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A Peacemaker at the Start and the Finish


David Adams • Irish Times, 13 January 2007

In paying tribute to the late David Ervine, British prime minister Tony Blair indirectly referred to the political journey the loyalist politician had made.

He said: "Though brought up in sectarian politics, he ended up being a persistent and intelligent persuader for cross-community partnership and he will be sorely missed."

Undoubtedly without intending to do so, in the first part of his statement Blair reinforced a widely held negative stereotype that does a disservice to both David Ervine and the community from which he came.

It seems to be the accepted wisdom that all loyalist paramilitaries can only have been driven by base sectarianism. This completely ignores the context in which paramilitarism flourished in Northern Ireland.

Many paramilitary members on both sides certainly were motivated by sectarianism, but there were those, particularly in the early years of the conflict, who were not.

David Ervine was decidedly among the latter.

I worked closely with him for many years, and never even in his most unguarded moments did I ever hear him express an opinion that could remotely be interpreted as sectarian.

He did indeed travel a great distance politically, but it was along a markedly different-shaped road than that imagined by the prime minister and many others. His political journey was more circular than linear.

It is wrong, quite literally, to think that David Ervine was "brought up in sectarian politics". In fact, he was raised in a household where his late father, who one must presume was the earliest political influence in his life, was a member of the socialist and non-sectarian Northern Ireland Labour Party.

In the wider context, Ervine was born in 1953, and his most formative years were spent growing up in a Northern Ireland that, ostensibly at least, was settled.

It was a place where religiously mixed social housing was very much the norm throughout the province. Where, for example, Catholics not only shopped but owned shops on the Shankill Road. To the children of that time, those of a different religion were not alien beings to be feared but the people next door with whom you played and grew up. The patchwork quilt of religiously exclusive areas that now exists could not then have been imagined.

Irrespective of religious conviction, the clearly recognised common enemy of the Northern Irish working class of the 1950s was poverty. Making ends meet, rather than religion or politics, was the chief preoccupation of most families.

It was a time, we should remember, still many years distant from the destabilising effects of the civil rights protests of the mid-1960s and even further removed from the IRA campaign that followed.

It was in this environment that David Ervine grew up.

SO HOW THEN did he end up becoming involved in the conflict? Just as many young Catholics were driven to join paramilitary groups by events such as Bloody Sunday, so too were many Protestants by atrocities such as Bloody Friday and the La Mon restaurant bombing.

In David Ervine's case, though highly intelligent, he was at the time a very young and impressionable man who had become increasingly angered and frustrated by the constant attacks on his community that were designed to force them against their will into a united Ireland. In those circumstances, intellect is no guaranteed safeguard against emotion.

He himself cited Bloody Friday in 1972 - when, without prior warning, the IRA exploded 22 bombs in Belfast, killing nine people and seriously injuring another 130 - as the incident that finally convinced him his only option was to join the UVF.

This is certainly not intended as an apologia for whatever decisions David Ervine took in his youth - he would not countenance doing that himself nor thank anyone for doing it on his behalf - but it is important, at least, to draw attention to the self-perpetuating nature of civil conflict.

He was arrested transporting a bomb within a year or so of joining the UVF and sentenced to 11 years in Long Kesh (later the Maze) prison.

There, he was fortunate enough to come under the influence of Gusty Spence, who had long before become disillusioned with the unionist leadership of that time.

When Spence nudged Ervine towards the study of socialist politics, he was in fact reinforcing and lending credence to all that Ervine had been exposed to in his home environment.

On release from prison, he determined to do all that he could to try to create the conditions that would bring an end to conflict and allow non-sectarian politics to take root in Northern Ireland. In this, he was spectacularly successful.

It is surely no exaggeration to say that without David Ervine's contribution the peace process and all that has flowed from it could not have come about.

However, his story should not be presented as that of a former bigot who eventually rose above his own and his community's innate prejudices. It is important to recognise this when seeking to understand David Ervine and the background from which he came.

In the horrific and potentially all-encompassing abnormality of civil conflict, we should ponder the fact that even the likes of David Ervine could be sucked in.

When he dedicated himself to helping end conflict and sectarian divisions it was, in essence, David Ervine's true nature manifesting itself. He was someone who came back to the socialism and non-sectarianism that he had learned at his father's knee.

Consequently, his political journey should more accurately be viewed as that of a man who eventually returned to his roots and embraced his earliest political influences.

What of David Ervine's legacy - will it long outlast his tragically premature demise? I am certain it will. Such is the deserved esteem in which he is held, his positive influence will continue for a very long time indeed.


Reprinted with permission from the author.





















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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

28 January 2007

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Policing Problems
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Collusion: Dirty War Crime
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Reviews of 'Century'
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A Peacemaker at the Start and the Finish
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