Dawn Purvis’ resignation as PUP leader – indeed, even resigning her membership of the party – is quite the bombshell. This of course follows the public execution of Red Hand Commando member Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road in broad daylight last Friday, presumably by members of the UVF, and an outbreak of mass intimidation in the area that led the PUP to issue a statement saying that people should be able to attend Moffett’s funeral without fear of reprisal. When you think of it, that’s a pretty shocking statement for a political party to address to its supporters.
Dawn’s announcement is surprising and it’s unsurprising. It’s surprising in that, though it was well trailed that Dawn was fed up having to make statements explaining the actions of the UVF, the late David Ervine had pulled the resignation threat once too often. It went like this: the UVF would do something outrageous, Ervine would say that if it was proved the UVF was responsible then he would walk away, then some time later Ervine would announce that the outrageous action had not been sanctioned by the UVF leadership and therefore he wouldn’t need to walk away after all. Strangely, however many times he did this, the local media never called him out on it.
On the other hand, Dawn exemplified in her own person one of the biggest faultlines in the Pup. The main reason it continued to exist even in a small form was that it was conscious of the problem that afflicted the late and unlamented UDP – a party that was never really more than the UDA in suits, that the UDA couldn’t even persuade its own members to take seriously, and that fell prey to the divisions in its famously factionalised paramilitary parent group. The rather more cohesive and disciplined UVF leadership put some effort into their party, gifting it a populist programme to stand on, as well as consciously building up a party cadre outside the ranks of the UVF – starting with prisoners’ wives and extending outwards to other elements of the loyalist community sector. So at a PUP public meeting you would see plenty of scary-looking UVF men, but also lots of working-class women who were formidable in their own right. Hence the recurrent tension in the PUP between the straightforward paramilitary element and the community sector element, who had overlapping but not identical interests. Of course, this contradiction was itself the result of the UVF leadership’s outward push in the mid-1990s.
Thus Dawn, somebody rooted in and appealing to that sort of community group populism. And thus the rather bizarre situation of the UVF’s political wing being led by somebody claiming to be a socialist and feminist. Obviously, something had to give at some point, especially since the UVF includes within its ranks some folks who are evidently too dense to realise that, under the rules of the peace process, you can get away with having some guns not decommissioned, but actually using them is very bad form. And, when push came to shove, Dawn simply not having the street cred of someone like Ervine or Billy Hutchinson who could bang a few heads together.
Politically, it’s hard to see this meaning anything other than the end of the Pup. They have a few outposts in various places – Shughie Smyth remains a Shankill councillor, and you find them popping up in odd places like Kilcooley – but, as of the last Assembly election, Dawn’s vote in East Belfast, centred around the lower Newtownards Road, represented the overwhelming majority of the party’s tally. Indeed, not only did she surprise most observers by retaining David Ervine’s seat, she actually improved on his vote. Of her 3045 votes, how many were a straight vote for the UVF? The other PUP votes in 2007 – Andrew Park’s 410 in South Belfast and Elaine Martin’s 367 in North Down – should be sobering for those remaining in the Pup, even if they do manage to fill the leadership vacancy. As for Dawn, you wouldn’t want to lay too much money on her retaining her Stormont seat as an independent, although stranger things have happened lately in East Belfast. PUP voters, as a rule, hate the DUP with a vengeance and won’t be too impressed with a Tory-aligned UUP, so the net effect will be to see a layer of people who tend to be pretty apathetic anyway drifting back into abstention.
And so, this point in the long decline of the PUP sees the virtual end of a period when the paramilitaries could claim some sort of political voice. Let’s not of course sentimentalise a politics that was essentially incoherent populism resting on sectarian militias, and whose proclaimed leftism was very much subordinate to the tribal drums. Nonetheless, Dawn Purvis – one of the few women in a leadership role in local politics, the only unionist MLA to oppose the 11+ and one of only two Stormont MLAs (along with Alliance’s Anna Lo) to favour the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the north – could claim to be a distinctive voice, and maybe loyalism’s best chance to develop some sort of vaguely working-class politics. That she couldn’t square the circle tells you something about the limitations of loyalism as a political entity.
For some context, check out Alan’s interview with Dawn from last year.