David Ervine – Loyalism and Labour

Last March I organised an event at Skainos in East Belfast entitled ‘David Ervine – Loyalism and Labour.’ The evening was partially funded by the QUB Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. ‘Loyalism and Labour’ was part of a series of community outreach events organised by a research group I had founded entitled ‘Cross-Currents in British and Irish Working Class Life.’

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Dr Connal Parr delivered a lecture on David Ervine and the friction between loyalist/labour politics. There were also two rehearsed readings from Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock’s play ‘The Man That Swallowed A Dictionary.’

With over 100 attendees, including members of the Ervine family, it was an extremely successful event.

This post includes my speaking notes for the introduction and a summary of the evening from the QUB ICRH website.

I have a DVD of the evening which I will, in due course, upload onto YouTube. Image1optional,499496,en

Ladies and Gentlemen

First and foremost I would like to thank you all for coming here this evening.

I would also like to thank my colleagues in the Queen’s University Belfast Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities for supporting our ‘Cross-Currents in British and Irish Working Class Life’ research group. Without their backing this event would not have been able to take place. Crucial financial support for the evening was also provided by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade whom I would also like to extend our gratitude.

It almost goes without saying that we are extremely grateful to Robert Niblock, Etcetera Theatre Company and Dr Connal Parr.

The ‘Cross-Currents’ group aims to be a leading source for impact research by breaking down the barriers between academia and social engagement; barriers which sadly have been all too frequent, particularly in this country.

This evening – David Ervine: Loyalism and Labour in Belfast – aims to put into practice what we set out to do at the start.

The group will not find a catch-all solution to breaking down these barriers, but attempts will be made to follow through the breach which other good people have created. If our work at least lays the foundations for further engagement between academia and the local community then we will have done our job.

As Dr William Mitchell, the artistic director of Etcetera Theatre Company, told a Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee in this very building last July during the committee’s inquiry into the inclusion of working-class communities in the arts: …our experience is that people, particularly young people, who work in all areas of Belfast and are maybe drawn to express their culture in less legal or more discriminatory manners have a voice that is not being expressed in a more broad minded way. Hence, we set up Etcetera to attempt to engage “those types of people”

I am certain that David would have advocated the engagement attempted by Etcetera.

I once carried out an interview with David Ervine about his time at Orangefield Boys’ Secondary under the tutelage of the great John Malone. He told me something that is relevant for this evening

At that time (during the 1960s) Orangefield was a strange school among schools. I mean, Orangefield had a very effective Sixth Form. Now…it clearly flies in the face of churning people onto the conveyor belt for the needs of society, in terms of electricians, or maybe road sweepers, maybe labourers, whatever it is, clearly that school had vision, forethought, desire. Also, other things, in terms of development of the person – it had a brilliant drama section. I remember going to school plays, and school plays weren’t only attended by the odd people, they were attended by everybody, they were packed, absolutely packed.

As the conflict emerged in the late 1960s other things took a hold in the Protestant working-class community which copper fastened some attitudes that David Ervine told me already existed under the surface:

…there were a lot of people who passed the Eleven Plus who chose not to go to Grammar School, which then indicates that perhaps there was this sense of…not jealousy…but standoffishness – from something that was perceived to be different.

It seems, that with some recent negative comments by politicians regarding Protestant working-class engagement with the arts and theatre that we are back at the start of another process of engagement.  

David was always generous with academic researchers – giving of his time and more – indeed I recall during one interview/conversation that lasted around three hours he received a call advising him that he had missed a meeting at City Hall…rather than give me the bum’s rush he encouraged me to stay on and chat further about the issues we had been discussing – education and civic engagement…as well as football of course!

This event seeks to engage with working-class culture, community and politics.

By addressing the manner in which our past was submerged by the darker shades of orange and green it is hoped that this evening will contribute to a better understanding of the journey encountered by many within Belfast’s working-class community during a turbulent and protracted period of contemporary history.

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On the 4th March, the ‘Cross-Currents in British and Irish Working Class Life’ Research Group hosted a public event in the Skainos Centre, on the Newtownards Road, in East Belfast. The topic of the event was the life, politics and legacy of the former PUP leader, David Ervine, whose untimely death in 2007 left a chasm within Loyalism. Oxford academic, and QUB alumnus Dr. Connal Parr, gave an extended lecture to an audience of local people, community workers, and fellow scholars. In addition, Belfast playwright, Beano Niblock, whose recent play ‘Tartan’ enjoyed great success in theatres across Belfast, provided excerpts from his current project on Ervine, titled ‘The Man That Swallowed a Dictionary.’

Group member and QUB Visiting Research Fellow, Dr. Gareth Mulvenna, opened the evening’s discussions by outlining the aims of the Research Group, namely to break down the barriers between academia and working class communities, through events such as this one. Recalling a discussion with the Unionist politician, Dr. Mulvenna stated that Ervine understood the “standoffishness” towards academia which existed in working class Protestant areas. It was therefore fitting that the Group, kindly supported by funding from QUB’s Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, could hold such an event, in the heart of Ervine’s former constituency. The aspirations of the Group bore fruit on the evening of the 4th, as an audience of over one hundred turned out, filling the Auditorium of the Skainos Centre.

There were two, mutually complementary strands to the evening, which provided the audience with a wide-ranging and nuanced appraisal of Ervine’s life, a life which included an often-paradoxical, simultaneous, involvement in politics and paramilitarism. Dr. Connal Parr’s lecture sought to delineate some of the core characteristics of the politics of Ervine, East Belfast, and Loyalism more broadly. The Protestant working class, he argued, “continually demonstrated a socialist pulse”. This was evident in the strong, local support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, something which was stymied by the creation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party after 1969, whom the British Labour Party saw as representing labour politics in NI. The PUP, notably, provided unionism with a pro-labour voice, in an environment which was often hostile to such ideologies.

Drawing upon interviews with David, and discussions with his family, and party colleagues, Dr. Parr acknowledged the left-leaning politics of Ervine, and his Progressive Unionist Party comrades, whilst critically examining how those perspectives coincided with the violent conflict. One of the dominant themes which emerged from the lecture was Ervine’s voracious appetite for reading, inherited from his father, which led to a fellow unionist politician describing him as “the man who swallowed a dictionary”. Dr. Parr noted that such an attribute should not be taken as an insult, and added that education was empowering, suggesting that, “Loyalists would do well to keep swallowing dictionaries- and reading as widely as they can.”

The excerpts from Niblock’s play provided the audience with an insight into Ervine’s personal life, and the difficulties which he, and many other prisoners, experienced, as they arrived in Crumlin Road jail, leaving families behind. Niblock explained why he wanted to create a play about Ervine, stating that, “at a time when Loyalism was getting bad press, I thought Davey was a shining light”. Speaking about the formation of Etcetera Theatre Company, Niblock explained that Loyalism could counter negative representations of itself, by proffering its own stories, told in its own voice. Such ambitions can only be supported and progressed by projects such as the Cross-Currents Research Group, who seek to bring academics and communities together, and break down the barriers between the two, which David Ervine was so keen to see eradicated.

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