When the PUP emerged blinking into the light after the 1994 loyalist ceasefire, pundits were quick to hail them as a breath of fresh air, a contrast to the stale and calcified old unionism of Big Ian and Old Lemonsucker Molyneaux. Here you had a bunch of working-class codgers who talked about the working class and about bread-and-butter issues. (Actually they talked about the Protestant working class, but that was glossed over.) Members of the UVF were invited onto the evening news to solemnly pontificate about the peace process, while Provo councillors couldn’t talk about refuse collection without being hectored about decommissioning. Some people on the gormless left even took seriously the PUP’s claim to be socialist – I’m thinking in particular about Militant, who assisted in the writing of the PUP programme.
At this point it is usual to wring one’s hands about the wasted potential of the fringe loyalist parties. But their failure was written into their DNA. The PUP has policies on lots of issues, often good progressive policies, but, after all, it exists primarily to represent the interests of the UVF death squads. And the UVF is an armed organisation which exists for the sole purpose of defending sectarian privilege. So it was predictable that the PUP/UVF didn’t bring a radical new voice to the peace process, its main function was to provide muscle for Trimble and insulate him against DUP attacks. Ervine’s decision last year to join the Official Unionist assembly party was the logical outcome of this process. In the meantime, the PUP’s “socialism” was reduced to claiming that Catholics were getting too many goodies and the Prods should be cut in for a bigger share. Nor were things helped by the British administration’s policy of throwing money at armed loyalism in the hope of keeping the death squads quiet.
The irony is that David Ervine was probably the best chance loyalism had to develop any meaningful politics. The tributes to Ervine the man are not misplaced – here was someone who was intelligent, articulate and had indeed made a remarkable personal journey. The question is, if someone with the qualities of David Ervine couldn’t break from the shackles of reactionary loyalism, doesn’t that prove something about the irreformable nature of loyalism? If even Ervine couldn’t do it, it is highly doubtful anyone can.