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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

David Ervine


Anthony McIntyre • 24 January 2007

Unlike Mark Twain's famous quip reports of the death of David Ervine were premature rather than greatly exaggerated. The leader of the PUP had drawn his last unassisted breath some time before the official announcement of his death. The damage sustained as a result of rapid-fire strokes and heart attacks left his condition irreversible, the inevitable delayed only by the artificial.

As a youngster I probably stood on the same football terraces as David Ervine waving the green red and black of Glentoran. Depending on whether Bimbo Weatherup scored or Albert Finlay conceded, the demeanour would have been one of delight or disgust. The Oval at the bottom of Dee Street was a much needed source of excitement for an adolescent blissfully unaware that within a short time many of us chanting Glentoran slogans would abandon our unity and become involved on different sides of a much more deadly game in which the final whistle really would mean final for many. The dead don't have extra time or replays.

In 1995 I followed David Ervine through London as he switched trains at tube stations and proceeded on foot to the University of North London. Had MI5 been tailing either of us, they might have thought they were on to some sinister republican plot against the life of the loyalist leader. Things were considerably less dramatic. I was a first time flier making the trip from Belfast International airport to London's Heathrow. I had been out of the country only once before in my life, to see Celtic play Rangers in the Scottish Cup final in Glasgow 22 years earlier. Tommy Gorman took me to the airport and advised me as best he could on how to negotiate my way through a strange city. As grateful as I was for the advice, once in the sky I was on my own.

Spotting Ervine on the plane, who by that time was well on the way to becoming a media personality, was a stroke of good fortune. I assumed he would be going to the same conference at the University of North London where I would be speaking and decided to rely on him as my unwitting guide. Then relations between republicans and loyalists while far from arctic were not quite as thawed as they are today. Uncertainty prevented me approaching him and asking outright if our destinations were the same. As it turned out my instinct was correct and 'big Davy' unbeknown to him had me at the conference centre in good time. So frequent a visitor to London these days, I find it an easy matter to crisscross the city and get to where I need to go. Then it was very different.

During the conference I was introduced to him and found him instantly likeable. In our hotel on the second evening myself and a Sinn Fein member from Derry wanted a late drink after the bar had closed. We teamed up with Davy, one of his PUP colleagues and a UUP politician and eventually persuaded a member of the hotel staff to let us have a 'swall' at the back of the cookhouse. Having known more than a few loyalists from prison I was not of the type to think my drinking companions that evening had horns. And like ourselves they liked to guzzle, always a welcome foil to the poker-up-the-fundament guardians of whatever Holy Grail.

Throughout the conference the rapport between loyalists and republicans was good. However, the flavour of our backward times caught up with us as soon as we touched down in Belfast. One of the loyalists sheepishly informed us that it would be best for them were we not seen socially fraternising at the airport. Their community was not quite ready for it.

In the mid 1990s Republicans exuded a certain ease with loyalists although it was a sentiment not reciprocated in full measure. Former high profile UVF prisoners like Billy Hutchinson could come into West Belfast to sit in offices in Ballymurphy or speak at conferences on the Whiterock Road. The notion that republicans could do likewise on the Shankill seemed out of court. Loyalist activists like Hutchinson had no difficulty with it at a personal level but appreciated that they were ahead of the pack that populated the community they hailed from.

Much of David Ervine's success lay in steadily eroding the discrepancy in attitudes and draining away the tensions and animosities that ran so deeply between those most hostile to each other. That Gerry Adams could attend a high profile loyalist funeral in the heart of East Belfast without being screamed at or threatened was a result of the edifice of tolerance that David Ervine helped build.

Regrettably, apart from a quick hello at an airport, I never had the chance to speak with him since that time in London. We were to debate in Derry one evening but he had to pull out at the last minute because his mediation was required on the Shankill where various strands of loyalism were tearing themselves apart. I did not envy his task of reconstructing Humpty.

Had his life not been cut short prematurely it might only have been a matter of time before David Ervine switched allegiances to the Ulster Unionist Party. It appeared ready to poach him and he seemed willing to consider an offer. His ability had outgrown the limited capacity of the PUP. And after the report by Nuala O'Loan on the collusion between Special Branch and the UVF, his unwillingness or inability to pull the shutter down on the PUP's military alter ego may have seen his star rapidly fade, his position wholly untenable. In the end death intervened and spared him the onslaught he would most certainly have faced from quarters unwilling to brook his leadership of a party so closely aligned with a Special Branch proxy murder machine.

Big 'Dictionary Dave', as he was affectionately ribbed by many for his loquaciousness, will be missed by those who liked a touch of colour on the political landscape. That the colours he brought were red, white and blue was secondary to the fact that he brightened up the grey surrounds in the boring kingdom of Peaceprocessia.
























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24 April 2007

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