Spence became involved with the UVF not long after their foundation in 1966. He once said that he had guns, he was prepared to, and had already on various occasions used them against anyone who "usurped the constitution of Ulster". He was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder the following year and soon became UVF commander whilst in the Maze Prison. Spence broke from violence in 1977 and left the UVF altogether the following year, calling instead for reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Released from prison in 1984, he soon became a leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party and a central figure in the Northern Ireland peace process. He was entrusted by the Combined Loyalist Military Command to read out their 1994 statement that announced the loyalist ceasefire. He went on to become a leading advocate of the Belfast Agreement.
On 3 May, 2007, he read out the statement by the Ulster Volunteer Force announcing it will keep its weapons and a warning that activities could "provoke another generation of loyalists toward armed resistance". He did not specify what activities or what was being resisted.
However, the arms decommissioning body has said this did not meet the requirements set out in government legislation. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning urged the UVF to work with it to destroy its weaponry.
It said it welcomed the statement, but was "concerned by their intention to deal with their arms without the involvement of the IICD".