In 1961, Spence retired from the Royal Irish Rifles, which he had joined in 1957, on the grounds of ill health. Some time in 1965 or 1966, he became involved with a group calling itself the 'Shankill UVF'. Spence communicated with the news media with the pen name William Johnston. On the 21st of May, 1966, a statement was given to Belfast newspapers, declaring war on the IRA, signed 'Captain William Johnston, Adjutant, First Battalion, Belfast UVF'.
The IRA had been relatively dormant at this time, having mounted a recent unsuccessful and poorly supported campaign of violence which petered out by 1962. However, the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising had passed and some Loyalists had feared a resurgence of IRA activity. Also, some particularly hardline Loyalists objected to the Northern Irish Prime Minister's promise of reforms for Roman Catholics in the early to mid 1960s.
On the 26th of June, the UVF shot at four people coming out of a pub called the Malvern Arms in Belfast. One of the victims, Peter Ward, was killed by a bullet through the heart. Amongst the clientelle at the Malvern Arms that night was a group of off-duty RUC policemen - Spence and three other members of the UVF were arrested and appeared in court on the 28th of June. Terence O'Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, outlawed the UVF on the same day.
Spence was also implicated in court of two previous incidents - a petrol bomb attack on a Roman Catholic owned bar in which the explosive missed and went through the window of elderly Protestant widow Matilda Gould, killing her; and the assassination of John Scullion, a Roman Catholic civilian. In October all three UVF members were found guilty in relation to the Ward murder and sentenced to life.
Prison to politics to peace
Spence increasingly espoused non-violent political means, condemning violence in 1977 and resigning as leader of the UVF the following year. He joined with the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party on his release from prison, on health grounds, in 1984. Chosen to represent the Combined Loyalist Military Command he read out their declaration of ceasefire in 1994, in response to the announcement the previous month by the Provisional IRA. He subsequently backed the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and has made repeated calls for the UVF to decommission and end its violent campaign.
Spence's wife died in March 2008.
- Political Murder in Northern Ireland, P27, Martin Dillon and Denis Lehane
- 'Decades after they met in jail, Gusty Spence remembers his protegé' - Belfast Telegraph
- CAIN website
- Gusty Spence tells the UVF: Put your guns completely beyond use' - Belfast Telegraph