Northern Ireland's Protestants receive bad press, and often deserve it. Much writing about Northern Ireland, and especially about loyalism, routinely oversimplifies and stereotypes its subjects. If they are unfairly maligned, they have themselves to blame, in part. Since the 1990s, however, a new kind of loyalist politician has emerged. Surfacing from the murky depths of paramilitarism, the leaders of the Progressive Unionist Party have shown themselves more constructive and willing to compromise, and less sectarian, than many mainstream constitutional unionists. The PUP is closely linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was guilty of some of the worst atrocities of the past three decades. The "Shankill Butchers" were UVF men. Today, the party not only articulates a more inclusive vision of Ulster's future, but espouses a distinctively democratic socialist philosophy.
A great deal of this transformation is because of one man, Augustus "Gusty" Spence. Found guilty in 1966 of one of the first murders of the Troubles (he always protested his innocence, but was undoubtedly the leader of the group responsible), he was imprisoned for 18 years. For most of that time, he was "commanding officer" of the UVF prisoners. He imposed a rigid military discipline, but also began a long journey of self-questioning and self-education, inspiring others to do the same. UVF gunmen and bombers, who had never reflected on why they had become involved, were prodded into serious political thinking by Spence's inquisitions. Gusty opened up dialogue and debate between loyalists and fellow republican prisoners. Eventually, he rejected violence altogether and, after his release, played a crucial role in steering loyalists towards ceasefire and negotiations.
Gusty Spence is, as his "disciple" David Ervine says, the alpha and the omega of Northern Ireland's violence. But he should not be idealised; the legacy of a violent past weighs on the benign, grandfatherly figure that the 68-year-old Spence cuts today. Still less should we idealise the UVF he inspired. It has held its ceasefire better than have many other paramilitary groups, and the programme of its political wing is to be preferred to the naked sectarianism of some of its loyalist rivals. Yet brutal vigilantes, drug dealers and assassins lurk within its ranks. Even so, the political voyage Spence has undertaken, and charted for others to follow, is one of Northern Ireland's most hopeful narratives.
Roy Garland's biography of Spence is not just a portrait of a remarkable individual; it also sheds light on many dark corners of modern Irish history. The working-class, loyalist Belfast where Spence grew up in extreme poverty, on the Shankill Road, was an oppressive environment. Anyone questioning the shared truths of the community found themselves labelled a communist or a Fenian. Spence's own family was a strange mixture of conformism and heterodoxy. Loyalty to the Crown, to Britishness and to the Ulster Unionist Party was instinctive. Traditions of military service were strong - Gusty and three of his brothers went into the armed forces. Another became a communist and married a Catholic, so the UVF leader found himself with "papist" relatives and a nephew in the Official IRA.
In the end, it's not Spence's early bigotry that is remarkable, but his repudiation of it. He and other ex-gunmen came to feel that they had been manipulated by self-styled "respectable" unionist politicians who incited their violence, but then indignantly disclaimed it.
The loyalist communities of west and north Belfast from which Spence came are in an irreversible territorial, demographic, economic and political retreat. (Hence, in large part, the rage and fear of those who mobilise against the "threat" of Catholic schoolchildren passing through their streets.) Paramilitary warlords and drug barons fight over the ruins. Few outsiders may find much to regret in this, because most see loyalism as never having amounted to more than crude Protestant supremacism in the first place. Gusty Spence's story - or at least its latter parts - exemplifies how unfair that view is. If his world is doomed, his example may help ensure a dignified demise, and the hope of something better beyond the grave.
Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)