Gusty Spence (1933-2011) was a Loyalist paramilitary volunteer, a founding member and early leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
Augustus Spence was born in a Protestant area of Belfast, not far from Shankill Road. His father was a Somme veteran who emigrated to Belfast after the war and became a member of the Orange Order. Gusty was one of seven children raised in impoverished conditions. He left school at age 14 and held a number of labouring jobs, including work in the local linen mill.
Spence enlisted in the British Army in 1957 and saw action in Cyprus. He rose to the rank of sergeant before being invalided out of the army in 1961. Spence returned to Belfast and worked as a scaffolder at the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard. Like his father, he belonged to several Protestant and Unionist groups, including the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Spence became a notorious Shankill Road ‘hard man’, eager to fight and good with his fists, but also a well-spoken figure of wit and charm.
Spence is best known for reforming and leading the UVF in the years leading up to the Troubles. In April and May 1966, he led a dozen-strong Protestant gang in attacks on Catholic targets in Belfast. In June, the group shot dead Peter Ward, an 18-year-old Catholic civilian. Spence was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment but continued to influence the UVF from Crumlin Road prison.
Spence escaped from prison in July 1972 while on leave to attend his daughter’s wedding and remained at large for several months. He used this time to overhaul and restructure the UVF, adopting military organisation and principles. Despite his earlier violence against civilians, Spence called for the UVF to focus on IRA targets only. He was recaptured and returned to prison in late 1972.
Spence moderated his views in the mid-1970s, rejecting violence as a first option and supporting a political solution to the Troubles. He became disillusioned with the UVF and left the group in 1978.
After his release in 1984, Spence became a community worker in the Shankill area. He became active in the Progressive Unity Party (PUP), a democratic socialist party that backed Loyalist paramilitary groups. Spence became an important figure in the peace process, participating in negotiations and announcing the Loyalist ceasefire in October 1994. He continued to articulate Loyalist views and positions after the Good Friday agreement.
Spence died in Belfast in September 2011, aged 78. At his request, he was buried without Loyalist paramilitary honours or trappings.