics that was about jobs and social policy and economics. They believed passionately in rights.

In fact, Spence had drafted a set of rights, fundamental to him, that he believed had to be incorporated in any document about future relationships on the island of Ireland.

In a subsequent meeting he persuaded me to bring that set of principles back to Dublin, and to seek to persuade the Irish government to include them in their draft. They are in the final declaration, virtually word for word. And he repaid that by insisting that the subsequent loyalist ceasefire — uniquely — included an expression of abject remorse for the past.

Nowadays, the rights he wanted look non-controversial, even bland. But they represented a significant journey on a long and tortuous road for the man and the group that drafted them. I think it’s worth repeating them as a testament to a remarkable man. The rights he wanted enshrined were these:

* the right of free political thought.

* the right of freedom and expression of religion.

* the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations.

* the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means.

* the right to live wherever one chooses without hindrance.

* the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, sex or colour.

When David Ervine died some years ago, his brother Brian said that David had “the guts and the courage to climb out of the traditional trenches, meet the enemy in no-man’s land and play ball with him”.

Gusty Spence was never honoured, nor ever sought any honours; never elected to anything nor sought election. He would never say “I stand on my record as a peacemaker”. He was content to be judged as a man who had made terrible mistakes and done terrible things, but learned and atoned. But he too climbed out of the trench, and brought many more with him.

He should not be forgotten.

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