Loyalism loses articulate voice as heart attack claims Ervine at 53

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One of the most striking individuals in Northern Ireland politics, whose career took him from bombing missions to leadership of a significant party, died in Belfast yesterday at the age of 53.

David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, died after falling ill at the weekend and suffering a heart attack, stroke and brain haemorrhage.

A familiar face in political activity for more than a decade, he was the most articulate voice to emerge from a loyalist paramilitary underworld which has always struggled to express its point of view.

Although he was jailed on a bombing charge and always remained linked to the violent Ulster Volunteer Force he was a consistent advocate of non-violence, dialogue and powersharing.

Because of this and because of his personal likeability, he won friends and influenced people in many areas, at home and abroad, which had previously been way off limits for loyalism.

He was regarded as a straight talker, with a sometimes startlingly large vocabulary which impressed some and baffled others. It was often said of him in Belfast that "he has swallowed a dictionary and it's coming up in bits". Although the UVF remained involved in violence, few doubted his was a genuine voice urging it to make the journey, which he himself had made, from paramilitarism to politics.

This was reflected in the range of tributes paid to him. Those expressing condolences included the British and Irish prime ministers, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the Northern Ireland Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde.

Tony Blair said: "David was a man who, whatever his past, played a major part in this last 10 years in trying to bring peace to Ulster. His incisive wit and clear, if often controversial, analysis marked him out."

Bertie Ahern described as "an enormously valuable and important voice for his community, a courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction". Mr Adams said he had made "a valuable and important contribution to moving our society away from conflict".

Mr Ervine played a key role in 1998 in persuading many uneasy Protestants to accept the Good Friday Agreement, which was opposed by many mainstream Unionist politicians. But he failed to get the UVF, which several times became embroiled in lethal loyalist feuding, to leave violence behind.

And although he himself was twice elected to the Belfast Assembly, his party failed to grow into a significant political force. By the time of his death he was, as the PUP's only Assembly representative, regarded as an interesting voice but not representative of some significant political force.

He was imprisoned in the 1970s, having been arrested with a bomb in a car, and served a five-and-a-half-year sentence during which he took part in many political discussions. By the 1990s he had emerged as an open-minded individual, calling for a more outgoing and modernised brand of Unionism. A recent of example of this came when he travelled to the Somme with the Sinn Fein figure Tom Hartley for a joint visit to battlefields where both Unionists and Irish nationalists died during the First World War.

His opponents tended to be the more conventional Unionist politicians, especially those who accused him of breaking Protestant ranks in his support of the Good Friday Agreement.