The Pup loses its bark

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.


  1. June 4, 2010 at 2:19 am

    […] Adds: Another view from Splintered Sunrise […]

  2. Liam said,

    June 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Do we have any idea of the nature of the arcane philosophical dispute that was resolved with the killing of Bobby Moffett?

    Cedar Lounge makes a couple of bizarre statements about Dawn Purvis.

    “There is Purvis’ future, the future of the PUP, and what this move might mean for the left and the forthcoming elections in NI.”

    “It’s worth bearing in mind that Purvis is the Assembly’s most left-wing MLA.”

    Even by my flexible standards “left wing” does not include fronting up a sectarian murder gang’s public operation.

    • Mark P said,

      June 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm

      Her voting record in the Assembly is probably to the left of anyone else’s, which tells you more about SF than it necessarily does about her.

  3. June 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    “Do we have any idea of the nature of the arcane philosophical dispute that was resolved with the killing of Bobby Moffett?”

    Mr Moffett probably said something along the lines of “aye, yer ma” to one of the local lieutenants down at the Rex the previous Saturday night. Internal loyalist disputes never seem to focus on profound issues.

    As for the PUP, I was always sceptical of their potential to develop into any serious type of movement. From the start it was very much a party confined to Protestant areas of Belfast where the UVF was dominant. Even in the paramilitary group’s main base outside the city, Mid-Ulster, the party was hated for its leftist tendencies by fundamentalist eejits like Billy Wright. At best it was never going to be much more than Walkerist labour unionist outfit. At worst it was going to be, as Liam put it, the PR front for a sectarian militia. In the end it fell somewhere in between and will most likely now fade away leaving no real impact on the face of politics in the six counties. In a few years it’ll probably be, like Clann na Poblachta or the Workers Party, worthy of a book or at the very least a few half decent university dissertations. Probably not what Davy Ervine had in mind though.

  4. Garibaldy said,

    June 4, 2010 at 3:48 pm


    As the party (small ‘p’ of course) guilty of the bizarre statements, I suppose I ought to explain myself. We all know the limitations of the PUP, and its connections. We also know the efforts made by the people within it (or some of them anyway) to put an end to the UVF’s activities. We shouldn’t ignore that it is offering a left-wing, “Old Labour” vision of unionism. Given the weakness of the left in NI, and the necessity to fragment both nationalism and unionism along class lines if the left is to grow within NI, I do think the future of both Purvis and the PUP is of importance to the left as a whole. They are the only unionists to support the abolition of the 11 Plus for example, and you will hear a lot more from them about integrated education than you will from some who claim to walk in Tone’s footsteps. There certainly is an element of their being a public operation for others, but as this whole event proves, the story is not so simple.

    • neilcaff said,

      June 4, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      I think the problem with many left republicans is they don’t accept that there is such a thing as left unionism. They don’t accept that anyone moving away from unonism in the direction of class politics will inevitably bring with a certain amount of baggage with them.

      There seems to be this wrong headed idea that people from a unionist background must renounce unionism completely before the left can engage with them.

      • Ciarán said,

        June 4, 2010 at 10:16 pm

        It does pose the question of whether socialism really can be compatible with unionism. If you look at the history of left unionism the major figures you find are people like William Walker and Harry Midgely. Not exactly a proud tradition.

        From the socialist republican mold you find major figures like James Connolly, Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan. I’ll not mention any names from more recent years for fear of derailing the thread but there were have been many dedicated socialist republicans involved in the Officials, Provies and Irps over the years.

      • Garibaldy said,

        June 5, 2010 at 1:18 am

        Certainly there have been unionists who used a left rhetoric that was nothing more than an appeal for special treatment for working class protestants, often at the expense of working class catholics. On the other hand, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which most of us would assume was left unionist, was raising civil rights in the early 1960s.

        Integrated education isn’t a panacea. Any more than using troops to protect black students in Little Rock was a panacea for racism. But ending segregation in America certainly helped, and is doing so in South Africa. I’m also intrigued by the thought that the education system isn’t a structural issue. Republicans in France and elsewhere have known for centuries its importance to creating a secular society.

    • Ciarán said,

      June 4, 2010 at 10:10 pm

      I think people, especially in the nationalist community, might be more receptive to integrated education if it didn’t seem so dominated by fundamentalist Christians (not to mention the way it’s been put on a pedestal as the panacea to all our ills as if there were no structural issues to deal with). In the meantime, anyone looking for independent-minded education can find it in the Gaelscoileanna.

  5. Liam said,

    June 4, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Who has been moving away from unionism in the direction of class politics, certainly none of the fronts affiliated to the loyalist murder gangs?

    Unionism is an inherently reactionary ideology. It relies on military support from an imperialist state and is the theorisation of sectarianism. Even the most neanderthal of the loyalists don’t need that explained to them, which gives them an edge over the partitionist socialists who have made serious accomodations to their world view over the years.

    It’s self evident that when these murder squads set up political fronts to get on the grant gravy train that they have to have a rhetoric which can occasionally sound social democratic. Even the BNP is in favour of building more council houses.

    However the history of “left unionism”, including the Norn Iron Labour Party, is that it always collapses at times of social stress and the reactionary aspect overwhelms the “leftism”.

    • Mark P said,

      June 4, 2010 at 7:07 pm

      Much the same can be said of left nationalism of course. The nationalism always seems to win out over the socialism when push comes to shove.

      If a section of the unionist population shifts left, under the pressure of events, it is entirely correct to engage with it (just as it was correct to engage with forces like the Irps despite their own blood soaked sectarian history). The point is though that, yes, socialism does require breaking with unionism (and nationalism) in the end. The PUP did represent a rather confused shift to the left, but it did not represent a fundamental break with unionism and, as sectarian flashpoints arose they fairly quickly shifted back towards where they came from.

      It’s interesting that Purvis, unlike David Ervine, in the end decided to break from the UVF.

      • ejh said,

        June 4, 2010 at 8:21 pm

        If a section of the unionist population shifts left, under the pressure of events, it is entirely correct to engage with it

        You haven’t got function keys set up for those phrases?

      • Mark P said,

        June 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm

        I’ve gone one better. Two thirds of my posts are now entirely automated.

    • Sense said,

      June 4, 2010 at 8:39 pm

      I tell you what Dawn Purvis is well to the left of Adams, the manager of those who commit child sex abuse, mass going Pinocchio. Unionism is a reactionary ideology, not half as much as Irish Roman Catholicism is but then Billy I won’t imagine you see it that way – what is the more social democratic state the UK or southern Ireland – one word answer please?

      As for Moffat I don’t see the comparison between killing a member of your own outfit with the Provo killings in the last few years. Shows the metel of the PUP that their leader resigns and the party understand while G Adams just tells more lies – of course he can be forgiven by his confessor for them.

  6. June 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    I know it is not a very good analogy, but most analogies aren’t. Here it is anyway: I can say with some certainty that no US left group, black or otherwise, would work with members (former or otherwise) of white supremacist gangs or accept them as “moving to the left” unless they renounced not just their past organization and actions, but rejected the entire basis of those organizations and actions. Further, neither would even the most mealy-mouthed liberal civil rights group. That many of those chaps are confused working class folks screwed by the same system we are fighting doesn’t mean we accommodate to an ideology that reinforces said system seems….obvious.

    • June 5, 2010 at 6:40 pm

      To be clear, my clunky analogy was with Loyalist paramilitaries, not to unionists in general.

  7. Ciarán said,

    June 4, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    An interesting aspect arising from that ‘Alan in Belfast’ piece is that Dawn’s definition of socialism seems to be based on a person’s position on abortion. As if social liberalism is all that matters and not any political or economic consideration.

  8. June 5, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Some dispiriting responses to an excellent post (as was Garibaldy’s over on CLR.) I think there’s a deeply disturbing perception amongst elements of the republican and crypto-republican left that loyalist paramilitaries are perforce muscle-bound, boneheaded troglodytes whereas republicans are wistful poets with Armalites, who never kill without a tearful phrase from Moore. It’s when you consider whether these perceptions are applied only to the gunmen or extend to the communities they’re drawn from that things get really unsavoury.

    For my own part, I think the development of left thought in organised unionist politics is to be encouraged with greater enthusiasm by socialists. It represents, insofar as it exists, a new development of class politics, whereas organised left republicanism has consciously and explicitly turned away from socialism at innumerable junctures in its history, and continues to do so.

    • harry monro said,

      June 5, 2010 at 3:15 pm

      While I agree with Liam’s abstract definition of unionism, it for various reasons has a mass base among many workers, so to see it consolidating now (perhaps eventually in a single pary) is less adventageous than if it were fragmented and had thrown up a left version within itself. But I think everything in s/s post points to the death of the PUP.
      However Liam started like this “Even by my flexible standards “left wing” does not include fronting up a sectarian murder gang’s public operation.” Ah no sectarian muder gangs ever wore the republican badge then? Its easy to see the steriod filled bald head tatooted loyalists as the bad guys, they were. But their notion of tit for tat killing to frighten/curb the enemy could be found in some republican circles. I’m honestly not seeking a row, I just to agree with d/d that a simplistic dismissive approach is not helpful. As Mark P alludes to individuals and indeed communities can radically change, and other individuals communities can become trapped in a mire or even find themslves moving ever rightwards; even if they deny it.

  9. robert said,

    June 5, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    If the Pup disappears what will replace it? Surely any movement that enables working class loyalists to express progressive ideas within their tradition is to be welcomed? Nationalists and republicans have never fully recognised that unionism, while reactionary in many ways is an organic tradition that has its matyrs and heroes that are just as potent as those of republicanism. If there is a future for left politics in NI it needs to be based on equal respect of each others cultural identity in order to focus on what the working class has in common, trade unionism and the fight against Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms.

  10. Ramzi Nohra 1 said,

    June 7, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I do think the left should engage with the PUP, they’re moving in the right direction. In the North thats a lot.

    I am slightly concerned about the stereotyping of republicans as unbendingly set in their views of leftist unionists. As far as I know SF has worked with PUP well enough.

    looking back, it seems there were plenty of Irish leftists who are being accomodating to the PUP but who would write off SF/IRSP as being sectarian bigots.

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