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'Dr Who' responds to PUP's emergency call

The appointment of a relatively unknown figure like east Belfast GP John Kyle as interim leader of the Progressive Unionist Party was greeted by the inevitable quips of "Dr Who"?

But 10 years ago, many people who did know him well responded to his shock decision to join the UVF-aligned party by asking "Doctor, why?"

Why on earth, they wanted to know, would a respected doctor, a self-avowed pacifist and a life-long Christian want anything to do with a party linked to terrorists?

It's an answer being sought again after the brutal murder of Shankill Road loyalist Bobby Moffett by the UVF - a killing which led Dawn Purvis to quit as PUP leader, saying it was impossible to defend the indefensible.

Kyle's background certainly didn't present him with the credentials for the murky world of loyalist paramilitary politics. He grew up in the middle-class oasis of Gilnahirk, with a passion for the church rather than politics.

He studied medicine at Queen's University during the early days of the Troubles and his response to the violence was to try to build bridges with Catholic prayer and church groups.

In 1986, he went to London to work on an ecumenical project funded by his part-time role as a doctor before returning home to become a full-time GP in east Belfast in 1993.

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His cross-community and reconciliation work resumed - as did his involvement in the groundbreaking Christian Fellowship Church at Strandtown.

But the doctor said he came to realise his patients' ills weren't only medical ones. The 58-year-old father-of-five said: "Many of my patients in places like the lower Newtownards Road were struggling with major ongoing social problems.

"I wanted to see if there was any way of improving the quality of people's lives rather than just prescribing anti-depressants, but I didn't set out to get involved in politics."

David Ervine was to change all that.

Kyle had gone to school with Ervine's brother, Brian, and captained him on the rugby field. But he knew nothing of David Ervine until he heard him on the radio.

"Suddenly, here was someone saying something fresh, honest and forward thinking. I saw something in the PUP that presented a terrific, viable and positive political alternative. I wanted to support David Ervine on his journey towards a sustainable peace."

Kyle found a number for the PUP in the phone book and rang it to join the party.

"I think most people in the PUP didn't know what to make of me," he said. "I stuck out like a sore thumb. But I volunteered to do anything that was needed and ended up, on occasions, stacking the chairs after meetings."

Some critics - and friends - questioned how a devout Christian could join a party associated with one of Northern Ireland's most vicious terrorist groups who were still actively involved in murders and gangsterism.

"I didn't ask people in the PUP if they were in the UVF. If, like me, they were working for the goals of furthering peace and moving the political process in a positive direction, their background was of little consequence."

Kyle believed Ervine's death in 2007 might also sound the death-knell for the party, but - ironically - it forced him into a more public role through his co-option to Belfast City Council to succeed his mentor.

With a huge picture of Ervine hanging on the wall above him, Kyle fought back tears as he talked about the late PUP leader and about how "something changed forever in Northern Ireland" after his death and his funeral at which the GP spoke.

Kyle doesn't envisage himself as a permanent leader of the PUP, though for many observers it's impossible to see any future for the party at all.

"I don't know if the party can survive," said Kyle. "These are uncertain days, but I felt it was my responsibility to help steer the PUP through a time of inevitable turbulence and change.

"It is important that we have serious discussions over the next weeks and months. But I do know that the political project that David Ervine and Gusty Spence initiated does have a future."

Kyle said he would be meeting UVF leaders, but he wouldn't discuss the speculation that he and others may follow Dawn Purvis into a new left-of-centre liberal unionist entity, free of the baggage of any connections to the UVF, which - police say - still clearly wants to exercise control over communities across the province.

Dr Kyle said: "There is a remnant in the paramilitary organisations that do not seem to want to close up shop and go. For some people there was considerable personal gain in being in a paramilitary organisation - there was power, prestige and influence and people find it hard to give it up.

"What happens to the paramilitary organisations is up to them. I can't determine that. I know what I would like to happen and that is disbandment. I don't see that there is a role or justification for them in the future."

Dr Kyle condemned Bobby Moffett's murder "as I condemn all murders". But he didn't go to his funeral. He explained: "My concern was that, if I went, it would just turn it into more of a media circus rather than a memorial. So I felt my presence would be unhelpful for the family."

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