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Divided loyalists

The Progressive Unionist Party, political voice of the Ulster Volunteer Force, has surprised many with its pragmatic approach to the 'peace process'. Brendan O'Neill talked to party leader David Ervine

Divided loyalists

David Ervine has become something of a celebrity in recent months. As leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), it seems that no discussion on Unionism is complete without him. He has been involved in talks with John Major and been touted round as the alternative loyalist viewpoint by the media. Journalist Mary Braid called Ervine 'one of a new generation of loyalist politicians: he's charismatic, he's ambitious, and he's an ex-paramilitary' (Independent, 8 March 1995).

The PUP emerged out of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) 10 years ago, but has only come to prominence in the last year of the 'peace process'. Ervine is a former UVF member who served five years for possessing explosives. Were people interested in his party because of its paramilitary links? 'Initially, yes, people took an interest in us because we were seen as the confidants of those who have the weaponry', he told me, 'but it's moved on since that'.

Ervine argues that, unlike traditional Unionists, the PUP is 'trying to move away from tribalism' and 'sectarian politics'. 'Our constitution is solidly based on the constitution of the British Labour Party and our politics are not solely about the maintenance of the Union with Britain.' The PUP wants to forge alliances with working class Catholics as well as Protestants, and claims to put social politics ahead of defending the Union.

So why call themselves Unionists? 'Because we are Unionists, but we want to redefine Unionism. Unionism does not have to be Protestant and anti-Irish. We are saying you can be a citizen of the UK irrespective of your religion, that it is legitimate to be Irish and British just like it is to be Scottish and British or English and British.' Listening to Ervine it is hard to believe he is the spokesman for the political wing of the UVF. Less than a year ago being a Catholic in Northern Ireland was a good enough reason for the UVF to kill you.

Many have been taken aback by the PUP's flexibility. Ervine is open about his talks with Sinn Fein and, unlike traditional Unionist politicians, he is not overly dismissive of the London and Dublin governments' joint Framework Document. If anything he thinks it is a bit conservative: 'There is something like 11 tiers of government control in the Framework Document. I mean, I've heard of checks and balances but that's going a bit too far.' The rise of the revisionist PUP shows that traditional Unionism is collapsing.

Traditional Unionism has been declining since the outbreak of 'the troubles' over 25 years ago. The abolition of Stormont, the Unionist parliament, in 1972, had a devastating effect on the old Unionist ruling class. The signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 was further evidence that the British government was prepared to ride roughshod over the Unionists in order to stabilise its rule. As a result, the Unionist alliance fragmented. Since then, the IRA ceasefire has finally robbed Unionism of its defining justification.

There is no longer an Irish nationalist threat to the Union. The IRA has effectively surrendered without any concessions on Britain's part. With the Union no longer under attack, Unionism has lost its relevance. Senior Unionist statesman Robert McCartney has noted the 'ongoing deterioration in the quality of ideas, energy and representation within Unionism to the extent that it is now reaching a stage of terminal stagnation with a dying and ageing membership' (Belfast Newsletter, 7 March 1995).

To a British audience, the regular TV appearances of Ian Paisley denouncing the peace process as a 'sell-out' might suggest that little has changed in the Unionist camp. But Paisley is a man out of his time. He formed his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at the height of the troubles, when the privileges afforded Protestants under British rule were threatened by an IRA offensive. Now that the IRA has laid down its arms, Paisley's fire-and-brimstone cry of 'No surrender!' is out of date. No surrender to whom? Sinn Fein councillor James McCarry once said that Paisley 'invents disaster so that he can oppose it'. Today, in the absence of an Irish nationalist challenge, Paisley is trying to reinvent the IRA. He is only succeeding in showing himself to be out of touch with reality.

This is where the new generation of loyalists like David Ervine come in. Paisley is 69 and the Ulster Unionist Party's James Molyneaux is 74. At 41, Ervine's generation of rethinkers is to traditional Unionism what Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are to traditional republicanism. They are prepared to set aside old loyalties and compromise everything for a seat at the negotiating table.

Traditional Unionism is stuck in the past, claiming that the 'peace process' and the Framework Document are a sell-out to Irish nationalism. Captive to his own siege mentality, Paisley sees every cosmetic concession made by the British government to the republican movement as a victory for the IRA. Ervine's party displays a clearer understanding of what is going on.

'The Union is safe', Ervine told me. 'This is obvious from the numerical basis of consent guaranteed in the Anglo-Irish agreement, the Downing Street declaration, and now in the joint Framework Document. I have no problem with the harmonisation of the island of Ireland as long as Northern Ireland is not taken out of harmony with the UK.'

The ideological confusion among traditional loyalists and the rise of a new pragmatic Unionism is an ironic result of the defeat of Irish republicanism. With the IRA ceasefire and the collapse of Irish nationalism, everything has changed in Anglo-Irish politics. Unionism, once so central to the British occupation, is one of the first casualties of the 'peace process'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 80, June 1995
 
 

 

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