Hearing the Other Voice from the Grave: Why Should we Listen to David Ervine’s Stories?

imageEd Moloney’s Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland has received considerable attention in the press and in the public realm since its publication earlier this year. Although the book relates the experiences of the Provisional IRA’s Brendan Hughes and the PUP/UVF’s David Ervine, much of the discussion has focused on Hughes’ stories about Gerry Adams.

This book review will not delve into the Adams-related stories in detail, as I think they have by now entered our common consciousness and there is little new to say about them. It will suffice to recall that Brendan Hughes identifies Adams as the key figure in the Belfast IRA, the man ultimately responsible for Bloody Friday and ‘disappearing’ Jean McConville. Hughes also died believing that Adams double-crossed his comrades in the IRA, taking the republican movement in a political direction that – unbeknownst to his foot soldiers who were putting their lives on the line – betrayed them to a peace process that left them too far short of their political goals.

For those few readers unfamiliar with it, the basis of the book, also detailed in an RTE documentary, was a series of interviews with key paramilitaries by Boston College researchers between 2001-2004. The interviews were conducted on the condition that no materials could be used until after the deaths of the participants. The early deaths of Hughes and Ervine meant that their voices have entered the public realm much sooner than was expected.

Moloney skilfully interweaves their personal stories with the key events of the Troubles, using a deft, unobtrusive style that truly allows both men to speak for themselves. But what is striking about the book is its imbalance: 285 pages devoted to Hughes, just 179 to Ervine.

This may well be because what Hughes had more to say was more intriguing – that seems clear from the debate (and finger-pointing) that the Adams revelations have provoked. But that has meant that much of what Ervine had to say has been overlooked or ignored.

That’s unfortunate. Especially right now, when there is a lack of communication between so-called ‘loyalism,’ and the middle unionism of the main unionist political parties and the unionist chattering classes.

Of course, Ervine achieved a respectable status within unionism with his turning away from violence. But this book makes clear that he very much retained what you might call a loyalist interpretation of the peace process, one that put the strategizing and the actions of not just the PUP, but also the UVF and the UDA, at the centre of it all.

This loyalist interpretation of the peace process is currently either unacknowledged or wilfully ignored by mainstream unionism.

And what is that perspective? It is encapsulated in a quote from one of the interviews, where Ervine describes the UVF’s 1979 document ‘Sharing Responsibility.’ This document ‘advocated a devolved power-sharing government in Belfast made up of Unionists and Nationalists, the latter assumed to be of the SDLP variety’ (p. 396). This is what Ervine said,

In the period of time before I joined the PUP the party presented Sharing Responsibility to the Secretary of State at the time, Jim Prior, and he told them that he was very interested in it but they were twenty years ahead of their time, and I think they were, absolutely. Every Unionist political party nowadays effectively advocates exactly the line that the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF, if you like, was advocating in the mid-1970s, and I find it absolutely fascinating that those who had the time and space to evaluate and offer leadership chose not to do so, [while] those who very often are spurned … because of the paramilitary origins of their leadership, but maybe more because they were working class, were beavering away through a thought process by themselves but also in conjunction with prisoners in the jail. I think it was of some significance, in fairness, that the UDA, through the Ulster Political Research Group, had created their Common Sense document, supposedly the brainchild of John McMichael. I don’t know whether it was fully his brainchild but it certainly indicates a process of thinking in the paramilitary ranks of Loyalism far beyond that of the serried ranks of besuited politicians on the Unionist side. There’s no doubt in my mind about that, absolutely no doubt that had we waited for rational politics from Unionist constitutional politicians we’d have waited forever. (p. 396-397).

Ervine also related how the ideas and language of loyalism were reflected in the text of the pivotal 1993 Downing Street Declaration. Having recently given a lecture to students on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation programme about how the ideas and language of John Hume and the SDLP were reflected in the Downing Street Declaration and the Belfast Agreement, I was very much struck by how Ervine fore-grounded the role of loyalism (p. 430). I have to admit that this perspective hadn’t made it in to my lecture on unionism and loyalism. This is how Ervine described it,

So the Irish government became vital and Chris Hudson [a prominent participant in the Peace Train movement] was actually headhunted by the leadership of the UVF for a specific role in mediating with the Irish government and was tested in late 1993 in terms of insertion of material provided by Loyalism for the Downing Street Declaration. The six key principles that were included verbatim in the Downing Street Declaration was our indicator very clearly that we were being heard, that not only was the conduit in place but it was open and working. (p. 430-431)

A similar perspective to Ervine’s was very much apparent at a one-day conference Ulster Loyalism: Past, Present and Future, at Queen’s on 19 November. The conference featured both academics and former loyalist paramilitaries as speakers. The comments of some of the former paramilitaries followed pretty much the same line as Ervine. There was a significant former UDA representation at the conference and they talked extensively about Common Sense (a pro-power sharing document from 1987) and an earlier document, Beyond the Religious Divide.

There was a sense that these documents, like Sharing Responsibility, had been forgotten or were being written out of the history of the peace process – with big house unionism sweeping in to take all of the credit and all of the votes.

Indeed, the general lack of wider knowledge about these documents is reflected in a structural feature of Voices from the Grave: Although Sharing Responsibility and Common Sense are discussed in the text, they don’t merit a mention in the Index. After all, who would think of looking them up?

The key point that I take from this is that many loyalists would appreciate some sort of acknowledgement for the risks they took, and the contributions they made, during the peace process.

This doesn’t mean that so-called mainstream unionism – or others in Northern Ireland, for that matter – have to whole-heartedly accept loyalists’ interpretations. But just listening to this perspective – it is now easily accessible in Voices from the Grave – would be a good start.