‘It’s alright creating monsters but there is a legacy to live with beyond the monster’
In his acclaimed 1998 novel, The Corner Boys, Geoffrey Beattie introduces his readers to a tale of working class life in a Protestant part of Belfast. Those of us who grew up in this community will be immediately familiar with the trials and tribulations of Beattie’s central characters.
Beattie’s main protagonist is James, a 17-year-old lad from a working class family in North Belfast. His father is dead. His mother is overworked from trying to make ends meet in the absence of the family’s main breadwinner. She works in a mill, suffering poor working conditions and low wages. Her weekends are spent in the company of people who share a penchant for too much booze and a heart disease rich diet. Their life expectancy is severely limited in comparison to those in more affluent areas.
Amidst such embattled circumstances, Beattie’s characters, like the real people they are based upon, still find a remarkable way of surviving. In a tribal-based society, these are people who know how to stick together as they desperately seek to weather the socio-economic storm brewing against them.
When James meets a friend of his father’s in a local social club, he discovers that his late father was a member of a loyalist paramilitary grouping. In a heady mix of lager fuelled banter, ‘Kingo’s da’ explains to James how the bond the two men shared was unbreakable. ‘On our own, we’re nothing,’ he tells the teenager. ‘We’re fuck-all. We have to act together. We have to depend on each other.’
The man then tries to convince James that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. ‘I think you’ll turn out OK like him, now that you realise all that fucking Latin and maths isn’t for the likes of you. Or me.’
Beattie’s novel explores the generational conflict between those older people who want things to continue as they are and the young people who want them to change.
The most remarkable achievement of The Corner Boys, however, is how holds a mirror up to the narrow-mindedness of the old ways, demonstrating that only when the old ways are challenged by education, self-analysis and reflection, can this community move forward towards a more positive future.
This is a familiar story that reaches into the very heart of Protestant Ulster, and it’s a tension that is reflected in the life and legacy of one of that community’s best known politicians, the late David Ervine.
It is now a decade since Ervine’s tragic death. He was regarded then and since as one of the most pugnacious, articulate and honest politicians ever to have emerged from Northern Ireland’s troubled past. A former member of the UVF, Ervine served a prison sentence in the 1970s for possession of explosives. After his release, he became a key spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), eventually rising to become the party’s leader.
Together with Gusty Spence, Hugh Smyth, and the UVF’s Second-in-Command, known as the ‘Craftsman’, Ervine formed part of the ‘kitchen cabinet’ in 1989-90, which acted as a strategy group for the PUP-UVF-RHC, feeding into the process that eventually led to the loyalist paramilitary ceasefire of October 1994.
The ceasefire signalled a triumph for Ervine’s cool, objective analysis of the situation. ‘No one can take away from the Progressive Unionist Party the role it has already played,’ he told researcher Stephen Bloomer in an interview on the tenth anniversary of the ceasefires.
Ervine was at the core of the analysis that the PUP provided to the UVF and Red Hand as they moved towards peace. Rev. Chris Hudson facilitated the meetings between Ervine and the Craftsman and the Dublin Government in the run up to the ceasefires. ‘David did more of the talking,’ Hudson told me in 2007, shortly after Ervine’s death.
‘As things moved on, David was always giving the analysis,’ which allowed the Craftsman, to work towards a de-escalation of the military scenario between the Dublin Government and its ruthless non-state adversary.
It was in Ervine’s ability to offer a vision for the future that he will be best remembered.
As someone who had contributed to the armed conflict with his actions as a UVF member in the mid-1970s, Ervine so desperately wanted to see Northern Ireland become a normal society twenty years later. He was an implacable opponent of the politics of fear propounded by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which he blamed for limiting the life chances of working class Protestants.
‘We live in interesting times,’ he told Stephen Bloomer, as he tugged on his pipe during an interview. Politicians were playing on people’s emotions and fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. ‘To be loud and course and tough on the other side,’ he said. ‘And we’ve seen that. I would estimate that in the nationalist community Sinn Fein are the most likely to wind up the unionists and the DUP are most likely to wind up the nationalists. You can see where that is, well, an adopted tactic that clearly works for the ‘extremes.’’
For Ervine and his party colleague Billy Hutchinson, the PUP had always a difficulty with stoking the fears of the people. They were anti-populists in the sense that they believed no real benefit could be gained from playing on the emotions of the people.
Unlike the DUP, which whipped people into a frenzy over issues around parading, flags and Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, the PUP was different. As Ervine himself said, ‘if the Progressive Unionist Party were to play that simplistic game and steal other’s clothes it only had to look over its shoulder at the potential destabilisation of the UVF and the Red Hand.’
The PUP has always had a core cadre of community development workers in its ranks – exemplified by Billy Hutchinson – and have always been conscious of how republicans manipulated interface tensions for their own political gains. ‘It’s alright creating monsters,’ Ervine told Bloomer, ‘but there is a legacy to live with beyond the monster.’
A similar view was held by Ervine’s party colleague, PUP strategist Billy Mitchell, who often likened the DUP’s early attempts to manipulate loyalist paramilitaries as something akin to the creature in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). For Ervine and Mitchell, they were only too aware of the unchecked potential of this monster. ‘For if we were to wind things up,’ Ervine said, ‘the consequences were such that, one, we couldn’t control and the second thing was, if we couldn’t control, then what was the legacy? The legacy could have effectively been dead people.’
In his unparalleled insight into this dangerous form of populism Ervine articulated a coherent political opposition to the DUP. ‘If anybody in Northern Ireland thinks that the Protestant working class community has benefited from the mechanisms that they [the DUP] advocate, then there is something wrong with their heads,’ Ervine told Bloomer.
As a direct result of the position he adopted in opposition to the DUP, Ervine became an unapologetic champion of the most vulnerable people in Northern Irish society. He wanted to see practical benefits generated by the nascent ‘peace process’ in the areas of health, education and the environment. For him, these were the most important areas for improving the life chances of his community. Only ‘when the community settles down, and having been frightened and lived through a history of abnormality, then maybe, just maybe, the focus of attention shifts.’
His solution was simple in theory but difficult in practice:
One of the core issues for the Progressive Unionist Party… is its socialism. There are no other socialists in Northern Ireland. And I mean that. I mean, I don’t believe the SDLP is a socialist group. I certainly do not believe Sinn Fein are a socialist group. And one would have thought that one of the biggest tests that was offered to us in political conditions was the speed by which their two ministers introduced PPP and PFI, which… they did… without debate. They did it without discussion. They did it to me without any moral wriggling from a socialist perspective. Are they a socialist party? I think not. We know the Alliance Party are not and we certainly know the Ulster Unionist Party are not. So, the Progressive Unionist Party is the only socialist party. And avowedly socialist, still retaining (although some would say it is silly to do so. I disagree) Clause 4, which is a straight lift from the British Labour Party’s constitution. Old Labour. Old Labour, I emphasise.
Disappointingly, the 2016 Assembly elections exposed how far the PUP had shifted away from its democratic socialist roots towards what Ervine himself regarded as the ‘unionist wing’ of the party. Although Ervine believed that the PUP could accommodate both traditions in its brand of ‘socialist unionism’, he didn’t believe the party should move too far in the direction of DUP-lite politics. The countless interviews and speeches he gave while he was alive confirm as much.
When the flag protests of 2012-13 came along, which many loyalists saw as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of their attitude towards the ‘peace process’, the PUP saw an opportunity to mop up disaffected youth, many of whom felt the mainstream unionist parties had abandoned them. As I have argued elsewhere, in recruiting large numbers of these young people into the party, however, the PUP arguably shifted too far in the direction of cultural loyalism.
Can the PUP return to the socialist-based politics articulated so eloquently by Ervine and many others who helped found the party and shape its character? Hopefully, though it faces an uphill struggle.
Politically, the Protestant grassroots are divided. On the one hand, there are those who – through fanaticism or fear – continue to vote for and support the DUP, regardless of recent scandals. And on the other hand, are those who are apathetic, who have grown tired of the politics of the past and who have retreated from political engagement altogether.
Only by following through on Billy Hutchinson’s vision of politicising the latter – while appealing to the former with a re-energised political vision – based on the party’s founding principles – can the PUP have any hope of electoral success in the future.
Ten years on from his passing, as we mourn one of the greatest losses to political unionism, there is much to celebrate in David Ervine’s political legacy.
As current and future generations face the same stark choices, of either repeating the mistakes of the past or by breaking free from its vicious cycle, we should encourage them to be self-critical and to never shirk from challenging why things are the way they are.
My thanks to Stephen Bloomer for permission to quote from the interview he conducted with David Ervine on 21st September 2004. More extracts from interviews with Ervine and range of other PUP and UVF leaders on the tenth anniversary of the loyalist ceasefires can be found via this link.
For a more in depth look at David Ervine’s life and political outlook, see Dr Connal Parr’s lecture on YouTube: