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David Ervine

Progressive Unionist Party leader

David Walter Ervine, politician: born Belfast 21 July 1953; Member (Progressive Unionist) for East Belfast, Northern Ireland Assembly 1998-2007; Leader, Progressive Unionist Party 2002-07; married 1972 Jeanette Cunningham (two sons); died Belfast 8 January 2007.

David Ervine was one of the most interesting and unexpected figures of the Northern Ireland troubles, emerging from a violent organisation to become an advocate of peace and politics. He served as an articulate spokesman for working-class Belfast loyalism, his evident sincerity providing a stark counterpoint to a sub-culture increasingly dominated by money-grubbing drug-dealing and other criminality. His commitment to conflict resolution, coupled with a brand of backstreet common sense, won him admirers in many quarters as he emerged from the loyalist paramilitary trenches, preaching dialogue and an end to Protestant negativity.

In the 1990s some speculated that his efforts might create the loyalist equivalent of Sinn Fein, though in the end his Progressive Unionist Party proved long on promise but short on delivery. At the time of his death he was working towards persuading the paramilitary group he was linked to, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to end all of its violent activities. There are still signs a UVF disbandment might eventually come about, but Ervine's departure from the scene virtually puts paid to the idea of an effective party evolving from the organisation.

An east Belfast working-class Protestant, David Ervine was drawn into the Troubles at an early age. He was, like the Belfast singer Van Morrison, educated at Orangefield Secondary School, leaving at the age of 15. By his own account, he joined the UVF two days after his 18th birthday. On his birthday IRA bomb attacks, taking place on what was known as Bloody Friday, killed nine people in Belfast, including an 18-year-old youth with a name similar to his own. He recalled later: "People thought it was me. And I thought, it could have been me. At that point I decided that the best way to defence is to attack and I joined the paramilitary organisation or a terrorist organisation, call it what you like."

Two years later he was arrested in a car containing a bomb. In a bizarre incident soldiers tied a rope around his waist and sent him in to remove the device from the vehicle. He never revealed the intended target of the bomb.

He served five and a half years in the Maze prison, where he became a protégé of Augustus "Gusty" Spence, a venerated UVF figure who sought to instil in loyalist prisoners a mixture of 1970s socialism and strict military discipline. On his release he did not return to violence, although the UVF turned to him for political analysis. He did, however, become active again in the UVF in the late 1980s in an internal disciplinary role. For a time Ervine ran a newsagent's shop, unsuccessfully running for a Belfast council seat in 1985.

When the 1990s brought a ferment of loyalist paramilitary activity, both in terms of violence and of new political thinking, Ervine emerged as the UVF's guru. With the peace process in its early days, he took part in many political discussions. With his self-confidence, wide vocabulary, outgoing outlook and air of pipe-smoking thoughtfulness, he represented a new trend within loyalism, fascinating many and becoming an accomplished performer on television and at conferences.

As such he played an important part in soothing unionist and loyalist concerns during the 1990s, when he forcefully challenged the many conventional Protestant politicians who wanted the peace process stopped in its tracks. He was also highly critical of some senior unionist politicians. This was partly because of what he saw as their incendiary rhetoric and partly because, he said, he had personally witnessed them secretly conspiring with the UVF while publicly condemning such groups. "I sat there with them - I could tell you the colour of their wallpaper," he would say.

He also did not spare the middle class, parts of which he accused of benefiting from divisions. "Many people come from places where drawing-room sectarianism is at its worst," he declared, "and they have luxuriated and benefited as society, divided more and more, crashes on the rocks."

Ervine and his PUP colleague Billy Hutchinson were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but in a subsequent contest Hutchinson lost out, to leave Ervine as the sole loyalist paramilitary spokesman in the assembly. He notched up respectable votes in other contests, winning a Belfast council seat in 1997. This record was an achievement in itself, for he never lessened his support for the compromises of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement even as the Protestant grassroots increasingly turned against it.

His constant counsel to the UVF was to hang up its guns, and it is beyond doubt that his approach saved a number of lives. But his influence had very obvious limitations and he could not persuade it to end its violence, or to decommission its weaponry.

A moment of personal tragedy came in 2004 when his 14-year-old grandson Mark took his own life.

By 2002 Ervine had become leader of the PUP, but by that stage it was regarded as having passed its peak. He will probably be best remembered for his rhetoric which, while at times overblown, could captured the hope for progress. "We can fight all day and all night," he once said, "but in the end of the day all that does is create victims and greater bitterness and greater anger and we have a hamster-wheel cycle of continuum of violence and hatred and bitterness.

"We have got to extend the hand of friendship, we have got to take the peacelines down brick by brick, and somehow or other we have got to introduce class politics. The politics of division see thousands of people dead, most of them working-class, and headstones on the graves of young men. We have been fools: let's not be fools any longer."

David McKittrick