UNIONIST politicians in 1960s Northern Ireland used sectarianism to foment division and protect their own political power, the funeral of a leading loyalist paramilitary has heard.
Augustus ‘Gusty’ Spence, 78, was convicted of a sectarian murder in 1966 and was a figurehead of the UVF which killed hundreds of people when the full violence of the Troubles erupted three years later.
But the veteran figure was also credited with being a driving force in delivering the loyalist ceasefires of the mid-1990s that helped bring an end to the decades of conflict.
Spence, who died in hospital at the weekend after a long illness, inspired loyalists to enter politics during the peace process and helped form the PUP.
Its former leader Dawn Purvis told his funeral on the Shankill Road that Spence became involved in violence in the 1960s. It was a time when Catholics hoped to benefit from political reform of the unionist-dominated state, and when republicans were marking the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
“Gusty was approached by a unionist politician to join the UVF,” she told mourners in the Church of Ireland’s St Michael’s Parish Church.
“It was put to him that there was an incipient rebellion and, as he had taken an oath to defend the Queen against enemies foreign and domestic, he saw joining up as a continuation of his British army service.
“On reflection, Gusty believed that the UVF was reformed, not so much as a perceived threat from the IRA, but more so as a result of the internal wranglings within unionism.”
There were no paramilitary trappings as mourners carried the coffin of the loyalist leader.
His hearse bore a floral tribute that spelt out the word ‘Granda’, while relatives who spoke at the funeral recalled personal memories of a family man.