The Protestant pretenders

David Ervine is one of a new generation of loyalist politicians: he's charismatic, he's ambitious, and he's an ex-paramilitary. Mary Braid reports
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Sammy lifted the half-sleeve of his T-shirt. His lower arms were wall-to-wall loyalist tattoos; Union Jacks, Ulster Volunteer Force insignia and the British bulldog. It was only the smallest - "POW Long Kesh 1973" - on his left upper arm that he tried to conceal.

"My wee lad is 11 and is beginning to ask questions," said the 38-year- old labourer and ex-loyalist paramilitary, frowning. "I've just told him it was a gang I used to belong to when I was younger. I'm saving to have it removed."

Sammy's lad has just won a grammar school place; no mean feat for a working- class kid from Protestant east Belfast. In the early Seventies - the Troubles at their peak - Sammy was not much older than his son is now, when he organised pitched battles against young "Taigs" at the bottom of the Catholic Falls Road. At 14, he was petrol-bombing local Catholic houses; he became a founding member of the UVF's east Belfast unit at the age of 17 and barely had time to fit in a few bomb-making classes before he was sentenced to four years for taking part in a UVF armed robbery. "I never knew any Catholics - except as the enemy," he explains.

In Long Kesh (the Maze prison), Sammy began a journey from violence to politics, only recently completed. It started in the mid-Seventies under the tutelage of the UVF commander, Gusty Spence, then serving life for the murder of a Catholic. When the loyalist paramilitaries called their ceasefire last October, it was Spence, as elder statesman, who read the declaration. Sammy remembers Gusty setting his imprisoned troops a 500- word essay on the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of an education programme. A combination of prison education and self-realisation undermined the belief of Sammy - and other inmates - in a violent solution to Northern Ireland's conflict.

The transition from bomb to ballot box has been completed by another former UVF member. David Ervine spent the late Seventies in Long Kesh for possession of explosives. He is now spokesman for the fringe Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), closely associated with the UVF, which has surprised political commentators by appearing more flexible than the mainstream Unionist parties.

The Northern Irish peace process has set off a struggle for political leadership within the Protestant community. One symptom of that is the growing pressure upon James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Another is the rise of those such as David Ervine who seek to claim the leadership.

When the Framework Document was published, Unionist politicians reacted in the traditional way, rejecting it as the basis for talks. In the old days, the loyalist paramilitary groups would simply have followed suit, but this time they did not. The PUP's formal response to the Framework Document is expected to be delivered next week. The party is highly critical of the document; the difference is in its tone. It wants to continue talking, whereas the Unionists have said they will not even consider negotiations.

Sammy believes that working-class Protestants will have a voice in those talks thanks to men like Ervine. The word is that despite not scoring a significant electoral success, the fringe parties are putting the wind up Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party and Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, rekindling fear that the Unionist vote might fragment along class lines. One political pundit says that Paisley in particular would like to see Ervine's PUP "killed at birth".

In east Belfast, where David Ervine was born and raised, his appeal reaches beyond active and former paramilitaries. "When Paisley or Robinson come on telly we turn them down," says a pensioner is a popular local pub. "When Davie comes on you can hear a pin drop. He speaks for us."

The PUP, once confined to the Shankill, has just set up a branch in east Belfast. A network of local pubs and clubs - some once notorious for UVF connections - seem to form the local party machine. The man behind the bar is a fan of Ervine's. "He's always been a talker. We've called him the councillor for years." But he sees limits to Ervine's personal ambition. "If he stood for the local council he would definitely win; Stormont, too, perhaps; but Westminster, absolutely no chance."

David Ervine arrives late at the club, which is more bunker than watering hole.

In knitted jumper, the pipe smoking Ervine is more laid back than he used to be. Twelve months ago he made his first anonymous television appearance - in silhouette - as a PUP spokesman coyly described as having "an insight into loyalist paramilitary thinking". Now his flak jacket is mothballed upstairs and life is a stream of media interviews. Everyone wants to talk to him. John Major invited him for talks last December and he made a winning appearance in Washington before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October. Today he is late because he had forgotten he was meeting three "fact finding" Labour MPs.

Most people recognise that Ervine - like the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams - has stuck his neck out for peace. He has been a target; he has moved home four times in recent years and given up his corner shop business. "If this doesn't work, I'm dead," he says simply. "There is no doubt about that."

The son of an east Belfast metalworker who, he says, was intelligent, frustrated and "trapped by class", Ervine's perspective on the world is similar to Sammy's. "As a young man I would not have voted for the mainstream Unionist politicians. Even then I remember thinking here is the Orange Order saying we must maintain the Union. Then they go home to their large houses and we guys go home to a dump."

His thinking developed in prison, with the help of Gusty Spence. "Prison was not where I wanted to be, but in hindsight I would not have missed it for the world." He says he gave up violence after serving his five years and that he spent 10 years with the PUP, waiting for the chance of a lasting peace. "No longer is the violence going to be turned off and on through clarion calls from the top," he says. "The UVF is quite capable of analysing where it is and where it is going."

He says he believes passionately in the Union and advises Unionists to be confident of persuading others of its worth. While he says the Framework Document is not a basis for settlement, he argues - against the mainstream Unionists - that it is at least a starting place from which to develop "a level agenda".

The PUP hardly has a political organisation to speak of. It has just 240 core members. Yet Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster, says tit stands more chance of breaking into the political mainstream than previous fringe parties because it has charismatic leaders, links with the paramilitaries, and because the established parties seem so exhausted.

Yet as Ervine becomes more popular, so he attracts critics. They are not confined to the established Unionists. Not all his former paramilitary colleagues are convinced that the political path is the right way forward.

Billy, 32, a self-confessed extremist with a conviction for attempted murder, is a high-ranking member of the UVF who advised against a political tack.

"I believe the enemy dictated the terms and we had a moral right to meet the IRA on their own terms. They had to be held to account for what they were doing to our small country. In a guerrilla war in an urban setting, I viewed Catholic areas merely as enemy camps."

But he admits he is battle weary and bitter at having sacrificed his personal life for a community less than grateful to those who went out and bombed in its name. "I felt like a Vietnam veteran when I came back here," he says. "We are fighting a war and yet no one wanted to know me. At least the nationalists stick by their paramilitaries."

Now he is surprised to find himself considering voting. "I have never voted in my life, I believe in action and aggression, but Davie's articulation of my views and those of ordinary working-class Protestants has taken away a lot of my frustration. Only recently have I become aware of the strengths of politics."

Ervine's politics may flower only briefly during this period, when the peace is under negotiation. But even if his influence is short-lived it will probably have a critical bearing on Northern Ireland's prospects.