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When I first read the headline in 2007 that David Ervine  (1953-2007) has passed away, I was frightened. My mind immediately raced to a concern I had since I’d met him, that he’d been assassinated by one side or the other. It was a bittersweet relief that he’d died of natural causes. I continue to mourn the leadership that was lost to loyalist community and for all of Northern Ireland.

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Photograph of David Ervine from the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

David Ervine’s political epiphany, taking him from someone prepared to engage in violence to a political activist in a non-violent sense, happened while he served time in the infamous Maze Prison for transporting a bomb. This transformation birthed a peacemaker with the ability to foresee the possibilities of a post-sectarian political milieu and one who saw the wider perspective of a potential for working class unity beyond the divides. Above all, he was an intellectual. Surely, there is much about him that I did not and do not know, but the moment in time captured in my interview transcribed below and conducted on 26 February 1997 changed my own perception about how I thought, and continue to think, about those born into the Protestant loyalist community in Northern Ireland.     

Looking back upon the issues discussed herein, creating an intellectual space for post-sectarian socialist thought, and non-sectarian and democratic political philosophies of all types, was an important development in the political culture of Northern Ireland. On the ground in Belfast and Derry, I felt a palpable sense of the physical and psychological contrasts between different types of public spaces, how they’re arranged, used, and often abused, for the cause of conflict and control of the different narrative in each community, a control that figured into working class communities much more so than middle class communities, a phenomena I confirmed through my own observations and also spoken of by Mr. Ervine. 

The sectarian spaces were tagged, in a typical gang-like manner, by graffiti, murals, and architecture claimed exclusively for sectarian causes and identification. These overtly sectarian spaces contrasted with places that were merely sectarian by default, such as shopping centers in West Belfast, by virtue of being in either a Protestant or Catholic community. The city centre of Belfast was a non-sectarian space, yet economically and socially constricted from the fear of terrorism with most businesses shutting down at 5 pm. Some neighborhoods and spaces were post-sectarian, reflecting the ethos of those determined to live their lives beyond the sectarian divide. In 1997, as today, South Belfast in particular was an “island of pluralism,” and I recall the rare treat of being served a lovely cup of coffee from a French press at the home of an young, inter-religious couple. 

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A Council Estate in the Shankill Road vicinity of Protestant West Belfast tagged by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Photograph by Stephanie Carta.

I lived with a Catholic family in a West Belfast “one up, one down” home while doing this research and became intimately familiar with the socio-political conditions described by Mr. Ervine of two communities, one Catholic, one Protestant and physically separated by peace walls and fear of “the other,” intimidation, and fear of violence from the British Army and paramilitary groups. Across the street was Curley’s Supermarket, a place where I was told Protestant were once tolerated. 

David Ervine’s experience and views also beg the question of why it was easier for the Progressive Unionist Party to think outside of traditional unionism, whereas the larger unionist parties, especially the DUP, acted in a much more petty and intransigent manner. The photographs I’ve added illustrate part of Ervine’s challenges, examples of highly sectarian spaces tagged by supporters of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the loyalist paramilitary linked to the PUP. In fact, Gusty Spence, the founder of the modern UVF, was a constant presence at the negotiations, acting as a senior adviser and mentor to the PUP, including Ervine and Billy Hutchinson. (I did interview Mr. Hutchinson, and that interview will also be shared here soon.)    

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Carta: Can you please describe your background and early life before politics?

Ervine: I am 43 years old, born in East Belfast, in the shadows of what were once great shipyards, in what we describe as a two up, two down on a backstreet, with an outside toilet and no illusion of grandeur. (There was) very little in the way of serious expendable income. As far as our family was concerned, I’m the youngest of five children, almost like two families. The advent of birth control had not yet reached the streets of Belfast. Our third oldest was 18 or 20 was I was born. My mother and father actually had two families. My mother was 42 years old when she had me. It was a relatively happy childhood, from what I could remember of it, but always tainted with the notion of sectarianism, always us and them, where to go, where not to go. A comfortable life within your own community, although there were a few Catholic families in our street, and as far as I know, they were always treated fairly well, and certainly, they were friends with my father who would have been quite socialistically inclined and felt that the sectarian attitudes of Northern Ireland were a burden on all our lives. He had been an officer in the Royal Navy during the war and, I dare say, been exposed to quite a number of culture and thought that our parochial and tribal attitudes were very detrimental to the ordinary people.

I left school at 15 with no qualifications, went to work in an attempt to serve in an apprenticeship and didn’t like factory life, left to take up a series of jobs all related to sales and distribution in one form or another. Until I was 21 and found myself in the hands of the RUC and not being particularly well treated by them, going to what I consider to be a corrupt court and receiving a sentence of 11 years for possession of explosives. I had joined the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) at 19. My wife had just given birth to a son. There was a fair degree of very serious sectarian violence around 1972, ‘73 in Northern Ireland.

I almost felt, I think one of the notions I had at that time was that the best means of defense is attack, and in joining the UVF, I became one of the many statistics that join paramilitary organizations and end up in either graveyards or the prisons. That’s politics, recognition by myself, not only myself but through discussion, debate, the hot house environment in prison of people who believe that they’re idealists. That discussion, conjured in the minds of people like myself. Here I am defending the status quo, just like the policeman who arrested me, just like the prison officer who incarcerated me, just like the judge who sentenced me. I think that that’s the beginning, the rocking of the foundations of justification. So, you begin to question, and you begin to wonder, and you begin to ask, and out of it all comes, there’s got to be a better way.

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This loyalist mural references the Maze Prison. I forgot the exact location of it. Photograph by Stephanie Carta.

Carta: What do you think separates the communities at this point?

Ervine: What separates the communities is the fact that they’ve never been together. We live as close together as fifty meters apart. I can conceivable introduce you to Protestants who, at my age, have never met a Catholic and vice versa. We’re born in separate hospitals, go to separate schools, to add insult to injury are buried in separate graveyards.

Carta: Why has that segregation continued for so long?

Ervine: Tribalism. There is a comfort element to tribalism, and it’s easier to vilify those you don’t know. The dichotomy within this community, certainly within working-class levels, is absolutely stark, not so much when we move up into the echelons of middle-class and upper-class. They have different priorities, while the working-class are merely the cannon fodder, at the cutting edge of every argument. I think it’s been in the interests of many to maintain that division. That was once how Northern Ireland was governed, by a ruling elite. Commonality among the people has been a great fear for the elite, I don’t think not only measured in economic elite or governmental elite. I can also been seen in the religious elite. When the churches lifted the chalice of peace, thank goodness, there was 400 years of dust on the chalice, and they have their responsibility, their guilt. Although, I don’t anticipate they’ll tell us about that.

Carta: Is there a bottom line for the PUP on the constitutional issue?

Ervine: Yes, but it isn’t public. I think there is, and you could believe me or disbelieve me, but I may sound rather naive and pathetic when I say what I’m about to say. The commitment to democracy is fundamental, and this society can go in whatever direction this society chooses, provided it is by the will of the people. So, I don’t think we should place parameters on a vibrant, wholesome society, if we can create one, and if we can create it for the first time because we’ve never been a wholesome society. But if we can create a wholesome society, it should have the capacity to go in the direction that the people choose. If that is with the United Kingdom, then so be it and if with a united Ireland, then also so be it. Now, I think we have to come to terms with what is the essence of democracy, and that is the will of the people. I preclude no outcome, which is rare for unionists.

Carta: Where do you think Northern Ireland is going electorally, towards a united Ireland or a devolved Northern Ireland within the UK?

Ervine: I fully understand the republican attitude, or the violence nationalist attitude, or even the ordinary nationalist attitude, but I think we’ve got to look realistically at the situation that we live in. I’m informed that Northern Ireland should be, or Ireland should be, one political unit because it is one land mass, but that doesn’t add up when you look at where Alaska is in relation to the United States or where Hawaii is in relation to the United States, and it doesn’t add up when you look at why Belgium isn’t in Russia. If merely land mass was the argument for political definition, then of course we would have a different world, wouldn’t we? Maybe if I were to go and start the Hawaiian Freedom Fighters we might understand that Hawaii is something like 3,000 miles off the coast of the United States when we’re, at our closest point, 18 miles from the British mainland with an intertwined, seriously intertwined, culture, both north and south, which is not wholly Irish or wholly British but is an amalgam of both.

Now, we are in 1997, wonderful if we could turn the clock back to 1690, 1916, or 1969, or any of these points in our turbulent and torrid history. It is a recognized fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and copper-fastened in every aspect to the principle of consent, that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK until the greater number, which is a number to be defined. Because if we’re going to play the game of 50 percent plus one, we, of course, would have a unionist saying nationalists complained about majoritarian decisions a long time ago. We have got to have decisions that have political efficacy, not simply in one community in terms of numbers but in the majority in both traditions, and that’s fundamentally how we must share the responsibility of governing ourselves. However, we can’t either go back in time to create the circumstances of all those dates that I’ve given you, nor can we go into the future and pick a day, to the year 2005, and say, well here’s when it’s all going to be solved.

We have a slow and laborious process of creating trust which can allow, I would hope, this society firstly to become wholesome and to, in that sense of being, become whole and being rational and being mindful of Ireland, our peripheral position in relation to the United Kingdom, our peripheral position in relation to Europe, (rather than) watching the world pass us by. Those are all the real world issues that must be addressed, and undoubtedly, the decisions will be made by this community, and I do say “this community” rather than these two communities. I think it’s one community with two traditions. We are 90 miles long and 90 miles wide. There’s more diversity on one block of New York than there is in the whole of Northern Ireland, and here we struggle with the creation of commonality.

However, in essence, the argument about secession of the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom can’t simply be argued in 1918 terms or 1921 terms. They have to go back to, and if you really really want to bring the argument back into the past, we have to go back to how the Pope sold it to the King of England, and all those ramifications could go back further and further and further into a miasma of mist and folklore, and the reality is that we have a divided society. People will say, “okay, having a majority in a divided society give you a veto.” Well, not if you base the essence of your democracy on proportionality, and if you refute the notion of civil majoritarianism, and I would say we run the risk of having a double veto which nevertheless is the way it has to go.

But, in defense to those who have a dream that is a united Ireland, or indeed in deference to those who have a dream that is a United Kingdom, who takes that dream from the man’s heart or the woman’s heart for that matter? Who takes that dream away? What is that old saying? You can junk the man, you can’t kill the aspiration and we’ve learned that over 700 years here. We have to come to terms with the fact as we argue and squabble two grand ideals, two grand dreams, that united Ireland or that United Kingdom, we’re being left in the wake of the rest of the world that’s moving on, creating stability and looking for a modern life.

Now that still doesn’t answer the question about how I solve the difficulty of the nationalist notion of democracy. First and foremost, when I was a wee boy, and I emphasize that I was probably only about fourteen, fourteen and a half. When the civil rights movement was created in Northern Ireland, the incapacity of unionism to embrace the rights of the nationalist people is a blot, absolute blot, on our political landscape, no doubt, political and social landscape. Never again must that corrosive, divisive form of institutional politics be allowed and as far as in us. Lies never will be allowed to flourish within Northern Ireland, but they carried a banner saying “British rights for British citizens” and as the brutality of the conflict and the notion of fifth columnists increased, the divisions grew wider and wider and wider.

The first issue on the agenda is bridging that division, and I have a question. I have a question for nationalists. It might even develop into a series of questions for a nationalist. Is it realistic for a nationalist to believe that he can unify the island of Ireland without first unifying the people of Northern Ireland? And if he answers that question in a negative, he is then playing the game that the Provos (Provisional Irish Republican Army) play all the time, that I am merely a deluded Irishman and that when I find my way to Valhalla along with them, I will realize how dupted I was, how foolish I was, and embrace it all with a great heart. I find that deeply insulting. I have an intelligence. I have a belief, an attitude, and thoughts, a being that is born of the environment, the circumstances, the history, the culture, all of these things that add up to making me the person that I am, and I am also frightened, frightened because I don’t trust them, and they’re frightened because they don’t trust me. Each of us have, I think, some merit in our mutual distrust. We have mutual poverty, mutual disadvantage, and mutual alienation, and when you start to look at what we have in positive terms, mutually we struggle.

But I say clearly: I cannot and will not be bullied, nor forced to go in a direction that I do not wish to go. I’m prepared to discuss it. I’m prepared to pick what’s good from them and what’s good from us and amalgamate them, rather than the old saying, throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that’s what been wrong with us, this stoic opposition. The implacable opposites have created the situation where nothing on that side could be good, or nothing on that side could be good. Therefore, we live under the cloud of our grand ideals, each suffering from the same difficulties, tragedies, pains, woes, and haven’t the brain or the wit to come to terms with the commonality that’s required to build the trust that will allow us to know each other, and knowing each other will allow us to recognize each other as human beings rather than the vilified objects on the other side of the peace walls. Slowly, but surely, that would give us the ability to change the political life within Northern Ireland and judge people as people rather than as things.

Carta: Or simply as members of either community?

Ervine: Yep, or tradition.   

Carta: Your position, and the PUP position, in these negotiations appears to be a compromise of traditional loyalist beliefs. Is it right to frame it in those terms?

Ervine: Absolutely. Let’s not talk about compromise in that sense, although I do believe that we will never, under any circumstances, achieve a wholesome settlement without compromise. Anyone who comes to the table without any vestige of capacity to compromise is there under false pretense. But, I live in the real world, and I’m not going to resolve this conflict. My generation are not going to resolve this conflict. What I can do is transform this conflict, and resolution will come someway down the line, and transformation from violent to political is the first issue on the agenda. We can’t leave it for our children. We have to do it. We have to begin that transformation. That transformation isn’t about who’s right, who’s wrong. It’s about how we share this plot of earth together. How we, rather than create the notion in each other’s mind of subjugation, come to terms with mutual and peaceful coexistence. Now for me, that’s what it’s about. It’s essentially about beginning the process of toleration. In order to achieve that, we need to build institutions of trust. Those institutions of trust, I think we’re sitting in one, or potentially we’re sitting in one (at Stormont). You see me sit beside the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and get on reasonably well with them. There’s no animosity or hatred or bitterness, and yet I come from what is described as a “violent loyalist” position.

Recognition of the modern world is the movement in political opinion within the loyalist community. It isn’t simply simplistically saying we recognize the nationalist community (but also) must have expression and must have a vent for the expression and must have representation. All of those are part of the recognition of where we’ve been. They are all human rights and goes without saying I haven’t got a right to deny them to anybody. What we did do was deny them. Having begun by telling you where I lived and how I lived, I’d rather suggest I didn’t have much more than they had, if anything more at all. What we had was a sense of belonging, crumbs off the table. We were patronized. They were subjugated, and that’s the reality as I see it. If I can live that, then I’m immoral. If I can live with being prepared to be the foot-soldier, the defense of the indefensible, then I’m immoral, and I’m not prepared to be immoral.

Carta: What do you think nationalists need to compromise?

Ervine: The people of Northern Ireland have nothing to give, whether they be Protestant or Catholic, nationalist or unionist, loyalist or republican. They have nothing to give except one thing: consent, not acquiesce, consent. You see, we’re a powerless society. We are run by what are described as quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations). At the last count there were 150 of them. We have no authority vested in our own people. We are wholly powerless, in many cases disenfranchised, and the notion that we are to give something is absolute nonsense. Neither of us have anything to give except our consent to peacefully coexist. Identify something that a nationalist can be give. Identify something that I can give a nationalist. Through that consent (we reach) a recognition of belonging, a recognition that this is not mine. This is ours, and we must try and make it work.

I’m 43 years of age, without much help from anybody, but I have children, and I have my grandson, and I do passionately believe that the responsibility of not putting another generation through what we’ve gone through lies with us. Alright, I do accept that many unionists would be not shocked but repulsed at some of the points that I make and some of the argument that I make, and some of the positions that we (the PUP) take up, but fundamentally that debate within unionism must come because we have been too comfortable in our tribalism. You know what’s wrong? It’s absolutely damaging, debilitating, but it’s comfortable, or it’s more comfortable than the other options that are open to you because everybody’s frightened of change. Americans are frightened of change. Everybody’s frightened of movement away from a status quo. It is the nature of people, but the way we live our lives isn’t good enough.

Therefore, it takes me back to the realization that came to me and many others in prison, that there’s got to be a better way, and that better way cannot be without compromise, without accommodation, without settlement, without rapprochement, without all those thing that mean together. Unionism on its own can build nothing that nationalism can’t damage and tear down. Nationalism on its own can build nothing that unionism can’t damage or tear down. That only together can they create anything of lasting worth. That may sound pleasant, but it’s absolutely true.

Carta: Why is unionism in particular so intransigent?

Ervine: There are two elements of unionism, and I don’t think we should get them confused, although they are, unfortunately, inextricably linked. There is one element of unionism that is genuinely fearful that Britain doesn’t want them and fearful that violence pays. Then there are those who concur with that but also add in the piece of Protestant fundamentalism who see their role in life as the objectors of Catholicism. We should not totally get them confused but those elements both exist. The vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland suffer from the first two, which is fear that violence will pay and the fear that Britain, because of that violence, can’t find a solution and then become increasingly weary, the remit of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which is based on (the idea that) the whole thing is a Papal plot. I think that we do need to draw the distinction; unionism is not homogeneous. I don’t know whether when you sat in Boston before you came, you may have pictured unionism as this homogeneous block of anti-nationalists, anti-republican, anti-Catholic feeling. Well, it isn’t that at all. Unionism is much more diverse than nationalism, much more diverse.

Carta: I was surprised.

Ervine: I get accused regularly of being divisive within the unionist community, and I suppose maybe in real terms I am. But it has to be that way because unless we define, and I mean define perhaps for the first time, what unionism is, then we’ll always be driven by the lowest common denominator, be driven by hate and bitterness and obduracy and all those thing that are effectively negatives. But there is much about me, and there is much about how we want to live our lives that is wholly honorable, and who has the right to tell me that I’m wrong? Somebody can have a different opinion from me, and we can debate it. But unless you know me, I think it’s wholly wrong that people place labels upon us and not recognize the diversity and not recognize how many of us are trying to force that debate within unionism that defines unionism simply as a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish (ideas) constantly trotted out by unionists. Of course, if the world doesn’t understand us, we blame the world rather than blame ourselves, but the epitome of unionism internationally is, of course, the Reverend Ian Paisley, and he and I couldn’t be farther apart.

Carta: What can you do to bring unionism to mean “citizen of the United Kingdom”?

Ervine: Force the debate. The debate is absolutely vital.

Carta: In the upcoming election?

Ervine: I’ll do it in every given opportunity, and I’ll tell you why. The unionists are suffering from a lack of confidence, a quite incredible sense of alienation and fear and trepidation, absolute paranoia, and the only way to address that is to engender confidence, and the only way to engender confidence is to recognize why is unionism. Rather than the notions of fifth columns, rather than the notions of anti-Catholicism or anti-Irishness, what is unionism? And does it have to be a political philosophy?

Unionism is merely a statement of identity. You see, unionism is classless, and this is 1997. What it is, on the periphery of a modern world, is a classless ideal, but it’s not classless, and effectively what happens then is the cannon fodder working class, the poor, the uneducated, those at the bottom of the rung. Stake the war for the grand ideal. Of course, the grand ideal isn’t even fought over at all because neither of them are legitimate. They’re not legitimate to each other. They have legitimacy within the tribal attitudes but neither can be sustained. There isn’t going to be, not in your lifetime, not in my lifetime, a united Ireland (*). But Northern Ireland isn’t going to be as British as Finchley in our lifetimes either, so the recognition of the people rather than denying where we live and denying the circumstances within which we live and denying the requirement for dependency upon each other.           

Carta: Are you saying unionism is merely a response to nationalism?

Ervine: I think in many ways it is. It is not a political philosophy. If unionism were a political philosophy, then we would have unionism throughout the British Isles, but it isn’t a political philosophy. Labour is political philosophy. Conservatism is a political philosophy. Liberalism is a political philosophy. Unionism is a statement of identity. Unionism per se doesn’t have a specific economic philosophy. It doesn’t have politics that define it as a philosophy. It merely is a statement of identity, and I don’t want to be detrimental in case people believe I’m saying we have no cultural ethos that make us. We have all those, but on the basis of what unionism is, unionism is not a political philosophy.

Carta: How can you convince unionists to accept a future settlement?

Ervine: With great difficulty. I think it’s very evident that we’ve been having great difficulty for a very long time. But, nevertheless, love me, hate me, you can’t ignore me. We’ve forced that position, and that was the first position we had to force. It was not to be ignored, in other words, to be heard. Is it right that one section of our society should feel inferior? It therefore follows, is it right that one section of our society should feel superior? It is right that we, whilst having even better legislation than the United States does in relation to fair employment, haven’t begun the slow and laborious process of properly changing the hearts and minds of the attitude towards the people of Northern Ireland? We can create all the legislation we wish, but the people of Northern Ireland have to be faced with one question, perhaps many more question but one will suffice for the moment: are the people of Northern Ireland ready for peace? And if they’re not, then people like myself are merely breaking ground that maybe someday others will walk on, because the choice is theirs. Do they want the divisive, corrosive evil of the past, or do they want something better? My choice is for something better. But if simply the high moral ground is not giving in, well then, I think that a very tragic position to be in.

Our society is changing, and will continue to change. We live in a Nintendo culture. The issues that are diving our kids in Dublin, Belfast, London, and Boston are not the issues of identity. Although, unfortunately we’re trapped with the issues of where’s the disco, how much is it, where could I buy drugs. All those things in a changing culture are happening to us, and the society will change whether we like it or not. Now if we want that society to be anything we want it to be, then we’ve got to engage. We’ve got to be involved. We’ve got to stop the excuses of not engaging in wholly honorable dialogue to try and find a way to the future without loss in any principle, and essentially, that’s the position that we’ve been sitting in since the 10th of June. Against difficult circumstances, the show goes on. That’s a plus in itself.  

Carta: Do you see an inevitable end to the Troubles in the next generation?

Ervine: I don’t want to inflict them with that. The beginning of the transformation of the Troubles is now, as we speak. The resolution of our troubles will come someway down the line, perhaps with the next generation, and why not? They will be looking for different attitudes to guide their lives rather than the tired shibboleths that have guided our own. I have no doubt that we are at the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Does anybody want another generation to go through this? That’s the question.       

    

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