SENIOR members of the PUP and UVF held a summit in Belfast recently to plot the way ahead. MARK RAINEY examines what the future holds for the party
SENIOR Progressive Unionist figures are talking of a "new political era" for working class loyalist communities as the party emerges from crisis.
Under its new leader Brian Ervine, the PUP has rejected any talk of it going into meltdown and claims to have regrouped in preparation for the next Stormont assembly and local council elections.
Many commentators predicted the demise of the paramilitary-linked party as one high-profle resignation followed another – all sparked by the UVF murder of Bobby Moffett in May and the subsequent decision by party
leader Dawn Purvis to quit.
PUP deputy leader David Rose, deputy chairman Tommy Sandford and party treasurer Kate Nelson have all walked away since then, leaving Mr Ervine and the reformed party executive to try to restore stability.
Prior to the annual conference earlier this month, a vote was taken
on maintaining the party's link with the paramilitary UVF and Red
The vote was based on a clearly defined written defnition of the link issued to members prior to the meeting. There were six points listed in the document including a reminder that the link "bears its roots out of Long Kesh".
Another one stated: "The PUP cannot and will not be used as an
apologist for any kind of violence or criminal behaviour or by anyone who decides to call himor herself a loyalist under a flag of convenience."
An overwhelming majority of members at the meeting backed the retention of the link despite caretaker leader Dr John Kyle arguing against and warning of the political consequences.
In response to the negative impact of the Moffett murder and ensuing PUP instability, the UVF appears to be hastening its move towards what it calls a "civilianisation" programme.
At a meeting in Belfast on Friday afternoon, senior fgures from both the PUP and UVF came together to discuss the progress of the confict
At the conclusion of the meeting, the clear message was that there is
100 per cent support for the peace process in both camps.
However, there is also a sense of frustration bordering on anger that
the benefts of the peace process are not fltering down into working
class areas – particularly Protestant working class areas.
Another issue causing concern is the work of the Historical Enquiries
Team (HET) which former PUP MLA Billy Hutchinson described as acting in a "one-sided" manner and an "unwelcome return to the days of the discredited super-grass trials".
New leader Mr Ervine claims the PUP have "confronted all the difficult issues head on" and says the party will be at the forefront of a new political era as a result.
A teacher by profession, he said: "We are doing tremendous work on
the ground that hardly ever gets reported on.
"Personally I would like to see a united labour movement that embraces both sections of our community. That's what my ultimate goal would be but I don't think it's feasible just at the minute.
"I will be contesting the (assembly) seat in East Belfast and I want to retain it - not regain it - but to retain it on behalf of the Progressive Unionist Party because it was at the behest of the PUP it
Dismissing any talk of further resignations from the party, he said: "We have replaced all of the people we lost as far as the executive is concerned.
"For those people who left us we wish them all the best, but we have
to realise too that perhaps they will be our political opponents."
The new leader also said the legacy of his brother David would
remain with the PUP.
"All I would say on the legacy is that David Ervine represented the
PUP at a time when the UVF were committing some of the worst atrocities in our Troubles and he didn't go away - he stayed there -
and thank goodness he did.
"I believe David would have stuck in there. For me, the Moffett
murder, horrible as it was, was against the tide - the violence had
been draining away.
"I couldn't have been blunter in my condemnation of any criminality, whatever way it manifests itself.
"I condemn completely what happened to Mr Moffett on the Shankill and I have said that to UVF personnel, but you have tounderstand that there were people in that organisation who were as appalled as anybody else at the death."
Mr Ervine said he is confdent his party can guide the paramilitary
groups "out of the jungle" to non-violent ways: "We have emerged
from a crisis - we have repaired the damage - we want to move forward
"It's up to the UVF and the Red Hand Commando to do the rest. We can lead a horse to water but we can't make it drink.
"But there are initiatives on the way from the paramilitaries that
are practical and feasible. We are talking about the civilianisation of
Mr Ervine described what is taking place behind the scenes within loyalism as "uncharted territory" and added: "What we want is to create the channels whereby these guys either go into politics, or community work, or go into social work, or the cultural side of things.
"The media are fixated with the paramilitary link, but I am interested in raising literacy standards, anti-social behaviour problems, and drug and addiction problems. Sometimes the amount of work is overwhelming when you think about it."