I seem to be writing a lot of obits lately here at hoverbike. It seems to be the time of year for significant passings: James Brown, Saddam Hussein and President Gerald Ford all over the holiday break. Earlier in the year we saw the deaths of Augusto Pinochet, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Milton Friedman, a trio which will certainly share a corner of hell just as they collectively helped to create hell on earth for so many.
The week before last marked the passing of a strange hero of mine, someone with whom I perhaps shared little ideologically, but nonetheless was deeply affected by and, I must say, admired a great deal. David Ervine, former Protestant terrorist and leader of Northern Ireland's smallest loyalist grouping, the Progressive Unionist Party died two Saturdays ago of heart failure.
Ervine cut his teeth in the brutal world of Protestant paramilitary organizations, an experience about which he was often shockingly frank. The PUP that he led was linked to one of the most vicious protestant terrorist factions, a group that clashed with both Republican forces and the British. It was, he explained, those battles with the supposed protectors of his community, which helped to lead him to the conclusion that the best interests of the Protestant community lay in forging a political solution within Northern Ireland itself. They couldn't rely on self-interested London authorities for protection. His overriding political goal became an end to the bloodshed.
Ervine was never forgiven his crimes by many in the Republican movement. Others, however, saw in Ervine (and the PUP) a Protestant voice which was, at last, political
. Unlike the opportunists of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, Ervine embraced the peace process whole-heartedly. He was a firm defender of British dominion, but he articulated a sort of acknowledgement of the nationalist position that was based on a loyalty to Northern Ireland as such as well as a subtle but clear class analysis.
I actually met David Ervine once. It was a strange opportunity arranged for me and my partner by a friend in the Irish Labour movement. A few phone calls were made while we were on vacation in Ireland. Our meeting lasted about an hour. For no good reason, Ervine hosted us in his office at Belfast City Hall, and spent over an hour answering our questions and giving us his perspective on the elusive goal of peace in Northern Ireland. At the time, self rule was suspended, and there was anxiety about whether the political process would hold. Ervine’s wit and honesty were remarkable. It was one of the most profoundly influential moments of my life, both in terms of political thought and moral outlook.
Here I was, and African-American left winger, who spent his adolescence romanticizing the Irish Republican cause with all the attendant naiveté that comes with distance and strong belief. My partner is an Irish American former punk (now scientist) who has always harbored similar nationalistic sympathies. We was sitting in an office sharing tea with a man who had been convicted of acts of violence against both Irish catholic civilians and the United Kingdom itself; a man who was the leader of a party that, while always distinctly working class, included some pretty creepily far-right characters..
And he won us over.
Not to unionism, mind you. I think both of us, for all the say we have in the matter, believe that a united Ireland is a political and moral good. However, what won us over was the sincerity and sophistication of his position. He represented a group of people with legitimate fears and aspirations, including a palpable sense of threat to their survival. They may have had the support of a waning (though still brutal) empire. They still spilled blood in the fight. They may have been relatively economically privileged. They still are largely working-class, and struggle with the same effects of the global economy and shrinking welfare states. Their communities are crime-ridden. The years of civil war have left many of their core institutions corrupt. They were honestly tired of the fighting.
His solution was to reach out, in a careful and complex way, to his counterparts on the Republican side: people who wanted to politicize the struggle, and begin to repair the damage within their communities. Ervine was critical of the Irish American politicians who snubbed Gerry Adams that Saint Patrick’s Day because of IRA intransigence on disarmament. You don’t make progress, he argued, by antagonizing the very people you are trying to bring to the table. Nobody gets to grandstand about terrorism in a situation in which everyone was engaged in terror.
Ervine argued that the hatred and mistrust between the two communities was so ingrained that only when there is a general, society-wide acknowledgement that everyone was to blame, can progress be made. “People always ask me how you can get someone to bomb or kill civilians,” he said. “It’s really easy. All you have to do is go to people and say ‘look what they did. They’ve got to pay for that.’ It’s that easy.”
And so, if you say that a small group of “terrorists” is to blame, you won’t deal with the underlying problems. You also leave a generation of men raised in violence dangerously alienated from society. They have to be part of the solution.
This is something that we saw, first hand, as he arranged a tour for us of Protestant neighborhoods led by a pardoned Unionist terrorist. Organizations representing released prisoners on both sides give such tours regularly, with veterans of the armed conflict giving tours of respective sectarian neighborhoods, and "handing" the tour group off at one of the most infamous checkpoints. In fact, there is a growing commercial trade in tours infamous Belfast conflict zones, decked as they are in colorful and militant murals. Some are more authoritative than others. The economics of tourism Again, however, much to our astonishment, we were given these tours alone, for free, as a personal favor to Ervine.
Our guide on the Unionist side was Noel, who spent several years in prison and was a gunman for the Ulster Volunteer Force. Noel was unsparingly candid, open and genuinely moving in his explanations of the outbreak of violence known as the “troubles”, his own motivations for involvement as well as the tragic outcome for his community. The paramilitary groups, while explained, were never justified or apologized for. There were simultaneous expressions of regret, contrition, pride and hope in his narrative. It may sound ridiculous, but for the first time, I began to see that these people were people
, and that they could be represented with a voice that was neither vengeful nor reactionary.
Noel is part of a network of former UVF and IRA militants who now work to diffuse conflict on the ground. They regularly patrol areas surrounding both sides of the “security wall” that separate Unionist from Nationalist neighborhoods. If kids on one side start throwing rocks, a cell phone call puts a stop to it before it escalates. They do the work of the United Nations.
On the Nationalist side, we were handed off to a Sinn Fein activist who worked for a Republican veteran’s organization. I hate to be overly sentimental, but the entire tone of the experience shifted at this point. It may have been that the veterans themselves, who normally give the tours, would have struck a similarly nuanced tone as Noel had. However, our tour was struck in a much more linearly Republican timbre. We were reminded that David Ervine was a murderer. We were given the Sinn Fein perspective on the peace process, which cast doubt on the sincerity of the Catholic and Protestant “moderates” who helped broker the peace agreement. This was interesting in itself, of course, and I understand that Sinn Fein is also engaged in a political strategy. The point, however, was that the contrast seemed to reinforce the special character of a figure like Ervine, and the folks like Noel who followed his lead.
Sinn Fein, for obvious reasons, is still playing the politics of posture, not admitting to any wrongdoing, defending the armed struggle as a necessary response to British and Loyalist oppression. Ian Paisley and other Protestant reactionaries are doing the same thing. Probably, no solution will be workable until the two “extremes” come to some sort of settlement. Thank god, however, that there are people like David Ervine who are willing to call them all out, but also to argue forcefully that all voices must be heard.
Our trip to Belfast was a strange experience all around. We spent the evenings going to bars and clubs where hip young things partied and posed in a world that seemed like it was a planet away from the entrenched, ruitinized conflicts simmering (literally) down the street. It’s a twenty minute walk from the trendy indie-rock clubs full of students to neighborhoods plastered with political murals, where a shopkeeper told us he was stocking up on Union-Jacks for marching season. Because of this contradiction, exacerbated by the tour buses driving past announcing the location of this or that massacre, I sometimes felt like I was in the EPCOT version of Northern Ireland. But, no, it was the real thing. Perhaps the new Belfast will simply swallow up the old one. No doubt economic development and access to education are a good thing. However, we all know that prosperity does not share itself. If old Belfast is to be something new, it will have to grow from old Belfast.
That struggle lost a partisan in David Ervine. R.I.P.
Etiketter: international, obituaries, personalities