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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Loyalist veteran's path to peace
Gusty Spence
Gusty Spence is regarded as the founding figure of the modern day UVF
The UVF has finally spoken - and the identity of the person who read the statement is as important as the words that were said, as BBC NI's home affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney reports.

The statement was signed by William Johnston, the UVF's answer to the IRA's spokesman P O'Neill, but the words were read by Gusty Spence.

Spence is regarded as the first terrorist godfather in Northern Ireland, the founding figure of the modern day UVF.

He is also regarded as the man who took the first steps on the long journey that has resulted in the organisation effectively declaring that its war is over.

He is a former military policeman whose father was a member of the original Ulster Volunteer Force, originally formed to defend Ulster against the threat of Home Rule, but which then lost thousands of men in the mud and mayhem of the trenches of the Somme when they answered the call to fight the might of the German army.

The UVF was stood down at the end of the First World War, but Spence helped re-invent it in 1966.

In May that year, the newly formed UVF issued a statement announcing that it was declaring war on the IRA.

But despite the declared aim of fighting the IRA, it was innocent Catholic civilians who were soon being targeted.

On 11 June that year, John Scullion, a 28-year-old Catholic, became the first victim of the Troubles when he was shot by the UVF in the Falls Road area, and died two weeks later.

Barmen

Spence was one of three men charged with the murder, but the charges were later dropped.

Later that month, Spence and a number of other UVF members were in the Malvern Arms pub in the Shankill Road area when four Catholic barmen arrived for a drink after work, a decision that seems like madness today, but wasn't uncommon in the pre-Troubles Northern Ireland.

Spence overheard their conversation and identified them as Catholics and they were ambushed as they left.

Peter Ward, who was 18, was shot dead.

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.

Days later, wearing dark sunglasses and flanked by masked and armed members of the UVF, he gave a television interview as the organisation's commanding officer.

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, where he remained until December 1984.

It was during his time in the UVF compounds in the Maze prison that Spence began to talk politics and encouraged others to do the same.

It was here, in what was dubbed his "prison academy", that many who later went on to occupy senior positions within the UVF where urged to think about a political strategy that would lead to an end to violence.

Encouragement

The late David Ervine, who played a central role in persuading the UVF to declare its ceasefire in October 1994 and became the public voice of the UVF as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, was one of those influenced by the prison politics.

He was a passionate supporter of the peace process and spent the last months of his life encouraging the UVF to make the statement it finally issued on Thursday.

Another was Billy Hutchinson, one of the bodyguards who helped Spence evade capture during his four months on-the-run and who attended his 1972 press conference.

Hutchinson served 15 years of a life sentence for the murders of two Catholics, Edward Morgan and Michael Loughran, on the Falls Road in 1974.

Ten years later, while still serving his sentence, he helped establish secret contacts between the UVF and republicans inside and outside the jail.

It was through those contacts that the UVF leadership sensed that the IRA was also interested in pursuing a political strategy that would bring an end to the violence, and Hutchinson later joined Ervine in the ranks of the PUP.

After his release from prison in December 1984 because of poor health, Spence was a key figure in developing political thinking within the UVF.

'Remorse'

That's why, almost 10 years later in October 1994, he was the person chosen to announce to the world that the main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and the UDA, were declaring ceasefires.

Spence, who in his 1972 interview had spoken of his willingness to use guns, now offered his "abject and true remorse" to the loved ones of all the innocent victims of the Troubles.

The location for that announcement was the same as Thursday, Fernhill House in the Ballygomartin area of west Belfast.

The building was used to store guns for the original UVF, and members of the Ulster Protestants' citizen army paraded there, and were inspected by its founder, Sir Edward Carson.

Spence has kept a low profile and been ill in recent years, but he re-emerged from that obscurity to make the UVF's latest statement.

Senior figures within the organisation say the fact that he did so is hugely significant.

"The man who brought the UVF onto the stage is now the man who is taking it off the stage," says one. "This is the end, the war is over."




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