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)

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  • ItwasSammyMcNally

    Alan,

    Excellent interview. He seems like a genuine sort of chap – after usual allowance is made for anyone chasing a career in politics.

    A couple of points – it would have been interesting to hear if he thinks SF offer a template for his party and what he thinks of SF’s ‘socialism’. It would also have been interesting to hear what he might think(thought) of the Workers party(are they defunct?) who probably would say something similar to quote below.

    “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.”

    In relation to his saying “was like a douse of cold water “.

    Did you record the interview?

    Is ‘douse’ a Beflastism/UlsterScotsism for “dose”?

  • Banjaxed

    So, is this the start of full blown canvassing on the pages of Slugger? God help us! It’s going to be a long trudge until the elections.

    As to the interview, Irvine’s pathetic excuses for the ongoing UVF link merely produces a gagging reflex. He and his ilk must have provided the soap for Pontius Pilate’s fingerbowl. ‘Nuffin’ to do wiv me, Guv. Pass me a hand towel’.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally – To answer both the douse and was it recorded questions, about 8 minutes into the video embedded above you’ll hear his “douse”. But he is an Ulster-Scotsian …

    Banjaxed – No. But we hear a lot less about the smaller parties and special interest groups that live in the margins of normal press coverage of policies and election stunts. So (for me at least) it’s interesting to get some colour of why the smaller fish continue to exist and choose to swim in the local political pond. It’s the smaller candidates that make the race for the final seat in some constituencies that bit more random.

    I’ve no plans to ask the big parties what their policies are – but I might catch up with other smaller groups – éirígí would have to be on that list – to do something similar.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally

    Alan,

    Thanks for that.

    I read this thread on my phone and didnt see the link to the video.

    What about my point regarding getting his attitude to ‘themmuns’ on the other side of the fence who also say they want to do ‘socialism’.

  • Comrade Stalin

    It was a great interview. It is, in many ways, a real shame that people with this breadth of sensitivity and willingness to reach out don’t get more votes from those they claim to represent.

  • Turgon

    Ah here we go again: the PUP, the authentic voice of working class unionists; the people who are trying to help their communities; the ones trying to bring the paramilitaries in from the cold.

    What utter nonsense. The UVF ceasefire was in 1994. The time which has elapsed since that is longer than the Blair / Brown government; longer than the whole period of Nazi Germany. Their ceasefire was only a year after Bill Clinton was elected: it is that long ago.

    Yet in all that time the PUP have failed to bring the UVF away from violence: if that is their aim they have singularly failed. The murders have continued; the extortion rackets, prostitution rackets and drug smuggling have continued.

    Having failed the PUP could have gone to the authorities and told everything they new but they did not. They could have broken the length but no under Brian Ervine’s direction they have strengthened it: Ervine describes it as a bridge.

    One day we should call the PUP for what it assuredly is: a front organisation and group of apologists for unrepentant sectarian murderers and thugs. Ervine is now its cheerleader in chief.

    Ervine has moved towards a prolife position: sadly although opposed to the deaths of unborn children, he seems quite comfortable with his political other halves committing the post birth murder of men, women and children. In Ervine’s view are abortionists much more evil than the men who ran into Loughinisland? Or the ones who murdered and buried Lisa Dorian?

    The other loathsome hypocrisy is that some have lauded Purvis for her supposedly principled decision to leave the PUP. If that was principled what on earth is Ervine for strengthening the link with the terrorists.

    I have suggested this before but the PUP, David Ervine, Dawn Purvis et al. are not the representatives of the working class unionist population. They represent solely the Lumpenproletariat of drug dealers, pimps and extortionists who have helped blight the true working class unionist population for years.

  • lamhdearg, Woodstock – let’s not take the conversation too far away from the topic of the post – or else it’ll quickly descend into an exploration of the UVF’s involvement or not in various atrocities and criminality … instead of the topic which is largely an exploration of why the PUP feel they should continue to exist and whether or not their policies and priorities will appeal to the electorate.

  • Turgon

    lamhdearg,
    My understanding (from what I have read by Brian Rowan amongst others and other information) is that Ms. Dorian was murdered by a member of the UVF and a member of the LVF. There was an attempt to say it was the LVF but in reality it seems to have been two individuals (one from each organisation).

    This is no more than the information which is already in the public domain. However, even if we say that Ms. Dorian was not murdered by the UVF that still leaves more than two dozen people murdered since the supposed UVF ceasefire along with all those murdered prior to the so called ceasefire. Leading members of the PUP past and present are convicted murderers: Billy Hutchinson and Gusty Spence being the two most prominent examples. David Ervine (the man under whose picture the current PUP leader seems proud to sit) was a convicted bomb maker and it seems highly unlikely that he was arrested during his only attempted bombing attack.

    The PUP has mouthed weasel worded comments after all the UVF’s recent murders. However, much more instructive regarding their attitude to the murder of people (and Catholics in particular) is the fact that Billy Hutchinson was arrested regarding withholding information over the sectarian murder of Thomas Devlin. At that time the PUP protested outside the police station Hutchinson was taken to. They were not protesting about Thomas Devlin’s murder: no they were protesting at the already convicted child killer (and PUP member) Hutchinson’s arrest.

  • Turgon

    Alan,
    Fair enough. The problem is that many people feel that the sole reason the PUP should cease to exist is their support for UVF criminality and the cover they give to it.

    I would be in favour of a working class unionist party: or indeed of a left wing unionist party for all types of people. Alternatively I would also be pleased if the main unionist parties made more of an effort to help and represent the working class unionist community. I think it would be useful for them to have more working class representatives and I have frequently argued for this. In that context I welcome the selection of Sammy Douglas.

    My contention is that the PUP are not a working class or left wing unionist party but rather a mouth piece for unrepentant thugs and criminals. It is the link with the UVF which defines the PUP. It is that link which makes them unacceptable to very many unionists, hence, limiting their electoral appeal. Hopefully it is that link which will ensure their political demise at the next elections.

  • Stephen Blacker

    Alan,

    Another very interesting interview with one of the smaller players in the forthcoming election this May. It gives these potential MLA’s a bit more of a profile than they would normally expect.

    Brian Ervine is very upbeat about his chances and it makes for an exciting contest in East Belfast. I do think that with a full party machine behind Brian he will do well. His views on Abortion would not be the same as his late brother David but I guess things never stay the same.

    I would like to have heard more about his comment,
    “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,”
    What were these reasons because the UVF / RHC had already said they were moving into a self declared “Civilianized” roll which was widely believed to have been done in the memory of the Late David Ervine who had pushed for this and more for years. Also the then PUP Executive, who lived and breathed every word of the Late David Ervine continued to strive for more movement and action towards the aims and hopes of David which reached a milestone when decommissioning was declared in June 2009. Unfortunately this proved hollow after the murder of Mr. Moffet nearly a year later but for Brian to say there was no movement for 3 years is had to understand.

    Brian Ervine’s condemnation of criminal acts to whatever degree connot be any clearer and this will be welcomed in all communities. His education is very impressive and being an ex-police officer will leave him ready for most eventualities. I have no doubt he will have an exciting election campaign and I wish him the best.

  • Darkwing

    Turgon

    “Leading members of the PUP past and present are convicted murderers: Billy Hutchinson and Gusty Spence being the two most prominent examples. David Ervine (the man under whose picture the current PUP leader seems proud to sit) was a convicted bomb maker and it seems highly unlikely that he was arrested during his only attempted bombing attack.”

    Incase you hadn’t realised Turgon the assembly and councils across the province are full of murderers and bombers, even the middle class unionist parties have ex paramilitaries in their membership. The situation we find ourselves in here in Northern Ireland is a unique one. Many people from all backgrounds have a history and a record. Of course that is no way excusable of the acts that they carried out, the peace we have here isnt where we want to be but at the moment it is the best we are going to get. Pointing the finger of blame to the past is in no way helping to quell any sectarian hated of our younger generations and so providing oxygen to fan the flames of division.

    I have a belief that of course there is a criminal element out there who will use the cover of organisations to line their own pockets, these people are not welcome and only hold back progress from where we need to be.

  • Cynic2

    “spiritually, morally and politically harmful”

    …. is its association with a terrorist group that deals drugs, murders people and carries out robberies more or less harmful than abortion?

  • JAH

    The mere mention of the PUP and poor old Turgon hears the Pavlov bell ringing and the attack dog savages anyone who dares to speak up for working class Loyalists.

    As usual for there is no attempt to read or listen to what Irvine said but trot out the same old stories packed with abuse like

    unrepentant sectarian murderers and thugs
    loathsome hypocrisy

    Turgon and his TUVites can’t understand that their constant abuse of working class loyalists is counterproductive. Most had family or friends involved in terrorism who Turgon denigrates because they stood up (wisely or not is a judgement for history) for their identity. PUP remains the only party even to acknowledge this whilst the real Pontius Pilates are the Unionists who hid behind Loyalist violence but disowned it.

    It’s hardly surprising that some working class protestants are starting to look at SF. Now that would be an irony. The ultra right Unionists actually succeed to alienating enough Protestants that they vote for a United Ireland.

  • JAH – be careful to “play the ball and not the man” … even when you get would up by Turgon’s position!

  • Turgon

    JAH,
    Yes I am happy to attack anyone who stands up for loyalists as you observe. Loyalists is usually the term reserved for the terrorists and their cheerleaders and lackeys.

    I am, however, very keen that people stand up for working class unionists and ma very supportive of that. Working class unionists have indeed often been neglected by unionist politicians. They have been neglected by unionist politicians and attacked, beaten up sometimes murdered and had their lives made worse by loyalists. As you said I am proud to attack loyalists. That you support them rather than working class unionists is interesting

  • Nunoftheabove

    JAH

    Brian Ervine appears on the face of it to be a genuine and decent enough guy. He’s probably not thrilled about the past of some of his constitients and isn’t thrilled about how some of them behave now. I don’t disbelieve a good deal of what he says.

    What I simply don’t or can’t discern however is what it is about the PUP that’s that actually that progressive. Strip the identity politics out of it and what are you left with ? There is really no coherent class component to it at all from what I can see, no real programme at all. Given as it’s not tied to any party or movement of susbstance currently, I just can’t see how it can really hope to engage loyalism or broader unionism other than by being a minor pressure group keeping the worst right wing extremes of mainstream unionism vaguely in check at the local level.

    I’m sorry to put it as bluntly and perhaps as snobbily as this but its image for the most part seems to be chavs with failed pretensions of becoming a prod Sinn Fein. Some of them Delboy Trotters, slightly dodgy, boozy losers with good intentions and some cop-on and integrity, some of them Lenny Murphys – dark Barlinnie-esque psychopaths, some of them career sectarians (you know I know who/what I mean) – the well-and-truly on the take lowlife demagogues – some of them just fringe criminals – cornerboy underclass riffraff, the sort the army wouldn’t want and that juvenile courts and institutions got sick of the sight of.

    I have no doubt that there are some progressive voices and people of integrity in there. I don’t envy them the task of securing an electyoral foothold based on the core organization behind them, their hirosty and the PUP’s apparent continuing dependency on them. Them and the hangers-on.

  • scrabopower

    Brian is always an engaging personality!

    However I struggle to understand what the PUP brings to the UVF that they don’t already have.

    Are all UVF members socialist? I doubt it v strongly.

    In terms of providing a voice, its well known that UVF leadership prob engage with the decision-makers here themselves..and probably more effectively than through a minority party

  • andnowwhat

    I have to agree with Turgon. He is perfectly correct to brimg up the actions of the PUP in relation to the Thomas Devlin murder. Thomas’ murderers are the kind of thick no marks that kill innocents in every society. What disgusted me just as much was the behaviour of Hutchinson and the party.

    Back to the interview. unless Brian and his party are telling the UVF (I don’t buy that LVF crap) that they have nop reason to be operating AT ALL!!!! his woprds are pointless. If I accidently took some acid and imagined they had some justification to exist and operate in the past, they have had none for a long time now.

    Brian has a fek’n cheek talking about mental health issues. I know for a fact that the mental health services in E Belfast (probably beyond but it is only E Belfast that I know about professionally) are inundated with clients suffering at the hands of the UVF and I also know that the PUP are bloody well aware of it.

    PS. Coulf the UVF kindl;y stop whoring the name of the Ulster’s. You have NOTHING to do with them and I am pretty sure they would not be chuffed with your besmurching of their memory.