ANYBODY who knew David Ervine or knows of him will appreciate the title of Bobby Niblock’s play – The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary. In its humorous description of David’s style of speaking and wordiness it reminds us of a political leader who was an able and determined advocate for working class loyalism. His sudden death in January 2007 at the age of 53 left a political vacuum within loyalism and wider politics which has never been properly filled. The Progressive Unionist Party which David led has failed to garner the popular political support that it was once thought capable of under his leadership.
I have not yet had an opportunity to see Bobby’s play but friends have thoroughly enjoyed the one-man show. They praised the script and actor Paul Garrett who successfully brings the nuances and the voice to life on the stage with just two large books, a bushy moustache and a pipe as his props.
During the course of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement and in the years afterward I met David many times. Among other things we were both pipe smokers. He was also articulate, genuine, and deeply committed to his brand of unionism. He had a good sense of humour. He was very sociable. In Kerry in support of the project involving young people from East Belfast to build a replica of The Jeanie Johnson – a ship used during the Great Hunger to transport starving Irish to America – David and Martin Ferris would often adjourn to a local pub to scull pints and chat about sport.
But he also had no illusions about the challenges facing all of us as we worked to chart a course from conflict to peace. While the Ulster Unionist leaders refused to talk to Sinn Féin throughout the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, David and his colleagues played no such games.
An East Belfast working-class Protestant, David Ervine was drawn into the loyalism at an early age. In 1972 he joined the UVF and two years later he was imprisoned in Long Kesh for possession of a bomb. David spent five and a half years there. When he was released he was more politically and socially conscious. He was self-assured, confident and argued for greater positivity and dialogue within unionism. In the discussions that were taking place in the 1990s about moving from conflict into some sort of peace and political process, David’s voice, along with that of Billy Hutchinson and others, became increasingly important and influential within the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community.
He often criticised unionist political leaders for using loyalist paramilitaries, and the threat of loyalist violence as leverage in their confrontations with the British and Irish governments then discarded them when they no longer mattered. “If anybody in Northern Ireland thinks that the Protestant working class community has benefited from the mechanisms that they [the DUP] advocate, then there is something wrong with their heads.” Two decades later and this dangerous game is still being played, although it has to be said many loyalist groups go along with this despite being conscious of being used by unionist parties.
Went to the Lyric for David Ervine show.. The Man who swallowed a dictionary.. Great insight into the man.. I always respected David.— Damian (@Damin97498291) September 6, 2023
Look at East Belfast UVF now. pic.twitter.com/ENBjhg3ujK
On another occasion, talking about sectarianism, he said: "Many people come from places where drawing-room sectarianism is at its worst... and they have luxuriated and benefited as society, divided more and more, crashes on the rocks." It is a great pity that today’s loyalists don’t see the folly of this. They continue to allow themselves to be used.
In an interview with Danny Morrison in 2002, David acknowledged that the conflict had its origins in the North’s one-party unionist state and the discrimination levelled against Catholics. At a time when the issue of Irish unity wasn’t attracting the interest it is today, David said that he would “accept a united Ireland if a majority in the North votes for it". His preference of course was to make the North work for everyone. His thoughts on what motivates unionism are probably more relevant today than they were 20 years ago when the current momentum toward Irish unity was not so strong.
He told Danny: “You’ve got to understand how unionism works. There is a huge insecurity within unionism. Unionism really hasn’t had time to settle. They feel that the republican agitation is never going to stop. The one thing that unionists lust for is stability. It’s the one thing they have never had.”
Later he said: “I am what I am. I am both Irish and British but I’m a democrat too... There’s nothing more fascist than someone telling you what you are, especially if you perceive yourself to be somewhat different... We are steeped in concepts of Britishness... but those who are the legal arbiters are the people of Northern Ireland. It is absolutely legitimate for republicans to argue the validity of a united Ireland but the new dispensation is worthy and there should be no Plan B. My mother and father were Irish, my grandparents, and very simplistically so. But there are arguments about the haunting mist of the 1937 Constitution that forced the unionist people to re-think their Irishness.”
If he were still with us we could have a good debate over some of this. But nonetheless today we increasingly see Protestant/unionist voices embracing the notion of being Irish and of equality and parity within the context of constitutional change. If David were here now he would be in the middle of this conversation, smoking his pipe and advocating his views.
His sudden death in January 2007 was a shock. Alex Maskey and I attended his funeral in East Belfast. It was an opportunity to let his wife Jeanette know how much David was respected and of our sincere gratitude for the immense contribution he made to the peace process and to the Good Friday Agreement.
Street art in Belfast
When I had the honour to represent the fine citizens of Louth and East Meath, Richard and I spent a lot of time in Dublin. In between marathon shifts in Teach Laighean we used to walk the streets of the capital. Both of us were taken by the initiatives to paint utility fittings like electric boxes with images of local or national figures, pithy slogans, landscapes, iconic landmarks and abstract designs.
Drab grey metal was transformed into bright, eye-catching and mind-lifting street art. Now I see this is being replicated in Belfast. Naomh Pól and Rossa are leading the way. Very well done. Let’s see other clubs doing their thing – and images also of local people or flora and fauna or relics of the linen industry or butterflies, local landmarks and local art.
Mól an óige
If you are in Belfast between now and November 9 call into the Gerard Dillon Gallery in An Cultúrlan McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road and marvel at the brilliance of the young students of Coláiste Feirste. Fair play to them all and to their teachers. The future is bright. They are a valued and wonderful part of the arts and wider community. A credit to themselves, their families, to Belfast and Ireland. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh s.