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David – we hardly knew you… or David Ervine and the curious case of Ireland’s most popular Unionist. January 10, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Ireland, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Progressive Unionist Party, Republicans, Sinn Féin, The Left, Unionism.
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And that’s the problem. Seriously. We hardly knew David Ervine. There were David Ervine’s aplenty. There was the avuncular telegenic figure of the last decade and a half. Clearly interested and interesting. Someone with a serious agenda and willing to put himself on the line in pursuit of that agenda.

Then there was the UVF member. That part’s a little more opaque, or as the Irish Times put it he was ‘reserved’ about the circumstances of his arrest. Just what did he do, bar the famous incident of being caught by the RUC carrying a bomb? That he was forced to disarm it is more telling than many people might admit. Here, after all, is the archetype of the ‘bad’ terrorist, the bomber, bringer of indiscriminate death.

Friend of Gusty Spence.

There was the student. Open University no less. Someone with a clear intellectual ability and acumen.

The newsagent and milkman. Newsagent? Milkman?

I was wondering was Ervine’s popularity because he was frank and open. Well Paisley is frank and open, but few enough are fond of him. Was it because he was true to his beliefs? Perhaps, but again so was poor (politically) departed Bob McCartney – another Unionist of a Labour bent – and look what’s happened to him. Was it because he was in some sense ‘modern’? Ervine, a man who in his 40s smoked a pipe, spoke in an erudite but somewhat mannered way and hewed to a form of socialism described as Old Labour. Because Ervine wasn’t modern at all. Ervine was somebody from the 1950s or 1960s transported by his own personal time tunnel to the mid-1990s.

Lest this sound carping, it’s not meant to be. But the chorus of laudatory comments over the past two days (of which I very tangentially participated in myself) was remarkable. Ervine managed to united Republicans – mainstream and dissident, Unionists both Ulster and Democratic, SDLP members, Labour, Fine Gaelers and Fianna Failers in a broad spectrum of praise and sorrow.

Will the obituaries and eulogies of – say – Martin McGuinness be as amiable? How and where do we place their relative worth as politicians, as freedom fighters as terrorists as… well apply whatever term is suitable or fits your own political belief system? Or is this a case of the other, simply by dint of being the other, getting a free pass, one built up from one part ignorance, one part denial and one part sentimentality of the ‘we’re all human after all’ sort.

smiffy raised a very important point on P.ie, that it was incredibly contradictory (there is another word, but I don’t want to use it) of the Peace Trains of this world to be picketing Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna while feting Ervine (a similar attitude is visible in one Labour party poster on P.ie who lauds Ervine in his signature but excoriates SF as ‘nazi’s’). Contradictory if only, if only, because the distance travelled by Sinn Féin as a party and movement was considerably greater than the distance covered by David Ervine as an individual. He didn’t deliver decommissioning or the disbandment of the UVF. They’re still there, they haven’t gone away.

That’s not to say he delivered nothing at all. His presence in 1998 beside David Trimble was essential if only to send a message to the DUP that they no longer could hide behind the threat of the Loyalist paramilitaries in the way they had done previously, if only to prove to one segment of the Unionist/Loyalist base that their political leadership could stomach the agreement. Moreover his political analysis is one that I would have largely supported, in so far as he actually was in favour of dialogue and a degree of compromise and conciliation and that he was representative of an often submerged but very real strain in Unionist thinking that was Labourist, socialist and – yes – in many respects progressive. But most importantly – and the key to his success – was perhaps the fact that he was willing to talk, was willing to forge real links with the South (as evinced by his and the PUPs support for the GFA) while remaining utterly convinced of the accuracy of his political analysis that the Union was the best possible environment for the six counties.

And aside from the personal tragedy to him and his family, there is the broader tragedy that Unionism has only produced one or two examples at a political level of rational, articulate defenders of the Unionist position who recognise that dialogue isn’t defeat, that engaging with one’s political opponents is the only sensible course in a divided political entity and that all-island engagement on a political, economic and cultural level doesn’t have to result in the jettisoning of a living and vital Unionism retaining links into the UK.

So perhaps the praise, for all the flaws of the man and the movement he represented, is more than half justified. Perhaps more than three-quarters justified. He will be missed not merely for who he seemed to be but for what he seemed to represent and for the lost opportunities of contemporary Unionism.

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1. Mbari Hogun - January 10, 2007

Following a comment I read at the Irps’ message board– where, believe it or not, members are suggesting sending flowers to his funeral– I’ve been perusing some of Ervine’s contributions in debates at Stormont. Interesting stuff, really shows that he was in a class by himself (no pun intended) among Unionist politicians.

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2. WorldbyStorm - January 11, 2007

He truly was. And I in no way mean to diminish him. It’s just… you know, what’s going on when the whole world falls in love? Either all objectivity has fled the building or… people are seeing what they want to see. Which I guess amounts to the same thing. He would, I suspect, be laughing at all this.

Fair dues though to the IRPS.

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3. Wednesday - January 11, 2007

Yes, I was mildly amused at the gushing tributes paid to Ervine by Pat Rabbitte and Liz O’Donnell on RTÉ News the other day. I certainly don’t think any republican leaders will get that kind of response from them.

Of course, being Pat Rabbitte and Liz O’Donnell, they’ll probably find nice things to say about Paisley when he goes.

As to Ervine himself, obviously his brand of unionism was preferable to many others’, and I agreed with him a lot on issues not related to the national question, but at the end of the day his primary aim as a politician was to secure the place of the Six Counties within the union and I’ve never understood how easily some republicans overlooked that.

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4. Redking - January 11, 2007

Unsuprised by the tributes-they echo the political divisions of the last 35 years in NI and the Republic-somtimes its easier to laud enemies than erstwhile comrades who have proven treacherous. Enemies (after the cordite has blown away) can be apprasied as “noble” or maybe worthy of even greater respect. No such reappraisal can be made for the antichrists who dare to split the movement and follow false prophets!
Rabitte after all as a member of the WP/Official SF for many years sougt an historical rapproachment with unionists-as part of a non-sectarian agenda-it was the “green fascists” of the Provos who received most approbation. And indeed it was as likely (or more likely) for the Provos to turn their guns against the WP as against the UVF. The IRPS tributes are simailry no surprise – and for the same reason it’s easier for them to do so than send flowers to say Cathal Goulding’s funeral or support Sean Garland over his recent travails.
Ervine was an avuncular representative of unionism who undoubtedly had many progressive and attractive attributes. But his socialism such as it was ony had the potential to transcend sectarianism-it’s a tragedy that he was trapped within the confines of unionism but who knows if he would have evolved further-it’s a tragedy that he’s gone at 53 with much more to contribute.

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5. WorldbyStorm - January 11, 2007

I was staggered to find out he was only 53. That’s incredibly young all things considered, and he’d have had a good decade or more left to go.

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6. SplinteredSunrise - January 12, 2007

Interesting point about the ex-Stick reaction. More to the point, I was always slightly puzzled by the PUP’s cult following among Catholics, though of course Holy Cross etc lost them a lot of ground. It probably is the case that nationalists could appreciate an enemy who shows signs of reforming – as a ‘rotten Prod’ myself I would be less inclined to cut loyalism any slack.

Though of course the PUP’s cod socialism was limited by what loyalism would tolerate. To go any further would have been to stop being loyalist.

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