Catching up with Brian Ervine

Brian Ervine emerged as the Progressive Unionist Party’s leader last year after Dawn Purvis quit in the aftermath of UVF members’ involvement in the murder of Bobby Moffett.

Brian Ervine sitting below portrait of his brother David ErvineI caught up with Brian in the PUP’s Newtownards Road office on Thursday afternoon. Serving in the shadow of his brother – and physically, sitting under a photo of David Ervine – he talked about his political beliefs, party policy, election hopes, and was happy to discuss the PUP’s relationship with the UVF and his impression on the UVF’s progress towards standing down.

Earlier that day, Brian had been a couple of streets away surveying the overnight attack on St Matthew’s church in Short Strand. He condemned those who had damaged the church – a mindless local overspill of the bad feelings on the pitch at the previous evening’s Rangers/Celtic match.

He pointed to a sizeable cheque from the PUP to help pay for some of the repairs. While I could cynically clock it up to blatant electioneering and buying second preference votes from Short Strand residents, his upset and generous reaction was consistent with his spoken desire to see criminality stopped and sectarianism removed from society.

So how did Brian Ervine get into politics?

[Brian] Well the main reason was because my brother was in politics. He and I used to go head to head politically, we used to debate politically, sometimes at loggerheads politically … I was always in the background, and then I decided to join the party. But I preferred to remain in the shadows, in the background. I wasn’t really interested in becoming a public politician. It’s only when the party went through crisis and I was approached by a number of people that I decided then to enter politics.

It’s clear from other parts of our conversation that Brian’s Christian convictions reinforce his continued intervention in the political scene. A playright, counsellor, teacher and song writer, he frequently dips into his memory bank of quotes from historical figures (including Napoleon) to illustrate a point. He has never moved out of East Belfast, living only a couple of minutes’ walk from the PUP office.

I asked what was distinctive about the Progressive Unionist Party’s policies?

[Brian] Well, we are a unionist socialist working class party. I think that’s pretty unique in Irish politics. We want to articulate the fears and frustrations and the desires of working class people. Because as this recession bites, who is going to suffer? The old, the weak and the sick and the people at the lower end of the scale. And that’s the people that we’re trying to represent.

Under Dawn Purvis’ tenure, the PUP’s existing pro-choice policy came to the fore in sharp contrast with the main unionist party’s position on abortion. At the PUP’s annual conference in October 2009, Brian Ervine proposed “the present policy to agitate for the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act into Northern Ireland is spiritually, morally and politically harmful to the PUP”. Following a short, and at times emotional, debate Ervine’s motion failed.

So under Brian’s leadership, is the PUP still pro-choice?

[Brian] It’s a very good question … So what I’m saying is our party at the present time, their stance is that they’re actively lobbying for the 1967 Abortion Act into Northern Ireland to put it onto a par with the rest of the United Kingdom. I personally would be opposed to that. That’s my personal opinion. But that is my party stance.

The only way I could change that policy is through conference. And two years ago at conference I was overwhelmingly defeated. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and change it again, because I certainly shall.

Brian sees the PUP as appealing to “liberal working class unionism”. A socialist at heart, Brian referred longingly to the old Northern Ireland Labour Party that existed before “we broke off into our different sectarian camps” and before the British Labour Party “put the nails in [its] coffin” by aligning with the SDLP.

A week ago, the dynamic of the two horse race for liberal working class unionist votes was upset with the DUP drafting local community activist Sammy Douglas alongside Brian Ervine and his predecessor as PUP leader (and now independent candidate) Dawn Purvis.

Why does Brian think East Belfast people should give the PUP their vote?

[Brian] Because I think we were there first. And I think also I hope to take back the seat on behalf of the Progressive Unionist Party. Because it was won on behalf of the Progressive Unionist Party. And I would like to take it back for that reason.

Brian Ervine sees literacy and mental health as his top two areas for change in East Belfast.

[Brian] Well I’ve a great passion for literacy. I was a special needs teacher for years. My last job was as a teacher in Hyde Bank Young Offenders Centre and there is a definite link between illiteracy and offending. And more and more children, especially from working class unionist areas, are falling through the net. There’s one in ten only achieves educationally. So I think there is a big need there.

But in Brian’s eyes, it’s not just about trained teachers. Society needs mobilised so that people informally pass on what they know to others.

[Brian] Mental health is another one. There’s only one point of reference now where a person can be referred to a hospital. And that’s the doctor. And trying to see the doctor this weather is like trying to see the Queen. It’s very, very difficult indeed.

Also they’ve got an active trouble shooting team and I’ve been told by people that work in mental health that basically they’re not all that effective. In fact, this guy knows of three people after having been visited by this team committed suicide. Now I’m not saying the team were responsible for them committing suicide, but I’m saying there was a lack of attention, a lack of care.

[He cites gives an example of someone locally who recently took their own life.]

Where was the care? Where was the backup? Where was the help? It wasn’t there.

So what about the UVF? How could Brian explain the linkage and relationship between the PUP and the UVF?

[Brian] Well, when I became leader of the Progressive Unionist Party I went to great trouble to define what that was. But I have to say what it’s not to define what it is. It is not being a spokesman for any type of criminality or gunmen or bully boys. It’s not in that way. It’s to facilitate the transition from a paramilitary group to a group that constructively builds its own society, and joins in – becomes normalised with the rest of society.

They themselves have very good ideas for achieving that. There’s a whole raft of proposals where people can get involved. The war is over. There is no need for paramilitarism any more. If people want to serve their community, they can do it constructively, through interface areas, through bands, through youth work, community work, alternatives, culture. There’s a whole raft of ways that they can serve their areas.

But the war is over. So we need now to move on. And I believe that’s what’s happening. There’s been a sea change and I believe there is a movement towards that. Now that does not mean there are hoods and vandals and cowboys out there. There are. But we try to move on with those men … for every four bad loyalists there are forty good ones working in interfaces, trying to maintain this peace process.

[Alan] So what’s the benefit of the continued linkage, formal or not? You may not be a spokesperson but you are seeking to represent some of those views in the wider political conversation. So what’s the benefit of keeping the link?

[Brian] Basically, I think it’s a missing link in many ways, the missing piece of the jigsaw. Because we need to bring these people on. We need to make them efficient members of our society. We need to accept them into our society. Not on their terms. On our terms. And I think that’s what’s needed. And when that’s completed, I believe we are on our way to a real, finalised peace.

[Alan] Do you see any sign of progress in the UVF’s normalisation back into less of a paramilitary organisation and more of a cultural organisation or however they choose to continue to keep going. Do you see any progress?

[Brian] All I can say is that since I have taken over leadership, there are reasons why there wasn’t very much movement. There are reasons on both sides why there wasn’t very much movement. And it’s no criticism of anyone. But I think they hadn’t moved for three years, and I think what happened on the Shankill with the atrocious murder of Bobby Moffett. I think that horrible incident was like a douse of cold water to everybody. And from that evil, good has come. I think there’s been a sea change. There’s a desire to move on. And they’re in transition now.

[Alan] Are they on a journey that in a matter of months they’ll be able to say “we have moved on”?

[Brian] I hope so. A lot of people want the UVF to go away. Nobody wants them to go away more than I do. The sooner, the better. But the thing is that at the present time there are no dissident factions in loyalism. Now what the leadership want to do, I believe, is not to leave any dissident factions. Or if there are going to be dissident factions, they’re going to be inconsequential.

[Alan] You say there aren’t dissident factions. But there are still plenty of thugs and hoods going round creating trouble, probably people within half a mile of here would say there are pressures and threats on them or on their families. So how does that square?

[Brian] My brother was very fond of a saying that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. There are people that wrap themselves up in a flag – whether it be an Ulster flag or a Union flag, a tricolour or whatever it is – and it’s just a camouflage for skulduggery and criminality.

And I’m on record as saying criminality is to be condemned. You cannot be a drug dealer and be a loyalist. You cannot run a racket and be a loyalist. They’re contradictions in terms. A loyalist is a person who is loyal to their society, who wants to see the good and benefit of their society, and wants to contribute positively to their society. Now I’m not naïve enough to say that criminality doesn’t go on. It does go on, and I condemn it from wherever it comes from.

Defending – or explaining – the PUP/UVF relationship isn’t the same as saying that the link is guaranteed. I got the feeling from other parts of the conversation that the PUP’s elastic will eventually become brittle and break if there is no UVF movement.

Brian also spoke of his frustration at the PSNI’s sometimes ineffective response to criminality in the area saying that more could be done at a local level to investigate those breaking the law.

As well as having an eye on taking back the East Belfast Assembly seat from Dawn Purvis, the PUP are contesting council seats in Antrim, Belfast, Castlereagh, Londonderry and Newtownabbey. While PUP funds are low, their hopes are high. While not making any firm predictions, Brian would be disappointed if the PUP only won two or three council seats.

[Brian] I believe that councillor John Kyle has done a wonderful job in Belfast City Council. He’s the only unionist to fight for the Connswater Centre, to keep it open. Backed by Sinn Fein as a matter of fact – isn’t that interesting? I think he’s done a wonderful job … I believe he will be re-elected on the basis of what he’s done.

But longer term, does Brian Ervine see a role for the PUP on the political landscape?

[Brian] Eight to ten years down I’d like to see a united socialist movement in Northern Ireland, where factions from both sides of the political and religious divide come together, almost a reformation of the old Northern Ireland Labour party. And I would work towards that. First I would like to see to unite the unionist working classes, and then find ground between the nationalist working classes and then build from there.

[Alan] You’re not interested in unionist unity? You’re more interested in socialist unity?

[Brian] I’m interested in socialist unity. I think as the Executive beds down there will emerge groups that have mutual interests. And I would be looking to that. I can see that in the future. If the constitutional issue is on the back burner, then what is going to emerge is going to be the social issues, jobs, bread and butter on the table, education, health. These things are going to emerge and people will come together for common interest.

The runners and odds in East Belfast have been discussed in comments under posts on Slugger before. I wouldn’t like to predict the order that the parties will win the six seats as the count proceeds – though I’ll be interested in your suggestions. But no matter how the eliminations and transfers go, there’s definitely going to be a race on between Alliance, PUP and Dawn Purvis for floating votes.

Having had to leave his job to become party leader, Brian’s involvement in East Belfast politics comes at a high price. As you’d expect, he’s upbeat about his own chances.

[Brian] We are aiming to take a seat in East Belfast for the Progressive Unionist Party. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe we could do that. I’m a local guy, I was born and bred here, I’ve taught generations of children in this area. So I have no paramilitary background. I haven’t got a police record even. I was an ex-policeman as a matter of fact. So I think we’re on course for a win.

(One of a series of interviews with representatives from smaller parties)

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.