Sympathetic treatment of a 'complex' loyalist

Ruán O'Donnell reviews Gusty Spence by Roy Garland, Blackstaff Press, £16.99 hbk

ONLY THE most naïve reader could expect a biography of a figure as controversial as Gusty Spence, the driving force behind the modern Ulster Volunteer Force, to fall within reasonable bounds of objectivity. Naturally, this book is nothing of the sort. In fact Roy Garland's own background in loyalist paramilitarism operates as a double-edged sword in that the rare insights and access available to him cannot be fully utilised.

Garland makes no pretence at distancing and the repeated use of the familiar 'Gusty' in place of 'Spence' signals his genuine empathy for his complex subject whose self-reverence is allowed to permeate the narrative.

The most remarkable aspect of this book is the absence of information on UVF activities and policies; very little detail or analysis is imparted on their sectarian mayhem and the high level of security forces infiltration.

This is all the more startling given that the influence of Spence on that organisation in recent decades, direct and indirect, amounts to the biography's raison d'être. Spence's insistence on the status of a 'soldier' rests upon the intentions and deeds of the UVF which are significantly underplayed in this biography.

Their stated aim of taking on the IRA is undermined by the fact that they re-organised and struck first at a time when their ostensible enemies were attempting to pursue an unarmed strategy. Moreover, IRA and Sinn Féin victims represent such a small proportion of those claimed by loyalists that it must be presumed that the UVF are either extraordinarily incompetent or that the general nationalist and Catholic community were the actual targets.

As with so many other post-Good Friday publications, a revised and expanded second edition will be called for when the events described move from the arena of political contest to history.

Garland and Spence, for example, should name the three anonymous men who helped revive the Belfast UVF in 1965. That they were allegedly never arrested is a point of interest given the extraordinary immunity enjoyed by certain notorious UVF leaders in Armagh. This raises another vital question hinted at by Garland concerning the level of state sponsorship for this timely regeneration.

The highly positive portrayal of Spence is by no means the result of a biographer's mindless adoration. He is, by all accounts, a progressive, intelligent, politically-aware and non-sectarian loyalist. Spence is a rare bird indeed whose famously 'avuncular' personality serves to highlight the nihilistic streak which evidently afflicts so many of his loyalist contemporaries.

Quotations of Spence's political opinions are provided by Garland to establish his credentials as a key leadership figure who earned the respect of many republicans. A long segment on Spence's internment at Long Kesh describes loyalist prison life in the 1970s in almost nostalgic terms and contains a good account of the links forged with republican prisoners, particularly members of the Officials.

Unfortunately, the discussions held by Spence at this most alien interface led to no tangible improvement in the contested affairs of the north of Ireland. This is largely due to the fact that loyalists, notwithstanding the climate of reactionary ideology, had virtually no coherent political agenda. Indeed, as an important tool of counter-insurgency, they were not required to develop one by their controllers and were instead encouraged to follow orders.

Recent changes to this bleak picture, it appears, were due in no small part to the rise to prominence of several of Spence's protégés but it will be many years before this can be properly ascertained and documented.

Amongst the most irritating canards perpetuated by this book is the facile notion beloved by even moderate unionists that the conflict in Ireland is overwhelmingly a Green versus Orange dogfight in which people in 'both communities' have been wronged. The reality is otherwise and, obviously, matters of national and international strategic alignment, civil rights and Anglo-Irish hostility are highly significant.

However, despite the unavoidable limitations of this book, Garland must be commended for attempting to redress the marked imbalance in 'Troubles' historiography which is overwhelming weighted towards assessing republicanism.

Spence is certainly a figure worthy of serious evaluation and it is possible that a future volume by Garland or others may reveal the full extent of his claim to a place in Irish history.

December 2001/January 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 23:29:19.
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