27 May 2006

Ever the twain

Sunday Tribune

**Via Newshound

Suzanne Breen
21 May 2006

HE'S THE chattering classes' favourite former paramilitary.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usGerry Adams might look more statesmanlike, Martin McGuinness might pen poetry, but invariably, it's David Ervine who is hailed as a beacon of hope in a society of bigots.

You'd never guess he was the political representative of an organisation which refuses decommissioning, is up to its neck in criminality, and continues shooting, beating and targeting nationalists and ethnic minorities, as last month's IMC report points out.

The PUP leader is rarely even asked about this. Gerry and Martin must wonder how he pulls it off.

An Ulster Unionist politician in Ervine's east-Belfast constituency remarks enviously: "Some people in the staunchly loyalist areas see him as a traitor, but the ladies on the (middleclass) Belmont Road love him. He's 'the thinking woman's thug'."

That's unfair. Ervine's flowery metaphors do grate . . . he's known as 'Dictionary Dave' on the Shankill . . . but he's widely regarded as a nice guy who carries little clout with the UVF. He stepped out of the shadows after the 1994 ceasefires and became the first loyalist to be liked outside his own community. He smoked a pipe (and unlike Gerry Adams, still occasionally does) and enjoyed a bowl of Irish stew and a pint of Guinness.

The only marching he ever did in Dublin was to the Abbey for Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. His is a modern, anti-sectarian unionist "free from the Pope, the Queen and King Billy."

Despite family objections that it was "a Fenian name", he called his son Owen after the protagonist in his favourite book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

"That's probably the only book Davy's ever read, " jokes a friend. "He's not really into literature, he does a bit of bluffing. Liverpool Football Club and horse racing are his passions."

He admires the Taoiseach's political skills but is more impressed by the meatier approach of ex-SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon. "He could take somebody's scrotum, slice off their balls . . . it would be over in a second and they wouldn't know it was done, " Ervine has said, disclosing that, as a man with a vasectomy, he knows what he's talking about.

He can be breathtakingly non-PC.

Explaining why marrying Jeannette at 18 was the best thing he'd ever done, he said:

"We got to be chums and we're that good chums, she now washes my socks." But his heart's in the right place. When the Assembly debated abortion, he was the only politician to speak in favour of a woman's right to choose. Northern society, he says, treats women "like something it walked in on its heel". He's no stranger to social problems. His grandson Mark, hanged himself two years ago at the age of 14. "It nearly destroyed Davy, " says a friend.

Ervine was reared, the youngest of five, in a two-up, two-down house. "No garden, oilcloth on the floor, an outside bog, and your Da's coat over the bed at night, " he says, keen to show not all Protestants lived in luxury pre-Troubles.

His father supported the civil rights movement and the Northern Ireland Labour Party. His mother was more reactionary and still keeps Ervine on his toes.

"She never ceases to remind me I'm getting showers put in for elderly people by the Housing Executive, but I'm a lazy bastard and haven't done it for her."

As a child, wandering into a tin bath of hot water permanently scarred his back.

He didn't shine academically at Orangefield Boys' School, where pupils included Van Morrison and former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan.

Aged 19, Ervine joined the UVF after Bloody Friday . . . when 22 IRA bombs killed nine people. Two years later, he was arrested with a car bomb. He has appeared uncomfortable talking about it, declining to name the intended target, a Catholic pub.

He served six years in Long Kesh. UVF commander Gusty Spence encouraged him to think politically. There was mischief too. He learned enough Irish to cause havoc among IRA prisoners during drill practice, shouting 'about turn' through the wire, reducing republican ranks to chaos.

Last week, the chaos was in the UUP ranks. Its only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, was "deeply distressed" by Ervine's admission to the Assembly group. Councillor Ronnie Crawford said UUP members were now tainted with paramilitarism.

Despite the popularity of Ervine's move among some . . . as a poke in the eye to Paisley . . . it may have seriously weakened the UUP leadership. As this Assembly is unlikely to ever elect an Executive, the extra UUP ministerial seat is theoretical anyway. "Pain without gain, " complain the grassroots. Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF, is as relentless as the McCartney sisters in his justice campaign. He'll now hound Empey and Ervine.

It's surprising that, after years denouncing 'fur-coat' unionism, Ervine joined the party most embodying it. UK Unionist leader, Bob McCartney, doesn't rate Ervine, who to him sounds "like an amalgamation of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and the local probation officer".

Some see Ervine as a fraud, a carefully manufactured personality. He dismisses claims he's MI5.

The SDLP's Alban Maginness says Ervine is "a little verbose, but very talented, and one of the few unionists in whose company I feel comfortable." The DUP's Sammy Wilson says: "After committee meetings, he won't join the rest of us for a cup of tea and a yarn. He's affable but aloof. He's not flash but he's fallen into a position whereby he gains status promoting himself as a philosopher."

Outside politics, it's different. After a few pints, Ervine thinks he's Frank Sinatra. "He sings a very bad 'My Way', " a friend says.

"Davy never shuts up. He does pontificate on things he knows nothing about and he's a man for a grand vision, not fine detail. He laughs at himself for being pompous."

His generosity is legendary, a loyalist friend says: "His bet came in and he went to split the winnings even though it had nothing to do with me. He'll buy drink all night and you'll have to tell him to let these other f*****s pay for rounds. Once, we were at a policing conference in New York, and he was heading home early. He knew I was short of money. He slipped a few hundred dollars into my pocket, saying 'get something for the wife'. You couldn't find a better friend."

C.V.

Occupation: Leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF's political wing
Born: Belfast, 1953
Educated: Orangefield Boys' School, Belfast
Married to: Jeanette. Two sons
In the news: Has decidedly altered the balance of power in the North by joining the Ulster Unionist Assembly group at Stormont

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