David – we hardly knew you… or David Ervine and the curious case of Ireland’s most popular Unionist. January 10, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Ireland, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Progressive Unionist Party, Republicans, Sinn Féin, The Left, Unionism.
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.