Resignations from political parties are common in British politics. Lady Sylvia Hermon is a case in point. The former Ulster Unionist Party MP for North Down resigned shortly after the UUP aligned itself with the Conservatives. Interviewed at the time, she pointed out how the 'distance… between me and my Party… [had] become so great over recent months'. She had gone on record as saying that her party was a broad church and not a natural fit with the Conservative Party. 'I grew up on a 50-acre farm in Tyrone ... I know what poverty is like... Being a Conservative is just not in my DNA' (Belfast Telegraph, 1 April 2010).
Lady Hermon's independent stance paid off and she was rewarded with an increased majority by almost 5,000 votes in the May 2010 general election. Many commentators regarded her decision to quit the UUP as both principled and in keeping with her liberal unionist values. Yet, it was in also indicative of her centrist position, evidenced when she previously criticised Sir Reg Empey's Assembly Pact with David Ervine and the PUP in 2006.
While many in the media congratulated Lady Hermon for her principled stand, the same courtesy was not afforded to Dawn Purvis when she resigned from the PUP following the UVF's cold-blooded murder of Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road. Purvis is the most recent casualty in a long line of unionist leaders who have sacrificed their favourable party-political positions for principled ends. Despite her move, however, many in the media have seen Purvis's departure as signalling the death knell for the Progressive Loyalist project.
So has the death knell been sounded for the PUP? Significantly, many unsympathetic observers of loyalist politics have been trumpeting the PUP's demise ever since the party first contested the local government elections in 1981. Yet, there is a sense that this time it is different.
In her resignation statement Purvis said that she could 'no longer offer leadership to a political party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others'. The Moffett murder rightly brought universal condemnation; the killing was for Progressive Loyalism what the murder of Robert McCartney was for Provisional republicans. The key difference is that whereas Gerry Adams would never have resigned from the Sinn Féin leadership for 'indefensible' IRA actions, Dawn Purvis has fallen – metaphorically speaking – onto the swords of her former UVF associates.
Exactly a week on from her resignation approximately 70 PUP members met in the Stormont Hotel to consider the fall-out. As one of us wrote on the eve of the meeting, the party faced a familiar choice: 'either return to the party's roots as a 'think-tank' for the UVF, or carve out a greater niche as a progressive, socialist-based choice for the working class. The second choice will mean a radical decoupling from the UVF-RHC but may ensure the PUP's long-term survival.' (Belfast Newsletter, 8 June 2010)
One member of the PUP's Foyle branch, with no paramilitary history, disagreed with the analysis, suggesting that the 'think-tank' option was perhaps the most realistic one. This was confirmed when party spokesman Ken Wilkinson emerged from the crisis meeting to tell reporters that 'the severance of links from our associates [in the UVF] did not really come into the equation'. Comparing the situation to Sinn Féin's handling of the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, he said that 'they stuck together and got through it. That's how it should be dealt with and I will be supporting the link with the UVF.' (Belfast Newsletter, 9 June 2010)
The view held by Wilkinson and others in the PUP, however, is disingenuous. It inadvertently shores up the position of those who see little contradiction with the UVF retaining 'gear' in a post-conflict environment. In a report completed in 2004 we suggested that 10 years on from the loyalist paramilitary ceasefires the UVF's military structures had become rusty. Our critique then was aimed at the highly centralised 'Brigade Command staff', who had failed to exercise effective command and control over their rank-and-file membership. We concluded the organisation was reluctant to expel members who were motivated solely by financial gain and profiteering.
David Ervine told us at the time that 'there are three sets of UVF personnel: (1) the guy that says, "its over, I'm away home"; (2) the guy prepared to work for his country, e.g. in community development or politics – [there are] not many of these; (3) the ones who worry me, [who consider] "patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel"'. It is now clear that the third set have been 'feathering their nest' since the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires.
Our research has taken us into the 'belly of the beast' over the years. Taken together the UVF and RHC murdered approximately 542 people between 1966 and 2002. Out of the total number of 427 deaths attributable to the UVF during the troubles a startling 84% were civilians, 10% were other loyalists, 5% were republican paramilitaries, and 1% were security forces personnel. Bobby Moffett's murder brings to 29 the number of people killed by the UVF since 1994 (The Guardian, 4 June 2010).
We were given unprecedented access to the 'party' and 'army' elements of this constituency. Our conclusions made for uncomfortable reading for those who had waged the UVF's 'campaign of armed resistance' throughout 'the troubles'. In a follow-up report written in 2005 we reiterated that the PUP faced a stark choice: either stay the course with their associates, or break the link completely. That decision was taken shortly afterwards during a closed PUP conference when it was decided that they would stay the course and see the job through. Wilkinson's remarks – and those of the interim party leader Dr John Kyle – demonstrate that the PUP has not strayed from the course it charted almost five years ago.
By continuing down this road though the PUP risks further marginalisation. In all probability there will be further departures of those, like Purvis, who are imbibed by the peaceful principles and policies of the PUP, than with the local 'prestige' which association with revanchist terrorist groups can bring in social clubs and pubs in Protestant working class areas.
In a recent Belfast Newsletter article (11 June 2010) Henry Patterson attacked the PUP for its 'hackneyed leftist analysis'. While it is difficult to explain how the party's soft-centred liberal analysis can stand up to scrutiny amidst outbursts of UVF violence, the party's unique voice is more nuanced than Patterson allows. There are compelling reasons for the PUP to be regarded as a natural heir apparent to the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, although the latter was fundamentally pacifist in outlook and downplayed its commitment to the Union. In a sense the PUP's skin-thin adherence to socialism in the 2007 Assembly election should tell us all we need to know about Purvis's attempts to capture floating voters than it does about the founding principles of the PUP.
Yet, as Patterson rightly points out, 'unfortunately for Dawn Purvis and the PUP, despite a worthy commitment to improve the conditions of the worst off sections of the Protestant working class, they became de facto allies for the republican movement's campaign to indoctrinate a new generation'. There can be little doubt that the battle-lines of the conflict have now been grafted (mainly by Sinn Féin) onto the historical record. The so-called 'peace industry' has narrowed the gap between old foes to such an extent that only a cigarette paper now separates their political positions on 'dealing with the past'. Rather than using their position to warn future generations of the futility of violence, we are constantly being reminded of how these people gave up their campaigns of terror so that the rest of us could live in peace.
The PUP's complicity in massaging the egos of those pushing the pro-republican narrative of 'dealing with the past' has done injury to history, further marginalising the voices of working class Protestants who have borne the brunt of republican terrorism since the late 1960s.
In earlier Fortnight articles we wrote that UVF enjoys barely residual support from the Protestant community. The tolerance with which the organisation has been treated by ordinary people in the Shankill, Monkstown, Rathcoole, the Waterside, Ballymena and other areas where it has been traditionally strong is now waning. A complete winding up of its military structures must now take place. If it resists there is compelling evidence to suggest that it will continue to be criminalised as the state moves to extend the writ of the local power-sharing executive.