The above photograph depicts one of the more well-known republican murals in Northern Ireland. It draws attention to the contentious and murky issue of collusion, that is, the involvement of the state in paramilitary killings, invariably loyalist. Uniquely, this mural also utilises testimony from a loyalist leader, UVF founder member Gusty Spence, to support the long-held republican belief that loyalist paramilitaries are artificial constructs set up by the British government to oppress, harass, and attack Catholics. It is a powerful and well-composed work which combines fine draughtsmanship with a searing political message that has the effect of lodging this most controversial of topics in the mind of the observer.
There is only one problem: the quote is a fabrication.
Well, sort of. It is a deliberate and rather clever misquote. The original, undoctored passage actually reads:
“There was an element of the UVF reconstituted in 1935 and some were covertly enlisted by the Ulster government at a fee of ten shillings a day to promote a sectarian war, which they did do” (Gusty Spence, Roy Garland, p.44)
And for those who don’t take my word for it, here’s a photograph:
The original, unaltered quote is taken from Roy Garland’s authorised biography of Gusty Spence published in 2000. The Gusty Spence speaking to Garland was a very different man from the boisterous militant who had served as the modern UVF’s first leader in the mid 1960s. The Spence of the 1990s worked to disseminate an accessible and purposely non-doctrinaire form of socialism among the Protestant working class which contained at its heart a rejection of “big house unionism” which in the past had worked to stymie cross-community labour politics. Spence here was ruefully recounting the nascent cooperation between the deprived loyalist and nationalist communities of Belfast during the outdoor relief protests of the mid-1930s (meticulously detailed in Paddy Devlin’s thesis Yes We Have No Bananas) which was deliberately and maliciously sabotaged by figures in the unionist establishment who hired former UVF hard men such as “Buck” Alec Robinson and Bobby Moore to shoot Catholics and so foment sectarian conflict1. It is the twisting of this sincere critique of unionist misrule, which came hard to Spence after years of historical fact-finding and questioning of long-held loyalist certitudes while in prison, for the sake of a cheap stab at The Brits, which makes the deliberate misquoting so cynical.
Perhaps it could be argued that the relevant dates were omitted for the sake of valuable wall space, but the mural-makers were clearly referring to the present day UVF as the largest cross next to the body bears the inscription “2003”. In any case, it demonstrates the importance of adopting a critical and inquiring attitude when investigating claims of collusion, particularly when made by republicans.
1 Prompted by IRA activity such as attacks on the rail network, figures in the unionist hierarchy secretly commissioned a small number of loyalist gunmen and thugs to attack Catholics, and so force the IRA to switch to defending its nationalist support base (knowing that defenderism would invariably also involve pre-emptive attacks on loyalists). Many years later, one of these gunmen confided that he was paid by William Grant, a shipyard worker turned Unionist MP and a fanatical Protestant, to smash the windows of shops owned by Catholics and attack Catholic traders. Buck Alec told a similar story to Gusty Spence. The strategy worked.