David Ervine, Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for a loyalist area of east Belfast, who died in January, saw that working class Protestants and Catholics had both been conned. Ervine recounted how in July 1972 as a young man on what came to be known as Bloody Friday he watched as the IRA carried out 22 bomb attacks in Belfast killing innocent people and ripping the commercial heart out of the city. For him it was the final straw; he decided to join the protestant UVF then engaged in a sectarian war against innocent Catholics who it regarded as the soft underbelly of the IRA. Ironically, Ervine was reacting to the other side of the same politico-religious stimuli that had created the material basis for the emergence and recruitment of the Provisional IRA in 1970. His ‘war’ ended when he was caught ferrying a bomb and was sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment.
David Ervine was a Belfast man from the east of the city, an area which in the sectarian demography of Belfast is mainly ‘Protestant’. Though the area was heavily industrialised and the workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist, the acres of mean back-to-back houses demonstrated the poverty of those who were fed the fiction that they were the special concern of the Unionist government.
Some on the political Left tried to emphasise this point but the active political Left painfully avoided a class analysis of the local political situation – a failure which ultimately, in 1948, caused a split in the Northern Ireland Labour Party on sectarian lines. After that split, four Labour candidates in three overwhelmingly Protestant constituencies in east Belfast won seats in the Stormont parliament. Labour was by no means socialist but it represented the political philosophy of many on the Catholic side who thought it was, thus exposing the nonsense that working class Protestants would always support Unionism because they were ‘a labour aristocracy’.
Capitalism had sundered any little sense of unity within the working class. Catholics and Irish nationalists, including Sinn Fein, reflecting the ignorance and bigotry of the Orange Order, and the Left utterly failed to offer any real alternative to what was, and remains, a conflict of opposing capitalist nationalisms.
This was the world David Ervine was brought up in. In his early youth he might well have imbibed the dregs of bigotry and hatred and looked with deep suspicion on workers who were Catholics equally bigoted, equally embittered. He would have learnt from the demagoguery of Ian Paisley, then forging a rich fiefdom in bigotry, that the removal of the property qualification in the local government franchise, the establishment of a fair system of social housing distribution and the abolition of gerrymandered electoral constituencies would have been a defeat for his religion and his national culture.
Maybe he was caught up in the vibrant youth culture of the period; maybe he didn’t give a damn but the combustibles of conflict were gathering and like many other working class young men and women on both ‘sides’ of the artificially-devised sectarian barrier he would become a victim of that conflict, condemned and criminalised by holy men and politicians and those who combined these functions and greatly enhanced their mean earning power.
To his credit, despite his experiences, Ervine rose superior to the politics of bigotry and hatred. In his wry way he was to show the extent of his learning when a few years ago he said publicly that he looked forward to the day when he and Gerry Adams could have a pint together. Those who know the territory will appreciate just how far David Ervine had come and the courage it took to voice such a sentiment.
On the evening of his death a camera crew visited a working class club Ervine frequented in east Belfast. The drinkers, Protestants to a man, praised Ervine, the loquacious peace monger, the man who told them that working class Protestants and Catholics had been conned. Specifically, he was praised as ‘a socialist’. That he was not, but he was motivated by the same political honesty and concern for his class that motivates socialists; he had learnt to detest the political and economic realities of capitalism. The next step would have been an appreciation of the fact that the problems of his class, including the generation of division, were inevitable aspects of that system.