Gusty Spence, who died aged 78, was a fluent Irish speaker and the apposite choice to read out the Ulster loyalist ceasefire in October 1994. Spence was the alpha and the omega of violent loyalism. He went to prison for murdering Catholic barman Peter Ward and for wounding two other men in gun attacks by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1966. Twenty-eight years later, Spence read out a statement from the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) – the umbrella body for pro-union terrorist organisations – which brought their "war" effectively to an end.
In between these two historic moments, Spence went through a political metamorphosis. He had started in the 1960s as a sectarian who believed the apocalyptic warnings of the Rev Ian Paisley that the movement for Catholic equality would destroy the union. Two-and-a-half decades later Spence eschewed Paisleyism and advocated historic compromise with unionism's republican enemies. He was also personally responsible for the line in the CLMC statement that apologised to loyalism's victims. The words "abject and true remorse" were his own.
In prison, Spence educated himself and, as hundreds of young men started to join him inside the second world war-style prison huts in Long Kesh in the early 1970s, he established a PoW-type of regime, imposing military-style rules on fellow UVF members. He spent 18 years in prison, though he did escape for a few months in 1972. He was given leave to attend his daughter's wedding, and spent the following four months on the run before being recaptured. He was eventually released in 1984.
Among the young loyalists in prison who fell under Spence's influence was the UVF bomb-maker David Ervine. The future Progressive Unionist party leader said it was Spence's advice and ideas that spurred him on to find a peaceful, political accommodation within Northern Ireland.
Spence was born in the loyalist citadel of Belfast's Shankill Road. His father had been a member of the original UVF set up to oppose home rule in 1913. Like many working-class men from the Shankill, Spence found work at Harland and Wolff shipyards where the Titanic had been built. He later joined the Royal Military Police and served in Cyprus during the National Organisation of Cypriot Struggle (EOKA) guerrilla campaign against British rule.
Spence became interested in the political evolution of the Official IRA, which, by late 1972, had declared a ceasefire. Throughout his life, Spence shared platforms with Official Sinn Féin figures and other republicans. By now he was arguing within loyalism that violence was counter-productive.
In semi-retirement after the ceasefire, he remained an iconic figure within Ulster loyalism. He moved on a semi-permanent basis to his caravan on the North Down coast and researched the contribution of Ulster and Irish regiments in the first world war. He amassed an array of first world war medals and army regalia at his home in the Lower Shankill. Some of this was stolen when the UDA faction C Company rampaged through his home in August 2000.
Spence was in his caravan when a murderous feud erupted between the UVF and the faction led by Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, the latter launching a bid to take over loyalism. Families around the Spence home were driven out if Adair's gang suspected they were UVF sympathisers. The damage to his house, the theft of the medals and the breaking up of a community due to the feud left Spence heartbroken. While he was once the hard face of loyalism, Spence was known for his sense of humour and good nature even towards former enemies. On encountering a hardline loyalist preacher who wanted the UVF to go back to war in the 1990s Spence noticed that the clergyman was wearing a wig. When asked by a fellow UVF leaders if he had spotted the toupee, Spence replied: "Not only is he kidding everyone around but he is also kidd- ing himself."
During one interview with Spence not long after the 1994 ceasefire I told him that while I was brought up a Catholic, I had distant relations on the Protestant Shankill. And when I informed him that they were called Stewart, Spence suggested that my great-grandfather had been in the UVF and may have been killed in the great war. Only recently have my family recovered the story of Thomas Stewart, the father of my maternal grandmother. Tommy had indeed been in the original UVF and lost his life in July 1916 at the battle of the Somme.
Spence had three daughters with his wife, Louie, who died in 2002.
• Augustus Spence, former UVF chief and politician, born 28 June 1933; died 25 September 2011