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St. David of the Death Squads:
David Ervine’s death is followed by floods of hypocrisy

Tuesday 9 January 2007

John McAnulty

The relatively neutral initial announcements of the death of Loyalist leader David Ervine on 8th December were quickly followed by a flood of hypocritical cant – claims from all and sundry that the spokesperson for the UVF death squads was a person of moderation committed to peace.

Peter Bunting of ICTU claimed:

“David Ervine was one of the finest and bravest of his generation. His journey would have been an inspiration to more people in a fairer world, but that it inspired at least some to embrace change and progressive politics over the easy temptations of sectarianism was and is a giant monument to the man’s decency and intelligence and his basic humanity. He never lost his anger, though, but he directed his rage towards the injustices that keep so many people across our society ignorant and powerless." 
 Irish President Mary McAleese sent her sympathies to Mr Ervine’s widow and two sons, adding that his “contribution to Northern Ireland politics during very difficult 
and challenging times will always be remembered”.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said: "David Ervine was a courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction. He was a particularly articulate man, prepared to speak his mind and was always well worth listening to," he said.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said  "Those of us who got to know David through the peace process will sorely miss a man who brought a unique humanity and vitality to our deliberations."

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said Mr Ervine played a key role within loyalism throughout the development of the peace process. "He made a valuable and important contribution to moving our society away from conflict,"' he said.

At some level this is a tribute to Ervine’s political skill – the ability to fool most of the people most of the time – extending past his own death.  At the end of the day that skill was wasted.  The loyalist hand was an empty hand, with nothing to offer but reaction, and the bizarrely named Progressive Unionist Party he led will not long survive his passing.

In part Ervine’s skill as a politician was based on the willingness of his audience to suspend disbelief whenever he spoke.  He had a few standard techniques that rarely varied:

  • Distancing:  David was always ready to express incredulity at the idea that the UVF was continuing to carry out drug deals, sectarian killings, racist attacks extortion and general gangsterism. He would investigate and, if things were not cleaned up, he would quickly walk away from the bad eggs.
  • Sympathy: He was always willing to express sorrow at the deaths of victims of the sectarian death squads and to hope that no untoward action by the minority community would ever lead the UVF to feel the need to resume full-scale operations.
  • Reflection: Charges of sectarianism never ruffled Ervine.  He had perfected the Loyalist response of puffing his pipe reflectively and asserting philosophically that at some level we were all sectarians.
  • Commitment to peace: Ervine rarely wavered in expressing support for peace.  Unfortunately this did not involve the disbandment of the death squads.  It involved ensuring that no threat to ‘our wee Ulster’ remained.  In a few decades in might be time for Loyalists to disarm.
  • Calls for help: Perhaps his greatest comic turn was his claim that Loyalists needed help to move on.  The problem, he declared, was that Loyalists had no road map.  The fact that the republicans had surrendered was not enough to enable them to disband and go home.  On the contrary, they needed the willing help of the British to become a permanent feature, lots of grants, places on the police boards – there would no longer be any need for the Loyalists when sectarianism was built into every aspect of civic society in the North.

Now and again the mask slipped.  It is only a few months since Ervine was warning that any suggestion of joint authority in the North would lead to a violent Loyalist campaign in the South.  Luckily the Taoiseach was able to meet the Loyalist paramilitaries and assure them that nothing was further from his mind.

But in the end his hand was an empty one.  David Ervine was not foolish enough to claim that vague expressions of class envy aimed at the unionist bourgeoisie were enough to put the PUP in the camp of socialism, despite the frantic willingness of the majority of the Irish left to believe that this was the case.  The most his organisation was able to achieve was to act as muscle for the Unionist party, while the UDA supported the DUP.  In the few areas where the PUP did win a base they stood aside in close votes to ensure the election of a mainstream unionist and to avoid ‘splitting the vote’.  Ervine’s political skills were gradually leading him into the unionist party.  Such absorption is a feature of unionist history and indicates just how thoroughly unionist workers are trapped by the cage of sectarianism, with all votes remaining votes for their class enemy.

My own vivid memory is of members of one of Belfast’s socialist groups taking in hushed tones of ‘David’s statement’ and ‘a breakthrough’.  When I went to the news I found that Irvine had announced that he would ‘walk away’ if it turned out that members of the UVF were involved in racism.  At the time his organisation was involved in full-scale ethnic cleansing of ethnic groups in Belfast’s village and Donegall Pass areas.

David Ervine had some political skills, but his reputation rested on the blind willingness of those who should have been his opponents to live in a world of fantasy, where the people most violently opposed to any unity of the working class were secretly in sympathy with socialism and democracy.


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