Catholic Primate lobbied for release of Gusty Spence
THE Catholic Primate Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich pressed authorities for the release of the prominent UVF murderer Gusty Spence claiming he could help pressure loyalist paramilitary groups to work towards peace.
Spence, a former soldier with the Royal Irish Rifles, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars in 1966 for the murder of a young Catholic barman, Peter Ward at a Shankill Road pub. Shortly afterwards, the UVF was proscribed.
State papers show that Cardinal Ó Fiaich raised the issue of the treatment of prisoners at a meeting of Catholic churchmen with the then Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd at Stormont House on December 3, 1984.
The previously confidential documents released this week show the Cardinal had told the Secretary of State that he recommended the release of Spence who was freed in 1984.
"He himself visited members of Protestant paramilitary groups in prison and had recommended the release of 'Gusty' Spence. He thought that the release of Spence could influence Protestants to give up violence," the documents revealed.
The prominent loyalist, who died in 2011, would go on to read the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) ceasefire statement a decade later in October 1994.
On his release from prison he became a leading member of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and was involved in the peace negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.
He also set up the Shankill Activity Centre, a government-supported initiative to provide training opportunities for unemployed young people.
Roy Garland who wrote the biography, Gusty Spence, from Hardman to Peacemaker said, while he was "not surprised" by the development, he thought that Spence may not have even been aware of the intervention.
"I knew they were in contact and were in fact good friends and would have exchanged letters and Christmas cards, but he never mentioned that the Cardinal lobbied for his release. He may not even have been aware of it", Mr Garland said.
"It doesn't really surprise me though, while no one would try and paint Gusty Spence as an angel he was a force for good and change from within loyalism and had certainly helped bring peace and stabilise loyalists within the prison.
"I do know he had spoken to republicans as well including Billy McMillan (Official IRA), who he had met in prison.
"On his release he encouraged others, including David Ervine and Billy Mitchell to get involved in politics and so in that respect you can see what angle the Cardinal was coming from", he added.