Bobbie Heatley reviews David Ervine, Unchartered Waters by Henry Sinnerton, Brandon, £14.99 hbk
A READING of this book awoke in me fond memories of my boyhood, youth and early manhood days. I was a denizen of the neighbourhoods into which its subject, David Ervine, was born and grew to maturity.
Like him I retain a deep and abiding affection for the people and places of Ballymacarrett, despite its present desolate appearance.
Loyalist/unionist paramilitary murals venerate misguided heroes who saw their sectarian killing sprees justified in the light of colonial and imperialist battles of yesteryear. Nineteenth and 20th century heavy industries which once provided employment for the miscalled ‘aristocrats of (Protestant) labour’ crumble all around.
The slogans on the walls represent a time-warp. This struggle is about nationality they scream -- only the authors have not the faintest notion what nationality is or to which one they belong.
Yet I have never lost my belief in the numerous fine people there who are quiet because prudence requires them to be so.
Both sides of my own family were born and brought up in these streets. Like Ervine I have known them intimately. But, unlike the author, I am a long way from believing that those whom he deems worthy of adulation -- Gusty Spence, Billy Hutchinson -- and David himself, have travelled far enough politically, as yet, to be able to offer a solution to Protestant workers for the problems they now face or those impending.
Perhaps there could be more enlightenment to come. They now publicly eschew paramilitarism and wish to take the political road. Through the small political party which they have fostered, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), they are looking for a left-wing alternative. They have supported the Good Friday Agreement.
None of this has not prevented the UVF, their paramilitary associates, from continuing to kill Catholics and sometimes engaging in the on-going pogroms against them.
But it is understood that weaning unionist people like this away from a sectarian mindset is no easy task. According to this book, Ervine has experienced some hairy moments with them when they doubted even his tentative steps in a seemingly novel direction.
Therein lies a conundrum for Ervine and his supporters. What use is a political leader who runs too far ahead of his pack? You don’t get many votes that way.
This might be one reason for the political confusion at the heart of the PUP. For its venture into politics to succeed, it could be vitally important for it to make gains in a forthcoming Stormont assembly election, should one ever take place.
What it is attempting to sell is something not really credible -- a left-wing unionism. This lands it with another problem. A great many unionist voters do not come from the deprived back streets. The self styled upper-and-middle class Protestants consider themselves to have been well-enough served by the UUP and the DUP in the past. Whatever the economic downturns looming, they expect that to continue.
Gusty Spence, whose background is identical to that of my own father, has made known his contempt for these kind of self-serving unionists who keep well out of the picture after they have stirred up the sectarian hatreds, allowing people like him to spend the years in jail. And yet fundamentally he remains politically aligned with them.
Ervine also detects no massive contradiction at the heart of the species of labourism which the PUP is striving to propagate.
The author presents what the PUP is doing as some great new departure within unionism instead of what it is -- an attempt to breathe life into the corpse of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).
The NILP won four seats in the old-style Stormont ‘parliament’ with the aid of considerable Catholic support. The party then split over the ‘border question’, moved into the unionist camp and subsequently went down the plug-hole, where it has remained.
All of this aside, this book should be read for matters of record and some of its insights.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2003 Bobbie Heatley