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Leadership of unionists and loyalists that agreed peace in Northern Ireland is sadly lacking today

A loyalist mural in Belfast. Punchyy/, CC BY-NC-ND

The ongoing failure to restore devolved power-sharing in Northern Ireland has highlighted for many the pressing issue of leadership – or perceived lack of it within Ulster unionism and loyalism. For this reason, it is worth reflecting on the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement – also known as the Good Friday Agreement – which featured significant moments of leadership and political progress from these mutual ideologies.

Both unionists and loyalists support Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the UK: where they differ is in terms of social class. Unionists are traditionally middle-class (or elite), while loyalists are working-class. This is embodied in the two political leaders who delivered and backed the Belfast Agreement: David Trimble and David Ervine.

For more on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, listen to the latest episode of The Anthill podcast.

Trimble was born into a fairly comfortable Presbyterian home in Bangor, County Down, and after grammar school took a law degree at Queen’s University, Belfast. Qualifying as a barrister, he pursued a successful academic career at Queen’s and only entered politics full-time in 1990. Five years he later succeeded the ancient James Molyneaux, who had held the fort since 1979, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), then the largest Unionist grouping.

Trimble had been active in the Vanguard movement and the Ulster Workers Council Strike of May 1974, when he was looked on favourably by loyalist paramilitaries. A member of the Orange Order who had embraced Ian Paisley – leader of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – during the Drumcree parading dispute of 1995, Trimble did not seem likely to move unionism towards accommodation with Irish nationalism.

Peace makers

However, Trimble drew on a distinguished pool of advisers – including Queen’s University professor (now Lord) Paul Bew – and showed genuine courage in convincing Ulster unionist organisations, public gatherings, and individual voters of the merits of the Good Friday Agreement.

Though he did the heavy lifting, Trimble’s awkward personality sometimes got the better of him, and by 2003 Paisley’s DUP had overtaken the UUP electorally. Trimble lost his own Westminster seat two years later and resigned from the UUP to take up a place in the House of Lords, where he currently rests as a Conservative peer. He is now a firm supporter of Brexit – which many have argued will actually damage the union. And he recently warned of violent reprisals from loyalist paramilitaries if Northern Ireland does not follow the UK out of the European Union.

David Trimble (foreground) with David Ervine (far right) in 1997. Brian Little/PA Archive

If Trimble’s leadership qualities appear to have diminished, it would be intriguing to discover what the late David Ervine would make of the current climate. Born into a working-class east Belfast community in 1953, Ervine’s mother was a hardline unionist and follower of Paisley, while his father was a more liberal, socialist supporter of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. The division is key to understanding Ervine himself.

He left school at 14 and was radicalised by the July 1972 Bloody Friday bombings, when the Provisional IRA placed 22 bombs (mostly targeting Protestant premises) in the centre of Belfast. In response, Ervine joined the paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and was arrested by security forces in November 1974, receiving a prison sentence of 11 years for possession of explosives.

Read more: Good Friday Agreement: ten key people who helped bring about peace in Northern Ireland 20 years ago

Ervine underwent a political voyage in Long Kesh prison. Via the mentorship of Gusty Spence, a former loyalist icon who had reactivated the UVF in 1966 but realised that such violence was counterproductive, Ervine developed his own self-critical analysis, coming to the conclusion that loyalists would have to engage meaningfully with their opponents. On his release in 1980, Ervine joined the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), quickly making a name for himself with his articulacy and progressive vision – including support for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, Ervine was admired by the media and non-loyalists. Alongside his PUP colleague Billy Hutchinson, he was straight-talking and unafraid to challenge unionist conventions. Ervine knew an agreement would give younger generations the chance to escape the violence he had been involved in, and so – like Trimble – he campaigned for the agreement in the May 1998 referendum, using his charisma, humour and way with words to convince many loyalists – who might have been expected to reject the deal – to back it. The final result was a 71.1% Yes vote in favour of the agreement.

Loyalism’s loss

The spirit of Ervine’s leadership and willingness to tackle the more intransigent elements of unionism was exemplified on April 9, 1998, the day before the agreement was signed. Paisley’s DUP had already withdrawn from the talks, and – in a typical stunt – took over the press centre at Stormont to make their opposition clear. In an extraordinary moment, members of Ervine’s PUP (and the Ulster Democratic Party, another small loyalist party) heckled Paisley and the DUP as they gave their “conference”. It was a remarkable moment.

Ervine suffered a fatal heart attack in January 2007. His funeral was attended by figures across the political divide and helped to nudge along further talks aimed at restoring devolved power-sharing after it had broken down, which was finally achieved in May 2007.

A Loyalist Declaration of Transformation, announced on April 9, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Niall Carson/PA Wire

However, the loss of Ervine’s example is incalculable and loyalism has never fully recovered. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, three loyalist paramilitary organisations issued a statement condemning criminality. But despite this, the leadership of this group, and unresolved tensions between loyalism and unionism, remain rumbling problems for Northern Ireland.

It remains easier to rely on old animosities, reflect ongoing divisions and disagreements, and to block your political opponent from achieving what they want to achieve, rather than actually leading people into a new dispensation.

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