Thoughts on Purvis’s resignation and the PUP

There has been much analysis of Dawn Purvis’s resignation from the PUP so far. I posted this on Open Unionism a few days ago but thought I might as well put it up here as well.

Purvis has been being lauded as a woman of integrity in multiple sections of the media with only Mark Devenport and a few others willing to make anything other than wholly supportive comments. This eulogisation of Purvis and Ervine before her has been a feature of most outside of mainstream unionism for many years. This seems to have reached its zenith now that Purvis has left the PUP. She joined in 1994; it is unclear whether this was before or after their ceasefire but at the time she joined what was clear was the the UVF had shown absolutely no sign of decommissioning, let alone going away. She stuck with the party through a total of 28 murders by the UVF until leaving after this one. In addition of course she remained with the PUP despite the UVF’s overwhelming involvement in drug dealing, prostitution, racketeering and assorted other organised crime including the loyalist feud which as well as involving multiple murders also resulted in about 600 people being forced to leave their own homes.

Purvis and the PUP have been repeatedly described as the authentic voice of working class unionism by a number of commentators. She has always been popular with the media and indeed many liberals, nationalists and republicans, just as Ervine was before her. Part of the reason for this support may have been the media’s desire to keep the process moving forwards. The NI media, especially the BBC, have always had a fairly unashamedly pro process agenda and to be fair they may have felt that giving the PUP time and space reduced the chances of the UVF and assorted other members of the alphabet soup going back to violence (provided one ignored violence against people whom those sections of the media seem to regard as unimportant like working class unionists). Republicans may have had a somewhat different agenda in their at times quite warm words towards the PUP. For one thing the PUP were always keen to talk to republicans and at a time when the UUP had grave difficulties talking to SF and the DUP simply refused to, it was useful to republicans’ agenda to have a unionist party with whom they could talk. An additional and more subtle benefit for republicanism was that the PUP, being a party heavily involved with terrorists, was not going to be able to denounce their sectarian murder campaign with the credibility the UUP and DUP were. In addition the PUP gave a degree of credence to the republican lie that everyone now involved in politics had been involved in “the conflict” (ie had been terrorists or colluded with them). Furthermore when Ervine made claims such as that he knew the colour of the wall paper in unionists leaders houses it chimed with the whole unionist collusion narrative so beloved of republicanism.

The mainstream unionist parties of course had very little time for the PUP (or UDP) apart from the disgraceful episode of the UUP co-opting Ervine into their ranks to gain an extra ministry. Unionism’s distrust was largely driven by the revulsion they felt for the UVF’s murdering ways but in addition was not helped by Ervine’s comments about them having been involved in talks with them when they opposed the UVF ceasefire etc. The fact that Ervine (a convicted criminal and liar) was never taken to task by the media over these remarks and made to put up a name, time, place and the subjects supposedly discussed or told to shut up is a further example of the media’s sycophancy towards him.

Mainstream unionists politicians, however, were not the only ones with contempt for Ervine. The working class unionist electorate for whom he supposedly spoke were fairly clearly going to decide he was not speaking for them at the next assembly elections. However, Ervine suffered from the cleverest political death since Jack Kennedy; was lionised by the press, and hence, in his death, helped ensure the election of Purvis. Apart from in East Belfast, however, the PUP have singularly failed to make any credible impact. In the large working class unionist areas of North Belfast, the smaller ones of South and West Belfast; apart from the very odd councillor, their support is very poor. Even those areas are positive hotbeds of PUP support, however, when compared to the working class areas of large unionist towns: Craigavon, Coleraine, and Ballymena have not a single PUP representative between them. Moving out into the rural parts of Northern Ireland where there are of course still large numbers of working class unionists, one finds a complete dearth of PUP councillors, members or supporters.

The reasons why working class unionists do not vote PUP seem to be a mystery to some of the supposed cognoscenti but are actually remarkably easy to explain. Working class unionists like their middle class counterparts tended to have very little time for terrorism and as such did not support the murders of their Catholic counterparts. Furthermore during the Troubles the UVF (and UDA) were actually much more dangerous to working class unionists than the IRA ever were. When the ceasefires came, although the loyalists may have ceased fire on Catholics, they continued to prey, vampire like, on the working class unionist communities they infest and continued to be the major reason why these areas have degenerated into sink estates and urban wastelands. Clearly this depressing dynamic of criminality is not limited to Belfast. Throughout large urban areas in the UK and beyond there are major problems with criminality: both antisocial behaviour and organised criminality. In those areas, like in Belfast, the working class population do not tend to vote for their oppressors and as such surprise that working class unionists do not vote PUP is grossly misplaced.

Having said all that there is a significant problem with working class unionists being disenfranchised. Fair_deal has patiently and in my view accurately put forward the suggestion that the garden centre unionist is indeed a non existent unicorn and that instead the problem is non voting amongst working class unionists. This is a major problem and one which has become more serious in recent years. The UUP once contained many working class based representatives some very senior such as Harold McCusker (deputy leader) and once the DUP had very large numbers of them: whilst there are still some within both parties, the gentrification of the UUP and DUP has progressed rapidly over the past two decades and been accompanied by a fall in the working class unionist vote. This is in danger of becoming a vicious circle with decreasing numbers of working class unionist voters and politically involved grass roots resulting in unionist parties always chasing the middle class vote further alienating the working classes who are left with no constructive voice within unionism.

To come back to Puris; the reasons for her resignation have been chewed over in some detail (although I have a very different analysis from him, I do have significant areas of agreement with Horseman here). Her claim is that she was annoyed by the murder this week and it was the final straw. This is possible but odd considering the number of other murders there have been before. Mark Devenport has suggested her desire to protect her Stormont allowances. However, another fractionally more subtle suggestion might be worth entertaining. The East Belfast Westminster election demonstrated that many working class unionists were willing to vote Alliance in order to punish the DUP: it has been reported that the Dee Street ballot box, probably the most solidly working class area in inner East Belfast, was very solidly for Naomi Long.

As such Purvis may well have seen what she and most commentators already knew: that her assembly seat was in grave danger. Hence, a chance for her might be to leave behind the taint of loyalist terrorism and try to become another Naomi Long: a working class soft unionist albeit with a bit more unionism. The PUP have never been exactly hard line on the union: their hard line views have tended to be on the necessity of helping loyalist terrorists rather than holding the line on the constitutional position. They might be summed up as: Weak on support for the union: strong on support for criminality; a sort of violent, marginally less self righteous version of the Alliance Party.

Purvis may have felt that jettisoning the support for violence might help her and that if she could take even a third of Long’s first preferences she might get back in. Indeed if Long dumps the double jobbing as she almost certainly will have to, Purvis might see herself as a sort of assembly Long. That might hold out some hope of keeping her snout in the trough if not as close to the truffles of power as the Alliance’s.

As a final thought if Purvis is such an upright person for finally, belatedly, having realised that she could no longer support the PUP in view of the UVF’s actions: where exactly does that leave the Christian GP John Kyle? If Purvis could no longer stomach the PUP and is to be lauded for her decision: how is it that Kyle can remain? I have previously suggested that Kyle is maybe a decent but deeply naïve man. However, there comes a point where naivety is no longer a defence for support of the indefensible: at that point it ends and becomes dishonesty. Kyle may be proclaimed as a decent man and may suggest that he will not rule out a complete break with the PUP. However, someone needs to point out that when it comes to integrity the new PUP emperor’s clothes look remarkably see through and unless and until he does break the link completely most will see him as being stark naked. Even if he does the question will be why did it take so long? I know it offends against Godwin’s Law but Kyle sounds rather like Albert Speer: the Nazi who said sorry, was regarded as a decent man in some quarters and most now view as just as complicit as the others.