David Ervine – research interviews 2006

Beneath are excerpts from interviews I conducted with David Ervine, MLA and PUP leader in June and September 2006 at the PUP Office on East Belfast’s Newtownards Road.

Note: these interviews were carried out as part of the field research for my 2009 doctoral thesis ‘The Protestant Working Class in Northern Ireland – Political Allegiance and Social and Cultural Challenges Since the 1960s’

Some of the questions are toe-curlingly bad, but I hope the erudite responses David provided will be of interest and/or use to readers.

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GM: Last time I spoke to you three years ago the phrase ‘Loyalist community’ was used by me in a question to you and you asked what the ‘Loyalist community’ was?  So I want you to try and answer that now.

DE: I might be repeating myself but I mean, what is a Loyalist? A Loyalist is it someone who comes from the Unionist movement?  Yes.  Is it someone who’s wealthy? No.  Is it someone who’s got usually a decent job and bought their own house and have a great stake in life?  No.  Is that briefly the Protestant working class? Well that’s what Loyalism is, its Protestant working class.  Loyal to what?  I don’t know, I think it’s an amalgam of things and sometimes nothing depending on the atmosphere and the mood at the time.  The ‘Loyalist community’ is very difficult, I would encompass it into being the Protestant working class and Loyalism’s definition or label is as much related to the need for constitutional Unionists, or middle class Unionists to distance themselves from the perceived excesses of the working class.  I mean it’s a much more honourable question when Martin McGuinness calls it the Unionist Paramilitaries, rather than the Loyalist Paramilitaries.

GM: So you see Loyalist as an insulting term then?

DE: Not really.  I mean at the end of the day you get used to labels.

 

GM: Do you think that’s how it started in the seventies, like as a, a way to describe people that were outside the mainstream?

 

DE: There’s history going back to almost 1795 with the formation of the Orange Order that there was a use of the word Loyalist, and clearly it was a definition created by somebody and I think there were similarities, but the resurrection of the concept of Loyalism is the late 60’s, early 70’s and it’s about distancing or perceiving to distance Unionism, or the desire to distance Unionism from the excesses of the working class.  I call it the Protestant working class community.

 

I fancy the things that we worry about very often aren’t delivered to us.

 

I imagine, before the news comes on, a wife in a Protestant working class home worries about has she burnt the potatoes, you know, has she got enough grub for the kids, has she remembered to do this in the shops, does she have enough money, and I think a lot of what we have is, as part of the tribe, is delivered to us.  You know, I’ve been in societies where they’re relatively homogeneous and there’s less flags, you know there’s less kerb stones painted, there’s you know, so we have, I think, an abnormality here that fills our lives which is very much delivered as part of the, of living in the tribe.  I mean mundane issues are somehow set aside – the strange thing is the mundane issues are on both sides.

 

Oh look let’s not kid ourselves, you know, the reality is that we may not know who we are, but we know who we’re not.  That very much I think is on both sides.  In a sense that we’re different and there are people who want to be different, although I think that’s changing.

 

It really is changing.  I think some of the stuff that we do now is done, almost process of habit.  It’s almost a process of habit that, certainly my own experience now with  the Protestant working class a sense that things are going to be different but they’re afraid of what that difference is and some of them, some of those, whose belief that the truth is going to benefit the other side, in other words, an issue like collusion, it’s not that they don’t want to hear the truth about collusion, they don’t want to benefit the other side, or discrimination, there was discrimination, well, all right that was then and this is now and themuns there are going to feed on that and take benefit on that and try and hurt us further with that, so there’s a sense that it’s a process of self-protection which indicates the vulnerability of Loyalism, or working class Protestantism.

 

I think, and I know it won’t sound right, but I hope it reflects, very often the playground bully is the most vulnerable child in the playground, not necessarily always, but often and I think that’s a bit like working class Protestants, in that they’ve been badly led, they’re therefore taking to the pitch on a very bad wicket, almost it seems to them that no matter what they do, they can’t win.  That the sentiment is with “the underdog” or those who are, who not only have been in the past been a victim, but so too is the Protestant community, but the Nationalist community are perceived to be the victims but have embraced with great venom, the victim hood, to their advantage.  That’s the mindset that the Protestant working class have and almost no matter what they do, because they’re on this bad wicket, they can’t succeed and we have to change their minds on that.  I mean I think it goes back, and Nationalism, to be fair and honest about it is looking at the hills and Unionism is looking at its boots and the fundamental difference is leadership.

 

GM: When you think about victimhood, you think about people like Willie Frazer, I suppose, he…..

 

DE: But Willie Frazer did lose members of his family….

 

GM: Yeah I know that, but I mean, he would get a lot of popular support, wouldn’t he, because of that, you know victimhood…I mean I know he’s had personal loss in his life, but you know, when you go, when you see, he seems to attack everything that isn’t the Loyalist community, or the Unionist community, he seems to go for the jugular…

 

DE: You see hypocrisy is alive and well and abounds in this sort of…Let me give you an example, it seems to me that, yes there are many victims, but it seems to me that the victims have more friends today than they ever had and that there is undoubtedly a sense in many, and it was said to me one time, just as I was working to try and get a Loyalist ceasefire, it was said to me by a…quite a senior DUP politician, ‘Don’t be calling a ceasefire, don’t be calling a ceasefire’ – Do you know what I mean?  How can I avoid calling a ceasefire, are you mad?  And he says, ‘Don’t do nothing, what about the victims, what about the victims?  And I says, ‘Well we’re going to end up with more victims if we don’t call a ceasefire’ and that was alright, it was almost like you were shameful in so much as you were to, to call a ceasefire was to cease to venerate the victims, and that was the mindset but it was clearly a barrier and what the victims were being used as was a tool and a barrier and I’m not so sure that a lot of the victims friends were people who were friends through all of it, they’re friends now.

 

Another issue that I’ve been exercising my mind around too is that we get the occasional victim out of the 3,500 or the 3,645 or 78 or 50, or whatever it is, and you know the perception that the media gives us is that they’re brave, they’re brace victims, does that, by definition mean that everybody else who doesn’t seek publicity, who doesn’t step forward into the limelight are not brave, even though they’re coping with loss and struggling with loss every day of their lives?  There’s a weird concept about using victims, I mean there’s no question about it, you watch what’s going on now in Madrid.

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There was a 200,000 person rally in Madrid just the other week, condemning the Spanish Government because it was going to go into talks with ETA, the Basque separatists and it’s not dissimilar and the big issue was the victims, the victims, the victims but of course, if you don’t end wars, you’re going to end up with more victims, so the illogicality is, you know if you think about what was being said to me at the beginning of our process and what you’re seeing in Madrid, is not dissimilar in that the victims are being laid down as the emotional barrier to why you can’t have dialogue and peace, keep that battle going, wipe them out, sort them out.

 

GM: If you think about the idea of victimhood, I asked somebody else in the PUP what do the Unionists think of the idea of victimhood, and they said that victimhood doesn’t sit well with the Unionist community and neither does minority status and those sorts of things.

 

DE: Well I think that’s changing. I think the, one of the things of many in the Protestant working class now, and not just that, the political class have witnessed, or perceived that victimhood pays.  They perceive the Nationalists who have done well out of victim hood, so they’re now moving very fast to become victims themselves and they sing victim hood and they should victim hood and there’s a fundamental difference, PUP attitudes are more likely to be that ‘I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor’.

 

By the way a survivor can be both a victim and a survivor, in fact, by the very virtue that you’ve survived is both your victim and survivor so the PUP argument is why aren’t we developing survivors? Why aren’t we venerating survivors?   Those who have undoubtedly suffered but who have come through the other end.  One of the people who I would have paid quite a lot of tribute to in the past from personal experiences, Gary McMichael who was the leader of the UDP.  Gary McMichael’s father was blown up by the IRA and for all I know, the people who gave the order were round the table talking to him and Gary McMichael’s vision was for tomorrow, it wasn’t about yesterday.  I mean, there’s enough in yesterday to perhaps draw us a map for tomorrow.

 

Another group that I’m deeply indebted to for the work that they do is WAVE Trauma Centre, who are completely different in terms of their attitude to victims.  There is a hierarchy of victims here. There is a serious hierarchy of victims.  The Republicans create a hierarchy of victims, the Unionists create a hierarchy of victims and meanwhile back at the ranch, there’s young children running about there without fathers, indeed without mothers and broken families and things like that who somehow are not victims?  We’re all victims and maybe, depending on your age, we’re all perpetrators as well.

 

GM: Yeah.  What do you mean by that?

 

DE: Well I think we’re all guilty. You’re not, you’re too young but I think by silence, word or deed, you know, and I can remember in my former life, our ones always got caught.  Now what does that mean?  Does that mean you’re glad?  I don’t think so.  It’s a denigrating point to your ones, our ones always get caught.  In other words, you’d think more of them if they didn’t get caught?  Now that was fine, upstanding, many of them biblical people.  Another classic was, ‘I don’t like, that’s terrible, but I’m sure he didn’t get it for nothing!’ You know I’ve seen all this ambivalence, I’ve lived with this ambivalence, I’ve been in a pub when a loud bang went off and I can’t identify it because there’s no statute to limitations in Northern Ireland, but and I’ve been involved, and right away, and you’re too young to remember this, but everybody had a radio tuned into the police messages.  So BANG!, you turn it on and then a short time later it tells you where the target was and it wasn’t a Unionist target so the bar cheered and you can bet that they were going out to vote for the DUP and UUP and all the rest of it so I’ve seen all that ambivalence first hand.  I’ve also seen politicians nudge me and say, ‘Quare job last night.’

 

 

GM: So thinking more about the victimhood, the minority status, do you think, can you see a reversal of the roles between the Nationalists and the Unionists in the sixties? 

 

DE: You see both are legitimate analogy in that the Nationalist community carried banners, and they weren’t, by the way, there were Unionists among them, carried banners saying ‘British rights for British citizens’, the Civil Rights Movement, and my community said no.  So that clearly makes you a victim when your rights are denied and out of that came the belief that Northern Ireland was irreformable, and if it was irreformable what way do you change it?  And there had been, undoubtedly a history and culture of violence in terms of conflict in our society because conflict can be handled in different ways, many societies handle it by politics, we have a tradition of handling it by military means and, so the Nationalists were victims but the use of violence to achieve the end meant that Unionists were victims and then the cycle of violence meant that we were all victims and when I emphasise we were, in some ways, all perpetrators because if I’m right about the degree of ambivalence, or the degree of silence, there would be those people who would feel absolutely no responsibility for the state of the nation and they may have a point, and I would challenge it.

 

… you know, so have I, am I playing, am I playing politics that says Protestant working class people … we have to be players … and being bit players is just not good enough.  And in the Northern Ireland Assembly where my vote carries an interesting weight I can’t use it because they are middle class or perceived middle class and we’re not – my arse! I know that people get confused by us – we’re socialists but we’re called the Progressive Unionist Party which clearly defines that we’re Unionist and, you know, my community has been, we’ve already discussed how I believe it’s been badly led – it’s looking at its boots – where’s the guarantee the DUP is going to do a deal before 24th November?

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Um, where’s the … imperative here in politics – is the imperative that we have a nice big strong Sinn Fein and a nice big strong DUP?  Who take us nowhere?  Or is there an imperative that we have, as far as possible, a vigorous and vibrant group of people whose preparedness to cooperate and indeed accommodate is set alongside the belligerence and the loudest voices.  Because I think when people are frightened they rush to the loudest voices and when you’re going through a programme of change, if I was going through a programme of change and I have, you know, I might, you might shout sell out!  Well let’s time it, how long does it take to say sell out – half a second?  But how long does it take to refute?  An hour?  So, you know we’re not measuring like for like here and the simplicity of the DUP has, has been fed by nervousness but it’s also been fed by a process that was handled badly where there’s a perception that the British government were prepared to truck with Sinn Fein to the exclusion of all others.  And that clearly has damaged Unionist mind sets and made Unionists frightened and they have been encouraged to be frightened and that’s nothing new.

 

You know and one of the, the things that I tend to look at that but the  journalistic fraternity clearly don’t is that when … when there was an opportunity … to afford people their rights as a requirement under law … my community led by Paisley said no.  When there were opportunities to have dialogue and indeed processes of … government with constitutional nationalists my community said no.  And the ball game keeps shifting to the point where well you wouldn’t give them their rights, you then wouldn’t deal with the nationalist representatives and now you won’t deal with the republican representatives.  Now, that rather tells me that my own, unsettled people have a leadership that doesn’t realise that there comes a time when equality and justice and not only that but shares in this society are absolutely vital so the reason why, one of the main reasons why I’ve joined the UUP is to assist in bolstering an opposition to the DUP that says yes deeds are doable.  And, and what comes next by the way after the 24th of November is not good for my community.  So being part of a group that could, possibly be in line to do a deal is I think fundamental given that there’s no guarantees that the DUP  will – although smart money says the DUP probably will.  I don’t know how they’re going to cope with their perceived hypocrisy but they’ve managed before.

 

You know, many a time driving a long a country road I’ve passed bad boy racer or whatever doing 90 miles an hour.  And 3 miles up the road we get up and there’s a set of traffic lights and there he is sitting there at a set of traffic lights and I roll up beside him – well at the last elections the DUP and Sinn Fein passed the UUP and the SDLP like boy racers and what I did was very simply draw, assist them to draw up at traffic lights beside them because the UUP are in the frame with 3 seats with I’m with them and we do get evolution, I’m with them with 3 seats as opposed to 2 and the DUP would have 4.  And because of what I’ve done Sinn Fein are denied a seat which means that they end up with 3 and the SDLP is right up beside them with 2.  So, so it’s not as cut and dried as the two great monoliths believed it was going to be.

 

You know people forget that Gary McMichael and I walked either side of David Trimble into the negotiations

 

GM: Oh yeah, totally, yeah.

 

DE: And that was cloud cover for David Trimble.

 

GM: Yeah.  That’s the thing – when I asked that I mean if you look back to the 1960s and before that, I mean, is there, do you think there’s a recognition now – well within a lot of people who think about it that the Unionist Party really didn’t treat the Protestant working class with the respect…

 

DE: Of course not.

 

GM:… that they claim to have done, you know?

 

DE: Absolutely – before even, I mean let’s go back, I mean we’re talking way before even the DUP came along. It was a ruling elite, a ruling elite who went to election every time with banner headlines in the Belfast Telegraph ‘IRA to bomb cabinet’…what a load of crap – there virtually was no IRA.  But – keep people afraid, keep them afraid, give them the crumbs off the table, give them a sense of – I mean you know, I don’t know whether you um, would be au fait with it but … Northern Ireland on fire doesn’t have the same ring about it as Mississippi Burning but there was a political psychology that believe that if you give people one step above another set of people on the ladder that that satisfies them and to some degree they were right – that that’s how they controlled and manipulated.  A wee touch of patronage, a wee pat on the head.  Big house Unionism and wee house Unionism and we’re all together, we’re all in the same boat; meanwhile you go back to your wee house and I go back to my big house and it’s been massively detrimental to the Protestant working class.

 

GM: Are you not afraid – I’m playing devil’s advocate again – but are you not afraid that’s not what’s happening now, you know by joining [up with the UUP in Stormont], well by aligning yourself – you know I have to ask the question because it’s on everyone’s lips …

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Absolutely … no I don’t see it that way at all, that’s not what it’s about.  It’s not about aligning so that I can get a political career, aligning so that I can support the policies of the Ulster Unionist Party – it’s aligning to give um, ballots to the political class that says hold on a minute this project’s not finished yet.  In fact if you look at the DUP, have the DUP even started the project?  So that’s what it’s about. It’s about – I mean I think you would be hard pushed, even within the nationalist community to, to ask, to do a series of, of vox pops and ask who the most vociferous Unionist was in the defence of the Good Friday Agreement.  And it’ll be me.  And so…So there’s no difference, it’s still the same.

 

Yeah.

 

And what I’m doing is about the Good Friday Agreement, it is about delivering paramilitaries up the democratic path, bringing as many of them as I can with me and that’s what it’s about.  I mean, for me, it’s about peace, I mean I – maybe I’ll never be a real politician; I don’t know because I’m not, I’m very well aware – I don’t see myself as a politician, I don’t get allowed in some ways to be a politician.  Um, because I’m trying to handle, for my ills, and people will say what right have you, what responsibility have you?  Well I’m a citizen and I feel I’ve got responsibilities – unlike many who believe they’ve no complicity in the state of the nation – I know I was complicit in the state of the nation.  And therefore I’ve a responsibility to my kids to make sure I do what I can to make this a better place and that sounds clichéd and hackneyed, you know you can nearly play the music over that but it’s true.

 

GM: Well I think what Reg Empey has being saying recently about Loyalist paramilitaries [and the close relationship with unionist politicians in the 1970s] and stuff like that…I think that’s what those unionist leaders need to do eventually…
DE: He’s telling the truth. Trimble, when he achieved his Nobel Peace Prize, made the point that Northern Ireland was a cold house for nationalists.  He was right but it wasn’t only a cold house for nationalists, in fact, may be had it been a cold house for Catholics we wouldn’t even be talking too much about nationalism.  So there are a whole host of circumstances where the commentaries of politicians, no matter how minimal they’ve been, identify clearly that there have been serious ills in our community and Reg Empey is identifying some of those.   There’s no doubt in my mind about the complicity of the, the political class that is control at the minute.  Up to their balls, up to their balls in dirt and stink.

 

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When I was a kid the man who was 40 and 50 years of age had, had gravitas in the community I came from – not any more. That’s a fundamental change.  That the wee lads at 22 and 23, maybe even younger – they’re the ones with the gravitas.  And there’s a whole almost moral leadership class that’s gone because of the growth in paramilitaries.  Now that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people as such but it’s a perception of society that paramilitaries are in, in every corner, they’re in every house, they’re – I mean you’d swear blind if you’re reading the papers you couldn’t live any kind of normal life in the Protestant working class. That’s not true.  So I think that there’s, there’s a, there’s a change in atmosphere and attitude within the Protestant – no question about that, no question about that and that’s the biggest sadness for me is that we need to reclaim the streets and that those older people who have much to contribute take their proper place and it doesn’t mean that the 21 year old or the 23 year old is unimportant, but we’re putting the cart before the horse you know in some respects in that we have all of this…common sense and latitude available to us and we’re not, we’re not using it.  It’s one of the biggest drawbacks, one of the major drawbacks.  The Protestant working class used to have…heavy industry – doesn’t have it anymore.  It used to have a pride, doesn’t have it anymore.  So there are a whole host of changes about the Troubles and one of the things I’ve witnessed – and I’ve been in Sri Lanka or Bosnia or Kosovo or …. many other places – is that, is that there’s a danger that you fight to live initially and then you live to fight and that the war consumes your life as a society and that clearly was another indication of the abnormality that is furthered, because we already – we’re abnormal, you know then that abnormality is furthered because you and I would probably have the skills, just between the two of us, to resolve our difficulty if we were to enter the conflict on day one with its problems and have some kind of authority there.  But we don’t have to resolve day one of a conflict, we’ve to resolve every subsequent day of the conflict – the pain, the emotion, bitterness, all of that stuff and it’s not easy.

 

GM: Well you talk about the industries there what do you think…if you take the perception that, you know, Protestant working class people did have jobs in the shipyard, rope-works and stuff like that – what do you think their perception of that is now that it’s not there.

 

DE: I think if you worked in a building site in Liverpool and a guy two doors up from you worked in Birkenhead in the shipyards…the building site man’s son was likely to join the builder, going into the building sites and they guy who lived two doors up, his son was likely to go into the shipyard.  And the world did things differently then, I mean in many ways we didn’t do it any differently than anybody else in that you know there weren’t processes of, of human resource rules and procedures; it was wee Jimmy needed a job and the foreman was happy enough because he knew the Da and all the rest of it.  I’m not suggesting by the way that was the right way to do things, but that’s the way things were done.  In some respects I think for, for the man wanting wee Jimmy to get a job leaving school there was absolutely nothing wrong with that; what was wrong was the system because at, in, in the, the controllers of the system were the discriminators – they were the ‘sectarianists’; it wasn’t the guy who was taking wee Jimmy in by the hand for his first day of work at the shipyard.  It was the people who were in control.

 

GM: So when you think of East Belfast now what do you think people’s perceptions are of what they did have that they don’t have now? I mean is there a hangover from those days?

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DE: No I don’t think so.  I don’t think there is a hangover because the men and women who might well have been a resource are no longer the resource – I’ve made that point to you – so the ones at 21, 22 they don’t remember it anyway (laughs), you know, they might be given it by a piece of nostalgia some night by their Da or the Granda but they don’t remember it.  So I think that, that if we were talking about loss we’d only be talking about what our perception of loss is vis-à-vis the other side and when you pin the Loyalist or Protestant working class community down to what they’ve lost, they struggle.  They struggle to answer the question – what have you lost?  What, what have you got, what have you lost?  I think that the biggest problem is perception again and I use the word perception quite a lot and it is that somehow or another … the nationalist community has the ear of government and they don’t.  Well then you know if Alex Ferguson swapped jobs with Ian Paisley, Manchester United would be playing Sunday League [or] Saturday morning like football.  And now clearly somebody is in charge and [if] the somebody is in charge is taking you forever on a downward spiral you should be looking at that as opposed to constantly looking at your enemy but it’s them and us, zero sum. If it’s good for them it has to be bad for us – that’s the mindset that we live in – you heard me talking about it there – even in terms of the Whiterock determination; the fact that nationalism is squealing from the rooftops is actually making management of the Protestant side easier.  And vice versa.

 

GM: So if you think about the educational apathy that there is in Protestant working class areas how do you explain that then?

 

DE: Well I think, I think that there’s, there are historical reasons for that as well.  I mean, the mindset once upon a time was that wee Jimmy would come out of school, he’d go into the shipyard, he’d, he’d actually not end his education because, because of the apprenticeship process he would get a day release to Tech and there were many thousands of men went through that process over many, many years and it was good for this community.  One, that they had employment but two, they also were a continuum of, it was a continuum of education.  Um, so the Protestant working class parent wasn’t as imbued with the importance of education for their children – which is a tragedy but quite understandable I think and I think probably if we went to the pits in Wales or in Derbyshire, wherever it is and went back 50 years we’d find a similar thing.  So the collapse of heavy industry then and the diminishment of that continuum of education has seriously affected the Protestant working class because it wasn’t imbued in the minds of the Protestant working class the importance of education.  And people’s, people are now working hard to try and imbue that very thought process into the Protestant working class parent with some difficulty because we’re now not dealing with the first generation of it; we’re now dealing with the third generation of it and, and we haven’t made a fist of it.  Let me put it another way – what did our leaders do about it?  What did our leaders do about it?  I’ve never released an election leaflet without identifying the failure of the educational system…but I’ve never heard them identify the failures of the education system, ever.

 

GM: I asked somebody in the DUP when I was interviewing back in March, you know, how can you claim to represent working class Protestant people when you advocate academic selection?  And their response was – we don’t expect people to look through our whole manifesto and then disagree with that one point.  I found that pretty sad the fact that people wouldn’t question that they’re…

 

DE: Well you know, again, we’re, like I knew about it because I’ve read some papers in relation to it but the very first time the abandonment of academic selection was mooted in Northern Ireland it was mooted by a Unionist government.  And then Stormont stopped that so we are talking as far back as the early 70s, late 60s, early 70s – the Unionist government…for all its ills was recognising that the education system – particularly with the collapse of heavy industry was not functioning for the Protestant working class, not just the Protestant working class by the way, cause the Catholic working class don’t do that well out of it either. I mean, we’ll pass at 3% the Eleven Plus, Catholic kids will pass at 12%; we’ll send less than 2% of our kids to further and higher education, they’ll send 8% of their kids measured against 27% for their, across societies so you know we’re not, we’re not performing – either side is not performing so let’s talk about all of us – we’re all diminished I think by educational selection.

 

GM: I’m also doing a comparison with – trying to find comparisons with East London.  Do you think that there’s a shared experience between here and East London, because I can see you know it’s like a lack of housing and a declining community – I went back to Wilmot and Young in 1957 they did a family and kinship study in East London, you know, how the community there reacted after the Blitz…

 

DE: The breakup of extended families down to nuclear families; there was a whole host of, of affairs that affect communities and I mean when I was a kid I lived in a street, 3 streets away here – Chamberlain Street – and, and you know this is anecdotal but it’s absolute fact.  See if I’d been in the middle of that street and cursed, my ma would have been told within minutes because the street was filled with those people who were older, more venerated, they were the guardians almost.  They were the ones who were going to rap you up in the mornings to make sure you got up for work, they were the ones who sat outside and knit when the summer and the kids were up and down the street and if you were up to any no good, not only did, they were prepared to shout at you, they went up and told your mother or your father and me ma or da would have said thank you very much for telling me.  Whereas if you went now – ‘Oh no my wee lad wouldn’t do that, oh no my…’ – it’s almost some slight…We had a concept of community wherein borrowing a cup of sugar was not a problem, being rapped up in the morning for your work was not a problem.  The doors all lying open was not a problem.  The sense of the granny and the moral guardians of your community were there as, as a sort of a constriction and all of that was fine.  Now we’ve got a situation where you rap somebody’s door the first thing they’ll – what do you want?  You know, so it’s all, it’s, it’s massive, massive changes – massive changes.

 

GM: I’ve always been astounded that people haven’t looked at that, you know, comparison between here and East London …

 

DE: It’s the same, I mean one of the things that’s very frightening coming out of what we’ve been through is we haven’t been watching what’s been happening in other parts of Britain even.  And more recently in Ireland and we’re now, we’ve now got an influx of ethnic minorities.  We’re not coping very well with that at all – we’re 30 years behind others, we’ve, we know nothing of those others because we were an isolated parochial people thinking only about our own conditions and circumstances and live in our own abnormality.  And our ‘parochiality’, I think, has been very dangerous for us, both in terms of the conflict and in the aftermath of conflict and I, I get worried about it because if our educational attainment is low, if our self esteem is low, if our community … failing is high, if our ‘nuclearism’ is almost complete we, where is our, where are our touchstones in life?  Where are our touchstones in life?  And I would say that they are probably similarities in terms of some communities in, not just London, but outside – Bradford, Blackburn… and a lot of those areas were – where they had a reliance on heavy industry – where heavy industry has collapsed, where… housing availability has facilitated an influx of ethnic minorities to where the perception is with the advent of human rights legislation and equality legislation that somehow or another these people, that minority are being looked after better than we’re being looked after.  And of course there is a truth in … in the identification of that because they’re seeing it through their eyes and we can identify a different truth but their truth for them is absolute and we need to address that.  I mean and we need to address it and I think that one of the ways we address it is through a process of education – I don’t know any other way, well role models and things like that will be important but through a process of education.

 

GM: When you think about the Titanic Quarter I’ve heard that it’s a – coming up this, you know they’re knocking a lot of houses down to build, I was talking to somebody last week – is that true or?

 

DE: No.

 

GM: Is that not?

 

DE: I think they’re…that if you’re close to Titanic Quarter there will be a spin, whether it will be a good or a bad spin I think time will tell.  We’ll end up with janitorial jobs. We’ll not be sitting with the high tech stuff.  But I’m not aware that Titanic Quarters crossing the Sydenham Bypass – yet.  But it will.

 

GM: That’s what I mean, when that happens they’ll knock houses down and they’ll put up you know houses that cost say £100,000 like, you like a gentrification process. The Protestant working class will be squeezed by the gentrification?

 

DE: If you were go to Donegall Pass, we’d see that it is a community beginning to fall apart and it’s falling apart through market forces; it’s a lucrative area because it’s City Centre, right?  Its house prices are going through the roof in terms of small, affordable housing for people who are prepared to pay the price.  From a Protestant working class community who’ve never thought they’d ever see the figure £100,000 never mind understand what it actually meant, you know, my secretary lives there and my secretary’s house is probably valued I think at probably about £155 – 160,000 – a terraced house in Donegall Pass.  Now people are taking that and going; that community by its own choice is moving but there are imperatives in it, you know and the imperatives are that I can do well with this.  And it’s not about getting away from the community, it’s what I can do with this and that is another – the market forces are having a specific affect on, on communities as well.

 

GM: What about, if your house is being knocked down to build a more expensive house, say you know with gentrification and you’re sent to a housing estate – what affect does that have on people?
DE: Well there is evidence to suggest that communities are beginning to say I’m not going (laughs).  I mean even locally here there’s, there is houses in Mersey Street knocked down and depending on how much people wanted the re-settlement money they bolted and others said no, no I’ll talk to you when you’ve other houses built so that I can move into one.  You know?  So there’s, there’s – where communities are determined to dig their heels in a bit but I suppose that, that I don’t know the exact figures but there’s as many who do go to the … estates or whatever and communities are being split up.  There’s no doubt about that again because we already had massive waves of redevelopment in Belfast and communities have been split up and when you knock one old terraced house down it’s going to make a third of a new house, you know, so the same number of houses cannot go on … to maintain standards or to create standards the same number of houses cannot go on the same plot of land.

 

GM: So what affect do you think that’s having on people? 

 

DE: Well if we, let’s look at it individually first – people are making individual choices.  I think some of them are making well informed individual choices and some of them are making very badly informed choices. I mean I’ve been approached by people upset – ‘I moved out and I’m in Tullycarnet and now I’m…’ – life’s okay in Tullycarnet but all their friends are down here [Newtownards Road], the shops are down here, their doctors is down here, everything they’ve been used to is here, in the inner city here and they’re now sad that they’ve made a move and that’s a person who’s made a move on the basis, usually I would have thought of ill informed.

 

But, staying on the individual for a moment before we take the collective.  Human beings are very resourceful (laughs) I mean, you know if we’re talking about suffering – getting a house on the Newtownards Road knocked down and then up in Tullycarnet – suffered?  Nah, nah and you’re not the first, know what I mean.  Collectively there’s damage done, I think there is damage done because we’re losing touchstones more and more and more.

 

GM: Yeah, you think about the BB and the Church, the fact that they’ve declined – what affect do you think that’s had on people’s perception of their like social and political…

 

DE: Well, okay, let, I mean, let me in – again I lived in Chamberlain Street and people in Chamberlain Street went to University when I was a kid so what happened to us?  What happened to us as a people when young people from this area did go to university – not in huge numbers but in reasonable numbers?  What happened when we’re finding that these kids are not going to university?  So that tells me there’s something wrong with the education levels or programmes that get you ready for university.  Clearly they were being got ready for university – my brother was one of them.  Now, that’s one element of it.  The other element was, is how we…filled our lives.  When I was a kid you played school, you played football after school not during school; my both sons who played football for their school never played football after school; they played during school hours.  That was a political decision made effectively by Margaret Thatcher by the way, who, I don’t know whether you’re aware of this, but if a teacher stayed behind in the afternoon say 1 day a week or 2 days a week they devoted 2 hours for which the teacher got paid 1.

 

So the teacher was giving matching funding to working with the children!  Margaret Thatcher decreed they’re not getting anything but expected them to do it anyway and it stopped.  So the entertainment processes and the fitness programmes that were there for kids – wiped out! Used to play football on a Saturday morning – now the grammar schools still play rugby on a Saturday morning but I don’t know how they fund that but that’s up to them, but interesting.  The secondary schools don’t because of the funding judgements made by politicians – that’s one element.  The church was, even for non church goers, was, not the centre, but was important in the community.  And at the top of 3 streets up there is Memorial School where a church, which was my church right, when I was a kid – and it had a BB, Life Boys, Girl Guides and even when we got beyond sort of wanting to be in the BB, the guy George McGill – who’s a physiotherapist and used to be a physiotherapist for Glentoran – he decided that he’d have football and he got us kits and he got us balls and he did all that.  I think the man paid for most of it himself to maintain people together, to take them off the streets and, and yes there is a substantial change.

 

Now of course then there’s other changes, there’s the kid in the bedroom with Nintendo or with the XBox or with the internet and there’s, there’s a changing programme of, of interests and needs and wants.  So, part of that I think is a metamorphosis but much of it is – the question is, is the metamorphosis because the churches were losing the capacity to do what they did and that’s the rise of the metamorphosis or is it the other way round?  Is it the change of focus became detrimental to the maintenance of numbers and whatever for churches.  It’s hard to tell but certainly there is substantial change – absolutely substantial change.

 

 

GM: I’m just thinking about the community workers – how much do you think community workers should do?  Is there big limitations in the role?

 

DE: I think what you’re finding is community workers are just everywhere and I mean, I mean including, I mean in this area it’s fascinating and I’m just tickled pink by what I see in this area.  Community workers – actually there’s a group here called the Inner East Forum.  Let me give you a make-up – Police, Church, community, statutory agencies, paramilitaries – they’re all on it – UVF, UDA, Red Hand – they’re all on it and they all sit round together and everybody knows who everybody else is, everybody.  And the work that they have managed to achieve has been super, absolutely super interface work, stuff at bonfires, murals and – brilliant…and if we’re going to talk about community then we have to live community.  You know, what is community? Is community then – let’s a handful of us all decide where it’s all going and nobody else has an opinion?  Or step thee from among them and not touch the unclean, they’re bad people you can’t talk to them?  So what people are doing now is they’re saying oh we’re all in this together and it’s working.  It’s a process of partnerships, I mean no one’s an island, you know.

pg-15-3

 

We’ve only just begun.

 

 

Here’s, here’s my dream, right?  And we’re nearly there.  I want the paramilitary to be stopping at the beat peeler and say ‘Wait till I tell you, them two kids just came out of that shop after shop lifting or whatever it is and … or … there’s drugs getting sold in that house…’, so that we begin to diminish some of the horrors that have been happening to us – we’re robbing our own.  Our police cannot be expected to police alone.  They can’t be expected to do it, simply on the basis that the methodology that they’ve used to understand what’s happening inside communities is … … not liked by communities (laughs).  So we need to replace the style and the nature of intelligence that they’ve gathered so it has to come from us, we the people.  And I see the role models of diminishing that concept of ‘toutism’ being actually the paramilitaries and the same on the Republican side – that might sound ridiculous but it’s not that far away.

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One thought on “David Ervine – research interviews 2006

  1. Senator George Mitchel said that of all the political leaders he encountered during the NI peace process David Ervine impressed him the most.

    Never was there a politician in Northern Ireland that rather than parroting truisms to gain support actually just spoke the truth. There was integrity, honesty and above all an attempt at true leadership with Ervine.
    It is easy for a politician to ‘represent’ something or someone or as David Ervine put it ‘Stare at their boots’ it is quite another to innovate and lead.

    In view of this perhaps Ervine’s assertion that he did not feel like a politician is correct.
    The eternal ideological and rhetorical hamster wheel that passes for politics in big house unionism serves only itself and ultimately betrays the true long term interests of the PUL community and all the people of Northern Ireland in general.

    We need only compare the Sunningdale agreement with the Good Friday agreement to see big house unionisms short term selfish interests. The very individuals who opposed or where incited to oppose Sunningdale ultimately supported the Good Friday agreement, an agreement that conceded much more to violent Irish Nationalism than Sunningdale. Had they not have been so short sighted perhaps the conflict we endured from 1973 on could have been avoided and unionism in a better place for it.

    Perhaps the necessity of ‘Northern Irishness’ and unionism gaining some purchase with those of catholic background could have been realised as it seemed to show some promise of in 1969 with the call for ‘British Rights for British citizens’. This is a crucial development if Northern Ireland is to survive in the long term and one that was set back in the first instance not by the IRA but by traditional unionisms opposition to civil rights.

    From the late 80s to the early 00s I worked in a protestant dominated workplace and we often discussed with considerable disapproval how the main unionist parties enacted policies that where not in the interests of working people. How the backward religious fundamentalist attitudes of the DUP offended our values and freedoms. Yet come every election the same individuals went out to vote for those very same parties because of fear, a fear that was put there generations ago by unionism and reinforced in more recent years by the activities of violent Irish Nationalism. The Green and Orange Yin and Yang by default reinforcing each other’s grass roots support.

    It has been often said that the IRAs campaign had the opposite of its intended effect and actually coper fastened partition.

    Conversely it was self-serving big house Unionism that has been as great an enemy of Ulster, oppressor of working Ulster people and destabiliser of the long term viability of the Northern Irish state as the IRA ever where.

    Ervine had the courage to shine the spotlight on that uncomfortable reality and in so doing was more loyal to Northern Ireland and her people than any in the Stormont political class today.

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