Trevor Ringland was one of hundreds of people from across the political divide who turned up to mourn the passing of David Ervine. No doubt drawing from the interview he conducted for Slugger in the run up to our Long Peace document, he praises Ervine’s forward focused unionism:
“With the sad passing of David Ervine the people of Northern Ireland have lost one of its true leaders. He told us not what we wanted to hear but what we had to hear. He never denied his past or present but I have no doubt his view of the future was one that was to be shared in a constructive way to the benefit of all. He provided profound advice to unionists by encouraging them to believe in the legitimacy and power of their own arguments and to stand proudly and sensibly rather than adopting a siege mentality.”
Liam Clarke in the Sunday Times went even further, contrasting Ervine’s vision with Paisley’s plodding attachment to the past.
But many within unionism, perhaps even a majority, continue to argue that Ervine’s paramilitary past and his defence of the UVF’s right to continue in existence negated all such pretensions to leadership. It certainly holed his political project below the waterline.
It is also easy to forget that as well as producing some of the most progressive political thinkers within loyalism, the UVF also produced the Shankill Butchers and the killers of dozens of Protestants like Raymond McCord, largely in the name of managing its own patch. In recent years it openly dropped its ceasefire to defend its position on the ground.
A lot of the residual resentment against Ervine lies in the fact that, in continually putting the intellectual case for the peace process (which was, amongst other things, a pragmatic compromise between legality and illegality), he legitimised not simply the peacemaking efforts of Sinn Fein but, by proxy, the ongoing criminal activities of the IRA.
That that resentment remains ongoing is hardly surprising. To this day, the RUC is consistently reviled by a Republican movement which effortlessly outscored the old police force its numbers of fatalities by some 4000%. Little wonder then that many unionists see the ‘finessing’ of past paramilitary crimes into an ‘innocent past’ as an unacceptable part of the Faustian dilemma, which undoubtedly lies at the heart of this peace process.
Yet the difficult truth for the sceptical Unionist is that, in practical terms, the peace process has delivered something approaching civic peace, if not exactly a normal society. Indeed with the deeply ingrained (if often unconscious) sectarian attitudes on both sides, it may never be that.
But the risks involved in this latest stage are primarily to the two negotiating parties themselves, rather than wider society or, indeed, the innocent bystander. It is highly significant, for instance, that the current splitting within the republican movement is political, not military.
And whatever happens within the DUP when it comes for them to withstand its own mettle test, the risk will be to themselves and not a trigger for another ‘Protestant backlash’: the coda of which was so often a lonely (often tortured) death for some easily targeted Catholic.
By the early 1970s the lower Newtownards Road had largely been cleared of Catholic homes and businesses and it remains that way today. That Gerry Adams came to the East Belfast Mission on Friday won’t change things overnight, but it is in line with the freshly tolerant, pluralist unionism Ervine espoused, however imperfectly, for most of his public political career.
It remains to been seen whether a credible deal can be done on law and order. The wholesale porting of Special Branch powers into a rapidly expanded MI5 to be placed under limited Westminster based scrutiny, along with the acceptance by Sinn Fein that it will not take the policing and justice ministry for the foreseeable future may just convince sceptics within Paisley’s DUP that devolution of those severely limited powers are both both practical and desirable.
In which case, we may begin to leave behind the Faustian stench ‘whereof’, as Marlow once put it, ‘corrupts the inward soul’.
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