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Sunday 21 Janaury 2007

Why I disliked and distrusted David Ervine

THE Irish establishment were at David Ervine's funeral, ex-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, Secretary General of Foreign Affairs Dermot Gallagher, Government Chief Whip Tom Kitt, PD TD Liz O'Donnell, Senator Maurice Hayes, Dr Martin Mansergh and so on. And Gerry Adams, who is still hoping to be President of a Sinn Fein-controlled Ireland, was there in the name of peace.

Should Adams bite the dust, you'd have a similar line-up of worthies from North and South.

"Who do you think would be at your funeral?' I asked Sean O'Callaghan, who saved many lives as an (unpaid) Garda spy within the IRA. "Well, you can bet that no one from the Irish establishment would be there," he said. And he's right, of course. Of these three ex-terrorists, the only one that is persona non grata is the one who repented and sought atonement by risking his life in the interests of the Irish State.

Well, we know why Adams is lionised: in truth, most of the Irish establishment loathe and fear him, but for political reasons they have to pretend to admire and like him, not least because his popularity in the South shows that the day of the sneaking regarder is not over. We know too why O'Callaghan is reviled: even the Celtic Tiger in its soul prefers a terrorist to an informer and, what's more, he goes in for telling uncomfortable truths about Irish nationalism rather than delivering platitudes.

And Ervine? Actually he was genuinely liked and admired by people who mostly can't stand unionists. The outpourings of grief over the past week were exaggerated, but were founded on the belief that Ervine was a true man of peace who transcended his background to embrace people from another tribe.

I'm a historian, which means that I wouldn't be doing my job if I spoke only well of the dead. I'm sorry for Ervine's family, I accept that he was clever and industrious, that owing to his socialist upbringing he was genuinely not a religious bigot and that he preferred that people should live rather than die. But over the years I came to distrust and then dislike him.

When I met Ervine first - in 1994 at a Labour Party conference in Blackpool where we had dinner with Gusty Spence (whom I still think well of) - I was impressed, though I remained to be convinced he would walk the flowery talk that had his own people call him Davy "Dictionary". Quickly, his mastery of peace-lingo made him the popular pet of the wishful thinkers: it was no surprise when he was clutched to the bosoms of the likes of Mo Mowlam, Monica McWilliams (who would speak at his funeral of his "lust for peace") and, of course, Foreign Affairs.

He didn't walk the talk. Like Adams, he was vain and grew more self-important by the day as he was courted by governments and the media. The luxury peace-circuit is intoxicating for the self-regarding and it wasn't long before Ervine saw himself as a major player. Yet he had a tiny vote and led a party which was going nowhere, since Protestants mostly don't vote for terrorists and the PUP was always firmly under the thumb of the UVF. He had to believe, like the Provos, that authority was conferred on him by his armed wing even as he claimed he wanted it out of existence.

More and more, Ervine became a kind of crypto-Provo - the loyalist that republicans could rely on to get them out of political holes, particularly when it came to defending their reluctance to decommission, for he didn't want the UVF to be leaned on to follow suit; they still haven't given up a gun.

I was among those who wanted Ervine to address the obscenity of punishment beatings (aka torture) and exiling: he always reacted with irritation to the issue and then drowned it in a torrent of rhetoric. We began to clash at conferences because he became outraged at any criticism of terrorists. But then, what would you expect of a man whom we are told developed a rapport with Martin Ferris TD, the unreconstructed terrorist and apologist for the murderers of Garda Jerry McCabe?

The last time I saw Ervine was in July, at the Somme. He was watching a red-coated East Belfast UVF band honouring the dead in an unofficial ceremony that caused enormous outrage. A khaki-clad UVF man laid a wreath of poppies "from the officers and volunteers of the Red Hand Commando" - a rabble of sectarian murderers. It didn't seem to worry Ervine.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards