Ulick O'Connor recalls meeting the former leader of the UVF and finding that he was indeed a changed man
GUSTY Spence who died last week was a vital figure in the shaping of the peace process in Northern Ireland. I was lucky to meet him at a crucial stage in the Troubles when he was serving a life sentence for murder in Long Kesh.
I had reason to believe that Gusty Spence had progressive ideas about the Northern conflict and as he was a founder member and leader of the UVF, I was anxious to meet him. I asked my friend Trevor West if he could arrange this. Trevor was a senator representing Trinity College and had a huge effect in bringing opposing sides together in Northern Ireland where he had family connections. He did get me into Long Kesh all right but there was a slight hitch about my credentials when I presented myself as a visitor there on September 14, 1981.
Trevor had said in his application that I was a relative of the prisoner. This was so that Gusty wouldn't lose out on the number of non-relatives he could see each month. It was my second name, a Papish one, that had the warder quite edgy. But his face brightened a little when he read my first name.
Warder: "Is Ulick a Scandinavian name?"
Me: "Yes, it is."
Warder: "Away in so."
Saved by the Nordic bell. Scandinavia, to the Loyalist ear, implied a 'stout Protestant'. We waited in the visitors' room for Gusty to come down. He came in, an erect, military-looking man with mild blue eyes wearing a blazer of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He had been a sergeant in the military and had served in Cyprus.
The image that Gusty Spence had projected was one of a callous killer. But as I talked with him I found that in prison he had developed his keen intellect in an extraordinary way and was now a changed man. He had learnt the Irish language, for instance. A silver fainne in his buttonhole showed this. He had advanced views on seeking a solution in Northern Ireland through political means. He had come to know Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich.
"I'm very fond of his Eminence."
"What do you and Tom O Fiaich talk about?"
"That's between me and him. Sometimes we talk about tobacco."
"Yes, 'baccy'. One day he broke his pipe in here and I gave him a new one, the Matt McQuaid type, that stops you dribbling. Another time I gave him 'baccy' that we grew in here. We used to put 'poteen' in it. When he took a draw on the pipe, I saw his eyebrows go up. A few days later, I got a message, 'Will you send out more of that strong tobacco'."
Gusty told me that he and the cardinal were corresponding, and when I asked him how did he get letters delivered, he said, "The UVF. A fellow on a bicycle calls here to collect them and bring them to the cardinal's palace in Armagh."
This sounded almost unbelievable. But when I met the cardinal in the Arts Club a few weeks later, he said it was so. A man would arrive about once a month at Aras Coeli from the UVF and collect the cardinal's letter for Gusty.
Gusty was informed and well read and we talked about football, theatre and political figures for some time. After about an hour, we were told our time was up, but Gusty asked for an extra half an hour's grace. The warder went to ask the governor who wouldn't allow any extension. With a charming smile, Gusty said to the warder: "Tell the governor I said he is a gentleman."
Then ignoring his jailer, he went on to discuss the chances of the Northern Ireland football team in the next World Cup.
The next time I met Gusty was in Belfast in 1988 after his release from jail. I invited him to the performance of my play, Execution which was being staged in Belfast. I had written this play for the Abbey about the Irish Civil War (1922-23). It concerned four anti-Treaty prisoners who had been executed together by their former comrades in one night of that awful conflict. As I walked in to the theatre with Gusty, there were enlarged photo montages of the executed prisoners on the stage. Gusty recognised one of them.
"Thon is Joe McKelvey."
I asked him how he knew Joe McKelvey, who was one of the four executed together by the Irish Free State government.
"He's from Belfast and his picture is in half the pubs."
Gusty's knowledge of the horrific war between nationalists which had taken place following the signing of the treaty in 1921 might well have influenced the vital role he was to play in bringing the peace process forward in Northern Ireland. It was he who in 1977 first denounced, from his prison cell, the armed struggle and in 1994 was chosen to announce that the UVF and Ulster Defence Association were declaring ceasefires. In May 2007, Gusty Spence read out the UVF statement announcing that it would put its weapons beyond the reach of ordinary rank and file members.
What about putting up a statue to Gusty in Belfast? After all, Dr Ian Paisley and Sir Edward Carson are commemorated in stone. Why not a monument to one who kept himself out of the limelight, but without whom, almost certainly, we would not have the successful administration that exists in Northern Ireland today?