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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .

Gusty Spence
Roy Garland

Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 2001
334pp. Hb.: 16.99; ISBN 0-85640-698-8.

In a conflict that has produced much hyperbole, Gusty Spence's reputation as a loyalist icon is not an exaggeration. The subject of this compelling biography by Roy Garland, Spence's presence in the maelstrom of Northern Irish politics spans from his role as the euphemistically termed `station captain' (p. 39) at St Catherine's School on the Falls Road during Jim Kilfedder's successful election campaign for the Westminster constituency of West Belfast in 1964, to an attack by UDA supporters on his home in 2000. In a way, this epitomises Spence's journey from self-proclaimed loyalist ultra to passionate advocate of a historic accord with Northern Irish nationalism, a course deftly illustrated by Garland.

Not surprisingly, the most crucial part of the book centres on Spence's long spell in gaol from 1966 to 1984. Spence's conviction resulted from his belief that the Unionist political elite had become too liberal. Gaol humbled him. His alleged ill-treatment by the police and a belief that he had been let down by the criminal justice system, revealed the more malign characteristics of a state for which he was fighting. In Crumlin Road Prison Spence's close friendship with a Catholic prison officer contrasted with his often strained relationship with self-proclaimed loyalist prison officers, who felt that Spence had brought `their' cause into disrepute. In this respect, Spence's experience gives us an interesting insight into the complexities of ethnic conflict. In Northern Ireland the conflict is generated by a fundamental disagreement between nationalists and unionists over the nature of the state that has hegemony over both factions. Recent, and largely successful, initiatives to end the Northern Ireland conflict have centred on changing the nature of the source - namely the state - of the disharmony between the two communities. Spence's entry into prison had a similarly transformative effect, propelling him from a political environment where, broadly speaking, he supported the source of authority, to one in which he was increasingly at odds. Thus this most fervent of loyalists embarked on a number of anti-authority actions, including a series of hunger strikes in Crumlin Road Prison in 1967 and helping to form a Camp Council with other paramilitary prisoners in Long Kesh.

One of the book's main flaws is the lack of explanation as to why Spence joined the UVF in the first instance. Spence's loyalist beliefs are not adequately explored in the early part of the book, which leaves the reader mystified as to the reasons why Spence would be prepared to be involved in paramilitary activity long before the modern-day Troubles began. Also, Garland does not probe deeply enough into Spence's attitude towards political violence. For instance, Spence emphasises that in his pre-gaol stint in the UVF he `never hesitated to slam sectarianism, gangsterism and extortion' (p. 50). However on the same page Spence replies to a request to shoot a nationalist election worker not with a point blank refusal but with approbation: `OK, we will have to steal one or two cars' (p. 50).

Though hagiographical at times, and certainly overly dependent on interviews with the biography's subject, this is, nonetheless, an interesting account of Spence's political development over four decades.

Dr Andy White

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