UVF godfather Gusty Spence found comfort in his well-rehearsed rationale for terrorising the country

I interviewed Gusty Spence in July 2004. My best efforts over a two-hour period fell lamentably short of what was required.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 3:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th September 2021, 4:07 pm
May 2007: Former UVF leader Gusty Spence pictured where he announced that the UVF would cease to exist as a terrorist organisation

Affable, deceptively at ease, his soliloquy had been rehearsed to perfection. Answers to questions were a sequence of chess moves.

Decades had been spent assembling his narrative and out it duly came, in neatly-stitched paragraphs. Such are also the challenges in encounters with professional politicians: lots of words, mere whisps to take home.

Books, like manners, maketh the man or woman and display them to the world.

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Character, beliefs and sometimes obsessions can be laid out on six feet of shelved book-spines. Who, when given the chance, has not sneaked a glance – or two? Zoom backgrounds have used this curiosity and nosiness to bolster and project egos. Flowers and art pieces are set out, seemingly but not really at random. A type of domestic window dressing has emerged. (Perhaps we already have consultants to help with this?). With calculated carelessness we are offered refinement, wisdom, trendiness, or markers of virtuous eccentricity. For all that books continue to offer insights – if only in their contrived display.

After his death in 2011 more than a hundred of Spence’s books were offered by a Dublin bookseller. The catalogue revived memories of that 2004 interview. During his several years in a Belfast prison Spence had been allowed to build what, for a prisoner, was a substantial personal library. He repaid the indulgence by being a liberal lender.

Some prominent Republicans were among his borrowers, as were ‘ordinary’ criminals. In those days cell televisions were unimagined and radios were a rare privilege. The solitary hours and bitter thoughts were hard to endure without a book’s companionship. Like all librarians Spence had to cope with tardy returns and occasional losses, and so instituted a register which all readers had to sign.

It is not clear how many of Spence’s books were withheld from the Dublin sale, but those that were offered provide an intellectual map of sorts. Some titles were predicable – regimental histories and similar militaria – but others were surprising. It was in those early prison years that Spence, serving life for a notorious sectarian murder, began a process of reading, reflection and even self-criticism. Decades later that would bear fruit in his contribution to the peace process and the Belfast Agreement. But even then ‘know thy enemy’ and his natural curiosity, intelligence, and appetite for debate led him to acquire a number of nationalist and republican books.

Interned or under sentence, Republican paramilitaries came to prison with a template and well-established organisational repertoire. Loyalists had no such kit-bag and Spence recognised the disadvantages. But what model to adopt? Part of the solution was to adapt time-tested Republican prison practices. “They wrote the book”, Spence had told me.

There was Loyalist colouration, certainly, but the core of the system that Spence and his followers put together came from the traditions of their enemies. A command structure held it all together. There was an abundance of ranks and titles, duty rotas, controls on interactions with staff and lots to do: idleness demoralised.

With no sense of irony they borrowed elements of British Army training, terminology, and style, just as the IRA had taken from Republicanism’s paramilitary history. Foot drill was instituted – marching to nowhere. Barrack-room cleanliness and order were required of all. ‘Commanding Officer’ was preferred to the IRA’s ‘Officer Commanding’. Loyalist huts commemorated famous battles in which Ulstermen had played a prominent and heroic part. ‘St Quentin’ was Spence’s address in Long Kesh/the Maze (and he always insisted it be called Long Kesh).

Some conceits overlapped. During Spence’s leadership in prison there were discussions with the IRA prison leadership on the basis that both sides, though enemies, were soldiers who could agree on matters of mutual interest. In truth, the common identity was not soldiering but the discomforts and pains of incarceration.

Claiming some continuity between his service in the Royal Ulster Rifles and his subsequent criminal activities, Spence liked to portray himself and his companions as warriors engaged in military operations. Here there was indeed a meeting of hearts with Republicans. All in those pitiless times who killed and destroyed sought solace and justification in the fiction of belonging to an army in the field of battle, rather than gunmen at some family’s kitchen door or bombers of pubs and busy shopping streets. Extremes do indeed have a tendency to meet and even comfort each other.

Prisoners who collect books are for the most part auto-didacts, and a characteristic of the untutored is to hunt out material to support and celebrate their beliefs and prejudices. They fail to take the scholar’s next step and submit their views to challenge. In all of Spence’s library – at least the books that were sold – there is little to contest the paramilitary play-book. He had arrived at his destination and found it comfortable.

“Knowledge”, wrote Cowper, “is proud that he has learn’d so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more”. Indeed and always.

~ Seán McConville is Professor of Law and Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book Irish Political Prisoners 1960-2000: Braiding Rage and Sorrow is published by Routledge and is available in e-format as well as hard copy.

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