Here’s one that on the face of it, might not normally fit in my blog. I usually rail against the PUP and many loyalist factions and traditions but I always try to give credit where credit is due. David Ervine is one person who deserves that credit and I write that without hesitation, if only to show how similar both sides of the divide in the North of Ireland may be. At the end of the day, I am a firm believer in peace, empathy, and understanding. I also believe that while fundamental change is incredibly difficult, some people can accomplish it. I may be naive, hippy-ish, or simply too far removed from the first-hand experience but I believe David Ervine managed to pull it off.
On this day in 1953 David Ervine was born. He was a man who went from a paramilitary UVF bomber to a more moderate politician over the course of his life and he changed Northern Irish politics ever so slightly with him. He appeared to make it out of the shadow world of Loyalist paramilitaries, even though he was threatened by the men he once called comrades and accused of selling out his own. That viewpoint is rampant across the aisle since no one on any side has gotten exactly what they wanted in the North, but when you weigh that against the consequences of continuing the Troubles, maybe the idea of a relative peace is better than none at all. He was still too closely tied to extreme Loyalists for some people, but sometimes that happens – just ask Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness about that journey. Still, all of the above seem to have left the violence behind in order to try to make this world better for everyone in it. It remains to be seen whether or not those who are left now can accomplish that goal.
It has been harder to do that without David Ervine. Don’t get me wrong, he was certainly no saint. His participation in the UVF was not as a passive one, as proved by the Belfast project and his own candid tales in the resulting “Voices from the Grave” book and documentary. His hands weren’t clean but I have begun to think there’s no such thing in the North, or in politics anywhere for that matter. He hurt a lot of people which makes glorifying him in any way a little complicated but so did many of the other now-peaceful politicians in Ireland (allegedly). Maybe it is the men who once made war who are now the only ones left who can put some kind of end to it.
It took almost losing his family and prison to change David Ervine. He broke rank by being one of the few Protestant prisoners who studied in prison and got a degree. He did not come out harder, he came out smarter and calmer. He reached out to his ideological and political opponents. He made an effort to change both his own mind and the minds of others. He began to preach tolerance rather than hate and perhaps most importantly, taught his son to be a loyalist who crosses boundaries and reaches out as well.
Would that he had been able to convince all of his constituents to do the same. He knew that the Paisley-ish bigotry and militant hate were the wrong answers if there was ever going to be a real chance at peace. Instead, he called for power sharing, calm communication and true change. It frustrated him that the Paisley vitriol was (and is) still more appealing to most than the moderation that he was trying to espouse. Whether or not he had truly had a change of heart, he asked everyone to challenge themselves by opening their minds for the sake of the future and when he died much of that encouragement passed with him. It’s a damn shame, that.
Happy Birthday Sir. I may be an idealist when it came to you, but I love a good redemption story and I choose to believe that at the end, you really were trying to improve the world.
“I’ve been there – I’ve seen it, done it, and bought the T-Shirt… and no generation should ever follow me” – David Ervine