Gusty Spence

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The Independent Online

Further to your obituary of Gusty Spence (28 September), in 1971 myself and James Lamond, MP for Oldham, thought it our duty as Labour MPs to go to Northern Ireland, and in particular to Long Kesh and the women's prison in Armagh, writes Tam Dalyell. The Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, asked us to go and see him in his office. "Splendid, splendid," he said – a favourite Whitelaw expression – "but I will arrange for you to go and see the hard men on both sides."

So it was that we were taken to Gusty Spence. The encounter is etched inmy memory. "Would you care for a cup of coffee?" were Spence's opening words. Lamond and I thought it prudent to accept. Whereupon Spence barked out, "Coffee for three!" Minutes later a fellow inmate arrived with boiling hot coffee and an immaculate starched napkin over his arm of the kind you might find in a five-star hotel: "Corporal Spence, sir! And here are the scones."

For us this encapsulated the hierarchical nature of relations amongthe Protestant inmates. Ninetyminutes later, after detailed conversation, Spence's parting words were, "have a good visit to the others." He clearly had working relations with Sinn Fein's hard men, which were so beneficial years later.