Gusty Spence and Martin McGuinness share a lot in common, don’t they? Well, let’s see how that stands up.
1. Both men in their early years had a military background. Gusty Spence was a soldier in the British Army, serving (funny how we use that word for what soldiers do) a long way from home, in Cyprus in the early 1960s. Then he came back home and was convicted of shooting dead an innocent young Catholic man called Peter Ward. Spence and his family maintain he (Spence) was innocent of the crime. If he was, he wouldn’t be the first to serve years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but so far as we know it was a sectarian murder. Martin McGuinness was an IRA volunteer who led, we’re told, a sustained military campaign against the British army in the north of Ireland. He was never convicted of shooting anyone dead.
2. Spence has expressed deep contrition for any hurt inflicted on anyone. McGuinness has expressed regret that any innocent people died during the conflict.
3. Spence for many years has urged loyalism (why do they call it loyalism and not unionism?) to build a political force to replace paramilitarism. In this he has completely failed. McGuinness for many years has urged republicanism to build a political force to replace paramilitarism. In this he has been spectacularly successful.
4. Spence has forged no notable relationships with republican counterparts. McGuinness has forged highly visible relationships with unionist counterparts, notably Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.
In short, if you gallop on a speedy horse past the careers of both men – once involved in paramilitarism, later involved in politics – they look alike. Get off the horse and take a closer look: the differences are massive. Gusty Spence, convicted of a sectarian killing, followed that deed with a political career that left no legacy. Martin McGuinness, convicted of possession of ammunition and explosives, followed his paramilitary career with a political career that made him Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. And maybe – just maybe – more.