I’ll admit that I was in tears as I left the theatre after watching The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary, the story of PUP leader David Ervine. And I was not the only one.
As someone who lived through the Troubles, I am grateful to the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, which attempted to draw a line under the past and offer a new beginning after decades of senseless tit for tat violence.
But we often forget the sacrifices the politicians made and the personal toll it took on them as they spent long days and nights up at Stormont.
David Ervine was one who paid a high price and the play gives some idea of the intensity of those months in the run up to the Agreement. Under the tutelage of Gusty Spence, Ervine – whose facility with words gave rise to the title of the play – helped steer the UVF from a war footing to the ceasefire that marked a new era.
I met David only once – in the RTÉ studio in Belfast. He was going to do a piece for the evening news and I was there to do a piece for the Irish language channel TnaG, now TG4.
We chatted for a while and I was a little worried that this Loyalist leader would be aghast at me for being an Irish-speaking Prod! I needn’t have been – he had no antipathy towards me or the language. In fact, as the play shows, he had been one of Gusty Spence’s “Irish learners – all proud UVF men” in the Kesh.
And today, of course, his sister-in-law Linda Ervine, has made it possible for many from the Loyalist community – and all communities – to embrace the language through the Turas project in East Belfast.
But back to the play! It’s a one-man show, with simple staging. Ervine is played magnificently by Paul Garrett in the Green Shoots production of the drama, written by Bobby Niblock. We watched it at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn, part of a tour which has just finished.
At first glance, with the Ervine moustache, Garrett might easily pass for another famous figure in 20th Century Irish politics – James Connolly!
It’s a highly energetic performance, as Garrett moves around the stage, frequently running, sometimes ducking and often diving to avoid gunshots and bombs, as audio from the time plays in the background at certain points.
The play traces his life from a child in Chamberlain St and his initiation into the UVF to his meetings with Tony Blair and Albert Reynolds. But woven through it all is his personal story, including the trials of his wife Jeanette, who struggled to raise a child as he did time in Long Kesh.
Her struggles continued when he got out and committed himself to finding a better way ahead for his people, by rejecting the concept of retaliation and binding that generation of paramilitaries in the flag of peace and reconciliation.
And he did this while coping with a personal tragedy that did not play out in the public domain.
The Good Friday Agreement – Belfast Agreement if you prefer – was an imperfect triumph and one of the words Ervine looks up in the apocryphal dictionary of the title towards the end of the play is “dénouement”.
In many ways we’re still waiting for that final act.
The play ends with a sequence of audio clips, in which we hear Ervine’s voice, ringing with the clarity of message that was his trademark. But in the final clip, we hear David the family man, as he talks to his grandchild.
This poignant aftertouch brought quite a few to tears, myself included!
It’s touching on so many levels. But above all else, it shows that our politicians – no matter how much we castigate them – are real people.
I personally avoid politics on social media, but I don’t think I’m making a political point when I suggest that this society needs more political leaders like David Ervine.
Dr Ian Malcolm is an Irish teacher for lifelong learners and a journalist in the Irish language media. From a Unionist background, he passionately believes that Irish belongs to all. He is the author of Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language. Despite being a commentator on politics in the Irish language media, he avoids all things political in the social media!