Founding figure of UVF Gusty Spence dies after illness
Published 26/09/2011 | 05:00
Gusty Spence, who died over the weekend, was a paramilitary godfather in Northern Ireland and one of the founding figures of the UVF, but was also among the first to recognise the need for peace.
Mr Spence was found guilty of one of the first loyalist murders of the modern period -- but later transformed himself into a champion of peace.
He had been in poor health and had been admitted to the Ulster Hospital within the past fortnight, where his family had been keeping a bedside vigil.
The one-time UVF leader is remembered for delivering the historic 1994 loyalist ceasefire statement, including its words of remorse offered to the loved ones of all innocent victims.
However, he had been a controversial figure.
On June 11, 1966, John Scullion, a Catholic aged 28, became the first victim of the Troubles when he was shot by the UVF in the Catholic Falls Road area, and died two weeks later.
Mr Spence was one of three men charged with the murder but the charges were dropped. Later that month, Mr Spence and several other UVF members were in the Malvern Arms pub in the Shankill Road area when four Catholic barmen arrived for a post-work drink.
Mr Spence overheard their conversation and identified them as Catholics and they were ambushed as they left. Peter Ward (18) was shot dead.
Mr Spence was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in prison but escaped in July 1972 after being given six hours' parole to attend his daughter's wedding. He was on the run for four months, during which time he re-organised the UVF, before he was arrested and sent back to prison.
After his release from prison in December 1984 because of poor health, Mr Spence was a key figure in developing political thinking within the UVF.
He offered his "abject and true remorse" to the loved ones of all the innocent victims of the Troubles.
He has kept a low profile and been ill in recent years, but made the UVF statement in 2007 that weapons had been put beyond use.
"Many nationalists will remember him as central to the sectarianism that gave birth to the modern loyalist paramilitary," said Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly. "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."
Last night his family were making funeral preparations, with one source emphasising the military rather than the paramilitary nature of what is planned.