UUP’s cause for concern…

Although it was written for last Saturday, Alex Kane’s Newsletter column is probably even less welcome today in Cunningham House that it was back then. It speaks for itself.By Alex Kane

The decision to bring David Ervine into the Ulster Unionist’s Assembly Group has given me more cause for concern, and more pause for thought, than almost anything that the party has done since 1995. Ervine remains leader of the PUP. The PUP is the political voice of the UVF. The UVF remains armed, active and up to their necks in prostitution, drug pushing, racketeering and intimidation. Ervine is a member of the UUP’s Assembly team. In other words, there now exists a clear, direct and formal link between the Ulster Unionist Party and a loyalist paramilitary organisation.

This is about more, much more, than a one-off tactical manoeuvre, of concern only to the UUP’s MLAs. It has created confusion and given offence to a very broad swathe of pro-Union opinion. The party has moved from arguing the case for terrorists to be brought into government, and has, instead, given the whip to a UVF mouthpiece. As David Burnside admitted, the whole thing was “badly handled, badly presented and open to misinterpretation.”

And nor should the party try to justify its actions by reference to what the DUP has done in the past. I am not a member of the DUP. I have never voted for the DUP. I am well aware about the allegations of connections with loyalist paramilitaries and of flirtations with Third Force and Ulster Resistance. So what? What has that got to do with a convicted terrorist in the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group? Yes, the move may give the Ulster Unionists an extra seat in a hypothetical Executive, but it is a seat which is now dependent upon the nod of Loyalism’s answer to Gerry Adams. It is a politically uncomfortable and morally dubious position for the UUP to find itself in; and, to be honest, it unsettles me.

But whatever my personal feelings may be about the membership and nature of Loyalist paramilitaries, the fact remains that they have a huge and usually negative impact upon working class unionist communities. So it’s not simply about stating what we should do to dismantle their organisations and erase the false glamour that surrounds their key figures, it’s also about actually removing the deadweight of their malign influence on housing estates and working class areas. In whatever form it manifests itself, it remains the case that the mainstream unionist parties have a responsibility to the thousands of ordinary, law-abiding people who do live in fear in those areas.

Political parties have responsibilities above and beyond that of topping the polls. They have moral and societal responsibilities as well. If the risks the UUP took were worth taking with those who were perceived to be their traditional enemies and opponents, are the same risks not worth taking with people who are from a broadly similar cultural and political background? If you believe that the answer to that question is yes, then you will agree with what Sir Reg has done.

But those who do agree must now pray that the UVF keep their cocaine-stained noses clean and that the IMC is soon able to report positive progress in terms of decommissioning and moving away from criminality. Put crudely, this Jekyll and Hyde partnership depends entirely on the decent Jekyll keeping the monstrous Hyde under control. If he doesn’t, then it seems likely that the Ulster Unionists will disappear into an electoral black hole.

The line between inspired leadership and the madness of the bunker is a fine one and only time will tell if Sir Reg will walk that line with most of his party in tow. The fact that he hasn’t been deafened by public support from his colleagues, bowled over by an avalanche of popular approval, or presented with a UVF Statement Of Intent, would suggest that there are difficult days ahead.

The UUP’s electoral fortunes are now in the hands of some very unpleasant and equally brutal terrorists, whose ceasefire isn’t even recognised anymore. David Ervine needs to prove, and prove soon, than his transfer is worth the fallout it has caused. Personally, I still have huge reservations. I hope, though, to be proved wrong.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 27th May 2006

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty