Sophie Long is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics at Queens University. Writing for Slugger she shares her research about Billy Hutchinson and the development of the Progressive Unionist Party
When political commentators discuss the Progressive Unionist Party in positive terms, it is often David Ervine, or Dawn Purvis, whose names are put forward by means of substantiating the Party’s progressive credentials. Ervine, who now possesses almost mythical status in Northern Ireland, and beyond, was described in The Independent as, “an advocate of peace and politics”, “an articulate spokesman for working-class Belfast loyalism”, and as someone who “preached dialogue and an end to Protestant negativity” (McKittrick 2007).
By contrast, however, less praise is heaped onto the current Party leader, Billy Hutchinson. Such attitudes reveal a limited knowledge of the internal workings of the Party, and indeed, the partnership between Ervine and Hutchinson. Both men worked for the good of their communities. Both espoused the same politics. Both believed politics was a route toward progress, particularly for young people. Whilst Ervine captivated the regional media, Hutchinson worked, mostly in the background, in tandem with the then-leader. This has led to assertions, by some, that the PUP were at their zenith when led by Ervine.
Some of my recent research has investigated the perceptions of those on the political left, towards the PUP and their social-democratic brand of politics. One of the recurring themes, across almost all interviewees, has been the assertion that Hutchinson has moved the Party backwards, and is not the correct candidate to espouse progressive politics to ordinary Protestants.
Those within the Party, and indeed those who are close to the PUP, argue the opposite. In order to unpack some of these claims, it is helpful to look at the policy positions adopted by the Party under Hutchinson’s reign, and assess whether these represent a progressive, or a regressive turn, in the context of the PUP’s lifespan.
Most notably, the Party voted to enshrine support for Marriage Equality into policy, at their 2013 conference. This makes the PUP the only Unionist Party who have a pro-same sex marriage policy, something which Hutchinson believes, reinforces the Party’s “tradition of promoting and encouraging equality, diversity and respect in the context of the union”.
At the same conference, a policy supporting an Armed Forces Covenant for Northern Ireland was passed. This is, “A Covenant that will guarantee better treatment for those who have suffered serious injury during service, of those who continue to suffer post-conflict mental trauma because of their service, and to ensure better overall access to health care, housing and help into further employment.”
The PUP often describe themselves as “socially liberal and economically social-democratic”. This blend of politics recognises the need to improve the material conditions of the working classes, whilst also respecting the traditions which they enjoy.
These assertions are substantiated by one of Hutchinson’s first actions as Party Leader. His predecessor, Brian Ervine, had supported the lowering of Corporation Tax to 12.5%. This is broadly in line with the other, Unionist Parties’ policies. However, Hutchinson reversed this policy, and the Party now oppose the lowering of CT, believing that a focus on growing the local economy through investment and education remains a priority.
In 2014, several, progressive policies and positions were adopted, under Hutchinson’s leadership. The Party support the abolishment of zero-hours contracts, arguing that they do not present young people, nor other citizens, with the stable employment which underpins a meaningful life.
In addition, the PUP have fought, alongside Trade Unions, and others progressive parties, to exclude the NHS from TTIP agreements. It is, and always has been, Party policy to oppose privatisation to health services.
Further, 2014 saw the Party support the implementation of the United Nations Security Council’s Section 1325 resolution, which advocates for the rights of women to participate, as equals, at all levels of peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
This Resolution, which seeks to empower women, is a natural policy of a Party which has seen women take leading roles in shaping policy and engaging in debate. Further, under Hutchinson’s guidance, women’s political participation has flourished. At a party council meeting which runs six months prior to conference, 40% of attendees were women.
Whilst many have suggested that, post-Ervine and Purvis, the PUP have become the ‘party of flags and parades’, there is little truth to this. With regard to the Belfast City Hall flag debate, the Party changed its flag policy to reflect community opinion in October 2012, 2 months prior to the Council vote which changed the policy.
From 1998 until 2012, the PUP supported a ‘designated days’ policy. However, at the 2012 Party Conference, the position was changed. The policy was now to support the flying of the Union flag 365 days a year from Belfast City Hall. This happened in response to Sinn Fein’s malevolent politicking, and a belief that rather than promoting tolerance, some parties were instead reacting to a divided society.
Those who criticise Hutchinson for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the flags protesters might consider this, from Richard Reed:
In this sense, the party’s involvement in the flag protests from 2012 under new leader Billy Hutchinson hasn’t so much been an abandonment of these [socio-economic] principles, but rather an evolution, as it has tried to align itself to the current interests and grievances of the Protestant working class (2015:131).
Some might contend that the Protestant working class’ most pressing need is reform of an education system which is routinely failing many of their young males. Under Hutchinson’s watch, a report was launched in June 2015 which critiqued the elitist system of academic selection, and offered an alternative- pupil profiling over a period of three years- which would allow teachers to assess children holistically, and broaden our understandings of what it means to ‘achieve’.
Other party positions and policies have focused on Human Trafficking. A proactive piece of research conducted by the Party, supported by their leader, outlines the need to use a human rights-based approach to identify and prevent human trafficking, which disproportionately affects women. Copies of this policy are available upon request, and given the depth of the analysis and breadth of the recommendations, reading is highly recommended.
Finally, it might be suggested, that given the above, Hutchinson has led the PUP in a direction which their constituents do not wish to follow.
Again, a cursory look at the statistics undermines this claim. Not only did the Party stand in 25 areas for the first time in last year’s Council elections, but they doubled their Council seats from 2, to 4.
This reflects the work undertaken at a grassroots level by Party members, but also the maturity of the Party leader, who recognises that young people are best served by politics, and indeed, by a Party who empowers those people to question their circumstances, and work together to transform their communities. This is Hutchinson’s primary objective; continuing the project which he and Ervine began all those years ago, to politicise young people, particularly those who believed politics was ‘not for them’. He has already broken new ground with these aims with a surge in membership. All young people, including many young women, who have found a home in Hutchinson’s Party, and who work daily to transform their communities.
We should never forget David Ervine. His memory serves to remind us of what can be achieved by ordinary people, who care. But nor should we allow that to crowd out the achievements, aims and principles of the PUP which today is flourishing, under the leadership of Billy Hutchinson.