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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Reflections on the late David Ervine

Political Columnist and Revolutionary Unionist Dr John Coulter assesses how the nationalist and republican communities will view the legacy of former UVF terrorist and PUP chief David Ervine as he lost his fight for life.


Dr John Coulter • 9 January 2007

When Progressive Unionist Party boss David Ervine died in an intensive care ward of Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital after suffering a heart attack, stroke and brain haemorrhage, many nationalists and republicans were praying and lighting candles his legacy would be that loyalist death squads would never return to terrorism.

The 53-year-old working class, self-educated from the heartland of Protestantism’s east Belfast had earned himself a reputation of becoming nationalism’s most lovable loyalist.

However, even if the PUP chief had lived, he still faced a major hill to climb in the eyes of republicans – to persuade the mainstream loyalist death squads to follow the example of the Provos and decommission their arsenals of sectarian hatred.

Ironically, as a supporter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – which saw him elected as an Assembly member for East Belfast in the same year – Ervine had almost as many critics within Unionism as he does within republicanism.

The Progressive Unionists are viewed as the political wing of the banned loyalist terror gangs, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando.

The major problem for Ervine in nationalist eyes was that while he was never convicted of murdering a Catholic, the paramilitary groups his party speaks for have been responsible for some of the worst sectarian carnage on the island, north and south, since the Troubles erupted in the late Sixties.

It was this baggage of bloodshed which made him a figure of hate at times in both Catholicism and Unionism.

Born in working class Belfast in 1953, he left Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School at 15 with few formal qualifications.

But after witnessing the carnage caused by the Provos’ July 1972 Bloody Friday bomb blitz in Belfast, he joined the UVF at the age of 19.

However, in 1974, he was arrested and found guilty on a charge of possessing explosives and served six years in the Maze before being released in 1980. He had been caught driving a car bomb to its alleged target of a pub frequented by Catholics.

Had he succeeded in his terror mission, his act could have been as bloody as the carnage caused on Bloody Friday when nine people died in just over an hour as 21 IRA bombs exploded one after the other.

However, it was during his time in prison he fell under the influence of then UVF icon Gusty Spence, viewed as one of the founders of the modern-day terror gang in the mid 1960s.

Ervine became convinced loyalists needed to develop a political strategy – one which would take the Protestant working class away from the use of violence.

Within Unionism, supporters viewed his brand of loyalism as Left-wing wing socialism. Opponents within fundamentalist Protestantism tried to dismiss his politics as Marxist or communist, branding the PUP as a “Shankill Soviet”.

Unlike Sinn Fein within the republican community, Ervine always faced the difficulty that the PUP is a fringe movement within Unionism.

He entered politics in 1985 as a PUP council candidate, but his big break-through came in 1998 when he won an Assembly seat in the same constituency as DUP deputy boss Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist chief Reg Empey.

To nationalists, his single biggest achievement was his key role in bringing about the October 1994 loyalist ceasefire called by the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

Indeed, his media profile, which earned him a nickname of Dictionary Dave because of his eloquent use of the English language, was far in access of his party’s electoral support.

Had he regained his health in time for the 7 March Assembly elections, he would have faced an even harder battle to retain his East Belfast seat, being eyed by both the DUP and UUP.

He also had a Belfast City Council seat, which he first won in May 1997, a year after winning a seat on the Northern Ireland Forum – the forerunner of the Stormont Assembly.

His standing within the Catholic community probably peaked in 2001 when at a British Labour Party meeting, the then Northern Secretary the Celtic-supporting Catholic John Reid, described him as “possibly one of the most eloquent politicians in Northern Ireland”.

However, in spite of this accolade and high media presence, Ervine was still regarded with suspicion within nationalism and republicanism.

As he died, Ervine had still not persuaded the UVF and RHC to either decommission or disband. On the wider loyalist paramilitary front, he seemed powerless to prevent loyalism from descending into a bloody turf war over drugs and criminality.

Another blow came in May 2005 when the Independent Monitoring Commission recommended a continuation of the cash sanctions on his Assembly salary imposed following its report of April 2004.

The IMC opinion was that the UVF and PUP maintained strong links while the UVF was heavily involved in criminality.

It concluded that 12 months after the sanctions were originally imposed, the PUP leadership – which he took over in 2002 - was still not doing enough to address the UVF’s criminal activities.

In the past, he was high on the Provos’ death list and had to move home on a number of occasions.

But just how far he had come in his political journey was pointedly set out in veteran journalist Peter Taylor’s BBC documentary, Loyalists, which was broadcast in 1999.

Speaking about his terrorist past, Ervine was asked: “Were you prepared to kill?” He replied: “Without question … totally. My decision and made by me and me alone.”

He received another political blow last year when he attempted to formally join the Ulster Unionist Assembly group. In September, after seeking legal advice, Speaker Eileen Bell of Alliance said the move was invalid.

However, in spite of his failings in getting loyalist terror gangs to at least decommission, many in the nationalist community will view Ervine’s demise – both physically and politically – as a serious blow to keeping hardline loyalism in the political process.





















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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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22 January 2007

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