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What David Ervine might have made of RHI

'I can't help wondering what David would have made of the goings-on at Stormont... I know he'd be making strides to help ensure things work if he was still here'

By Ivan Little

Decade after his death, David Ervine's wife Jeanette reveals the pain of her loss is still raw, says a charity named in his honour is a great comfort, and thinks his wise counsel badly missed as Assembly hovers on precipice over RHI scandal.

The widow of loyalist bomb-maker turned peacemaker David Ervine will mark the 10th anniversary of his death on Sunday by visiting his memorial tree in Roselawn cemetery with her family. It will be a time for quiet reflection on their loss, and will be tinged with sadness over the newest political crisis at Stormont.

Jeanette Ervine will also attend a more public remembrance service tomorrow organised by the Progressive Unionist Party, which her MLA husband led.

She will later be going to The Oval for a cheque presentation from the David Ervine Foundation to his beloved Glentoran FC to help nurture new talent.

None of it will come easily to Jeanette, an essentially private person who, unlike her husband, isn't at all comfortable holding court for interviews. "He was the man with the words," she laughs.

But in her east Belfast home, surrounded by images and mementoes of the man she once thought was too young for her, she proved to be more insightful and articulate than she thinks she is, as she talked about the political dilemmas; the still-present threat from paramilitaries, and the painful scars left not only by her husband's passing, but also by her grandson's tragic death two years earlier.

It's apparent that Jeanette misses them both. But she also believes that Northern Ireland misses David Ervine's wise counsel.

"I can't help wondering what he would have made of the goings-on at Stormont," she says.

"I imagine that initially he would have been pleased that the Government was up and running and I know he would be making strides to help make it work if he was still there."

Jeanette says that her husband encountered a lot of difficult times in his quest for peace but didn't let them shatter his optimism.

"Whenever I was pessimistic David always told me things would be fine. He was able to think outside the box and focus on some positive features. He had an astute political mind, but I honestly don't know what he would think of Stormont today," she adds.

"They are always at loggerheads up there. They would say they're working together, but after so much disagreement I don't know if there will ever be a good working relationship or that they will ever deliver. I'm not saying that they are playing games but I would love to see some form of normality, with a normal functioning Government.

"If something happens to one party, another one is gloating."

Jeanette's husband has, of course, been credited with playing a pivotal role in persuading his former colleagues in the UVF to move away from violence, in keeping with the thinking of his mentor Gusty Spence, whom he first encountered in prison.

But the organisation still hasn't disbanded and police say it remains active in some areas, including east Belfast.

"That's not my business," says Jeanette.

"But I know that David said a long time ago that it was time that the paramilitaries set things aside and that they should be doing work within their communities to help their people, and not be pariahs. What he said then is still purposeful and meaningful today."

Jeanette believes that if David was still alive many of the difficulties posed by the paramilitaries would have disappeared.

"I think there was a real respect for what David was doing. He came from that particular background of conflict and he was trying to make a difference."

Jeanette finds it hard to believe that her husband's death was 10 years ago.

"It's as fresh in my mind as if it was only yesterday," she says, wiping away a tear.

"He had been well rested over Christmas in 2006 and I remember saying to him that 2007 was going to be a better year for us after the awful times we'd experienced with the loss of our 14-year-old grandson Mark, who took his own life two years earlier. He was like our own child. He spent a lot of time with us. His death hit me and David really hard."

Mr Ervine had been under medical investigation for high blood pressure and a sometimes accelerated heart rate.

Jeanette says she was reassured that doctors were looking into her husband's health issues, but on Saturday, January 6, he took ill after attending a Glentoran match, standing in his usual spot behind the goals at The Oval.

"In the middle of the night he got up and said he felt unwell. I mentioned calling a doctor, but he told me to get an ambulance. On the journey to the Ulster Hospital he took pains in his arm, which doctors later confirmed was him having a heart attack."

However, when Jeanette was eventually allowed to see him, he was sitting up in a bed "looking great".

And the memory of what happened next still brings a rueful smile to her face. "He was telling a nurse that he would do all in his power to get something done about the problems facing the hospital. I thought to myself: 'Good God, this man has just had a heart attack and he is still talking work'. It was typical of him."

Jeanette returned home after the hospital staff told her Mr Ervine needed rest and quiet, but shortly afterwards she was back at the Ulster Hospital to be informed he had suffered a stroke.

On the Sunday RTE wrongly reported that Mr Ervine had died, but the following day he did pass away in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast surrounded by his loved ones.

Mr Ervine's funeral in the East Belfast Mission on the Newtownards Road proved to be a remarkable milestone along the road to peace. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, for years a hate figure for loyalists, attended the service, and the hundreds of people gathered outside didn't say a word. However, the message had gone out from loyalist paramilitaries that Martin McGuinness would not be welcome.

"It was amazing. Gerry Adams didn't really know what sort of reception he would get. But he was treated with the utmost respect," she says.

"Overall, the funeral was heart-warming; a great tribute to David because so many people crossed so many divides. I was really proud of him."

For Jeanette the hardest part of the day was leaving the vestry to take her seat in the Methodist church, not far from Mr Ervine's boyhood home. "Everybody was there. All I could see was a sea of faces," says Jeanette, who adds that she'll never get over losing her husband at the age of 53.

"You learn to live with it and try to be positive, but there's a massive chunk gone from my life. He was my soulmate."

The decision to set up the David Ervine Foundation was an important one for her.

"I felt we couldn't allow his passing to go by without doing something in his memory, something that would help young people. He always said that he didn't want to see young people with their heads stooped to their boots. He wanted a better life for them, and better than we had in our youth. He wanted them to hold their heads up high.

"I wanted to be involved because I know the effort and the hard work that David put in. And I was 100% behind what he was doing."

His death received national and international coverage in the newspapers and on television, which made it difficult for Jeanette and her children to grieve for their husband and father without the glare of the media.

Jeanette says: "Yes, it was hard. David was the person in my life that I could have turned to for anything. We had been together a long time and he meant the world to me and I meant the world to him."

Jeanette was 18 when she was introduced to her 15-year-old future husband by a mutual friend.

"I was two years and 11 months older than him and when I discovered his age I thought I was baby-snatching, so I told him I wouldn't see him anymore, but he didn't take no for an answer. My friends were insistent that the age difference would seem like nothing later on in our lives. And they were right."

Jeanette isn't a regular visitor to Roselawn, where the tree she picked to remember her husband is "straight, tall and strong like David".

A memorial stone says the councillor and MLA was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and describes him as "an architect of peace and inspiration to us all".

Jeanette says: "Some people find it very comforting to go to graveyards but I don't. To me, David is only a thought away. He will always be in my heart. When I go to Roselawn I feel he shouldn't be there."

Jeanette's involvement with the charity has clearly been therapeutic for her. And she takes immense pride and pleasure from seeing the ground-breaking work the foundation's grants have enabled a wide range of individuals and organisations to carry out over the past decade.

Tomorrow she will be at the Glentoran versus Linfield Irish Cup game at The Oval for the presentation of funding which will allow the east Belfast club's academy to recruit five young people from disadvantaged backgrounds for the next five years.

Jeanette adds: "David always liked going to The Oval and the Raven club in east Belfast with his friends on Saturdays. It was going back to his roots and it kept him grounded."

She didn't share her husband's passion for football.

"He only took me to one match and he said I was the cause of him missing an important goal because I was pointing out to him the huge number of men around the ground who were smoking," she explains.

Returning to her husband's old stomping ground will be emotional.

"It's going to be difficult, but I really want to be there.

"The last game David attended the Glens beat Armagh City 8-0. I know he would like to see the Glens beating the Blues on Saturday."

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