paying tribute to the late David Ervine, British
prime minister Tony Blair indirectly referred
to the political journey the loyalist politician
said: "Though brought up in sectarian politics,
he ended up being a persistent and intelligent
persuader for cross-community partnership and
he will be sorely missed."
without intending to do so, in the first part
of his statement Blair reinforced a widely held
negative stereotype that does a disservice to
both David Ervine and the community from which
seems to be the accepted wisdom that all loyalist
paramilitaries can only have been driven by base
sectarianism. This completely ignores the context
in which paramilitarism flourished in Northern
paramilitary members on both sides certainly were
motivated by sectarianism, but there were those,
particularly in the early years of the conflict,
who were not.
Ervine was decidedly among the latter.
worked closely with him for many years, and never
even in his most unguarded moments did I ever
hear him express an opinion that could remotely
be interpreted as sectarian.
did indeed travel a great distance politically,
but it was along a markedly different-shaped road
than that imagined by the prime minister and many
others. His political journey was more circular
is wrong, quite literally, to think that David
Ervine was "brought up in sectarian politics".
In fact, he was raised in a household where his
late father, who one must presume was the earliest
political influence in his life, was a member
of the socialist and non-sectarian Northern Ireland
the wider context, Ervine was born in 1953, and
his most formative years were spent growing up
in a Northern Ireland that, ostensibly at least,
was a place where religiously mixed social housing
was very much the norm throughout the province.
Where, for example, Catholics not only shopped
but owned shops on the Shankill Road. To the children
of that time, those of a different religion were
not alien beings to be feared but the people next
door with whom you played and grew up. The patchwork
quilt of religiously exclusive areas that now
exists could not then have been imagined.
of religious conviction, the clearly recognised
common enemy of the Northern Irish working class
of the 1950s was poverty. Making ends meet, rather
than religion or politics, was the chief preoccupation
of most families.
was a time, we should remember, still many years
distant from the destabilising effects of the
civil rights protests of the mid-1960s and even
further removed from the IRA campaign that followed.
was in this environment that David Ervine grew
HOW THEN did he end up becoming involved in the
conflict? Just as many young Catholics were driven
to join paramilitary groups by events such as
Bloody Sunday, so too were many Protestants by
atrocities such as Bloody Friday and the La Mon
David Ervine's case, though highly intelligent,
he was at the time a very young and impressionable
man who had become increasingly angered and frustrated
by the constant attacks on his community that
were designed to force them against their will
into a united Ireland. In those circumstances,
intellect is no guaranteed safeguard against emotion.
himself cited Bloody Friday in 1972 - when, without
prior warning, the IRA exploded 22 bombs in Belfast,
killing nine people and seriously injuring another
130 - as the incident that finally convinced him
his only option was to join the UVF.
is certainly not intended as an apologia for whatever
decisions David Ervine took in his youth - he
would not countenance doing that himself nor thank
anyone for doing it on his behalf - but it is
important, at least, to draw attention to the
self-perpetuating nature of civil conflict.
was arrested transporting a bomb within a year
or so of joining the UVF and sentenced to 11 years
in Long Kesh (later the Maze) prison.
he was fortunate enough to come under the influence
of Gusty Spence, who had long before become disillusioned
with the unionist leadership of that time.
Spence nudged Ervine towards the study of socialist
politics, he was in fact reinforcing and lending
credence to all that Ervine had been exposed to
in his home environment.
release from prison, he determined to do all that
he could to try to create the conditions that
would bring an end to conflict and allow non-sectarian
politics to take root in Northern Ireland. In
this, he was spectacularly successful.
is surely no exaggeration to say that without
David Ervine's contribution the peace process
and all that has flowed from it could not have
his story should not be presented as that of a
former bigot who eventually rose above his own
and his community's innate prejudices. It is important
to recognise this when seeking to understand David
Ervine and the background from which he came.
the horrific and potentially all-encompassing
abnormality of civil conflict, we should ponder
the fact that even the likes of David Ervine could
be sucked in.
he dedicated himself to helping end conflict and
sectarian divisions it was, in essence, David
Ervine's true nature manifesting itself. He was
someone who came back to the socialism and non-sectarianism
that he had learned at his father's knee.
his political journey should more accurately be
viewed as that of a man who eventually returned
to his roots and embraced his earliest political
of David Ervine's legacy - will it long outlast
his tragically premature demise? I am certain
it will. Such is the deserved esteem in which
he is held, his positive influence will continue
for a very long time indeed.
with permission from the author.