A senior DUP figure has publicly said that while the party has been able to work with the UDA to help it move away from paramilitarism, the UVF is “a real problem” and has gone backwards over the last decade.
In unusually candid and specific public comments from a prominent unionist politician about the situation within the loyalist paramilitary world, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that the UVF had “deteriorated” since the death of former UVF man and PUP leader David Ervine in 2007.
The Lagan Valley MP made the comments during a panel discussion as part of the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh on Tuesday.
The former Ulster Unionist was asked whether loyalism misses a David Ervine figure.
Sir Jeffrey responded: “I understand the point that you made about David Ervine. I think in terms of that element of the unionist community, yes, there is a lack of leadership at that level within those communities.”
When asked if the DUP was providing that leadership, he said: “Truthfully, we have a real problem with the UVF. They will not do business with us because they want to be a political party.
The PUP wants to take our territory; they are up against the DUP. So the UVF do not cooperate.
“In truth, with the UDA we get a lot more cooperation at local level, in dealing with the transition, in the transformation in those loyalist communities, because the UDA doesn’t have political ambitions. So they’re prepared to work with the mainstream unionist parties.
“But the UVF are not; the PUP are not. The PUP resist any influence that we try to bring to bear - and I think that has deteriorated since David Ervine’s days and I think that yes we do need people in the element - the UVF in particular - to have the vision to see beyond the narrow ground of the PUP and their political aspirations. It’s so much bigger than that and I hope that someone will emerge who will help the PUP and the UVF on their journey. They’re not in a good place at the moment and I think that the rest of loyalism has moved on beyond where they are at the moment.”
He added that David Ervine’s death may have been partly responsible for the “regression in that part of loyalism”.
The DUP MP’s comments indicate a shift in DUP thinking towards Mr Ervine. Frequently in the years after the Belfast Agreement, the DUP was fiercely critical of the former paramilitary.
Speaking in Stormont in 2001, Ian Paisley Jr said of the PUP leader: “He is a failed terrorist - and I hope that after the next election it will be demonstrated that he is also a failed politician”.
In the same Assembly debate, DUP MLA Jim Wells said: “I have long since stopped including Mr Ervine and Mr [Billy] Hutchinson in the term ‘unionism’”.
In a statement, the PUP said that it was “disappointed” at Sir Jeffrey’s comments and would “welcome any engagements” which would lead to benefit for working class areas.
The party said: “We would firstly question why the cooperation of the UVF is relevant or necessary to implementing policies which help to lift loyalist communities out of misery, poverty and a complete absence of hope.
“The DUP, as the largest party in Northern Ireland, have ample opportunity to shape not only the debate but the policy agenda on addressing social inequality, the legacy of violent conflict and inter-communal tensions.”
Referring to Sir Jeffrey’s comments about Mr Ervine’s death being a turning point, the statement said: “To place such responsibility on the shoulders of one individual is an unfair burden. We all mourn the loss of David. Yet to argue that without one individual, loyalism is leaderless and without positive intent is a harmful and inaccurate picture to paint.”
The party added: “Not only did loyalists demonstrate more political creativity, open-mindedness and fortitude than wider unionism in establishing ceasefires, talks and eventual political accord, but they have also worked to transform themselves- through initiatives such as Action for Community Transformation, led by a former prisoner who completed his PhD once out of prison.”
UDA recruitment posters in Co Tyrone
A poster which urges people to join the UDA has appeared in Co Tyrone .
The unusual attempt to secure recruits for the paramilitary organisation appeared on a road sign between Newtownstewart and Sion Mills.
The monochrome poster said: “Ask yourself this question. When the battle is won, will I be able to stand and be counted amongst the men who won it?
“Make sure the answer is yes! Join your local unit of the UDA. Your country needs you.”
The poster was condemned by both unionist and nationalist politicians.
The Ulster Herald reported that the development follows a number of graffiti incidents in the Omagh and Plumbridge areas in recent weeks expressing support for the UDA.
Local DUP councillor Allan Bresland said: “There is no call for it at all. We have good enough law and order with a police force to keep the country safe. I would condemn this. It is illegal and totally uncalled for.”