On Friday, Fionnuala O’Connor picked up a subtly important theme only now emerging from the botched co-option of David Ervine into the UUP’s group at Stormont. For it’s clearest expression she bring us back to last month’s Let’s Talk (Video link, about 29 minutes in). She notes:
A telling line on the Let’s Talk programme was his “this isn’t simply an opportunistic thing” admission of the element that blighted his chance of taking the high moral ground in Stormont. On the same panel Mark Durkan swatted Gregory Campbell’s brazen profession of the DUP’s purity from paramilitary association, past and present, with a ringing: “For years unionist politicians justified the nonsense that loyalist violence was only a reaction to republicans.”
Empey acknowledged the SDLP leader, remarkable in itself: “All of us – a lot of us – have not had an absolutely pristine record in terms of dealing with paramilitarism. There’s a lot of truth in what Mark said.” He thought unionist politicians had a responsibility now to “clear up the mess”, because in the 1970s and ’80s they had used paramilitary organisations for political purposes: “That’s a fact.” He recalled that the DUP and his own party had been in the same voting group in Belfast City Council for years with David Ervine’s party and the UDA’s representatives, “and that’s when there was no ceasefire”.
It was a point that Ulster Unionists, like the DUP, were in the habit of dismissing angrily at the time, with much abuse of the journalists who put it to them.
Yes, he had been in Vanguard, Empey said, the umbrella group including politicians and paramilitaries which backed the 1974 loyalist strike, “and I think my attitude in 1974 was wrong”. Sir Reg broke ranks, and tore up the pretences. The oddity is that he should have flouted such a tribal rule and had the courage to question his own past so soon after meriting universal scorn. But he did it.