Former Downing St chief of staff Powell praises ex-PUP leader, as wife reveals in new doc she pleaded with him not to join UVF
Tony Blair’s former right-hand man Jonathan Powell has hailed David Ervine, the UVF bomber-turned-peacemaker, as a visionary who stood “head and shoulders” above most politicians in the United Kingdom.
Mr Powell’s praise for the late Progressive Unionist Party leader came in a new documentary about him, called Lusting for Peace.
It was premiered at a private screening in east Belfast last night on the 15th anniversary of Mr Ervine’s death on January 8, 2007, after he suffered a heart attack.
The 70-minute documentary, made by the Ballymac Friendship community centre in east Belfast and Chieftain Productions, also included tributes for Mr Ervine from ex-taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former secretary of state Peter Hain and from Sinn Fein.
Mr Ervine’s widow Jeanette also spoke about how she pleaded with her husband not to join the UVF.
And his older brother Brian, who was briefly the leader of the PUP, revealed that the bomb which Mr Ervine was convicted of possessing in 1974 was intended for an IRA meeting that he and his colleagues “were going to visit”.
He confirmed that the Army who stopped the car tied a rope around his brother who defused the bomb.
Brian Ervine also disclosed that his brother almost died as a toddler after falling into a tin bath of boiling water in which clothes were steeping.
Archive footage of interviews with David Ervine heard him say that he was motivated to join the UVF by the IRA’s Bloody Friday bombs in 1972 which killed nine people and left 130 injured.
“I decided to get off the fence… and return the serve,” he said.
Jeanette Ervine said she was “beside herself” after hearing about her husband’s arrest and added that she hadn’t known he had joined any organisation until just before he was held.
She said she had pleaded with him that “it wasn’t the right thing to do” and asked what would happen if he got killed or if he killed somebody.
Brian Ervine said it was a “mercy” that their father had died because he would have been “deeply disappointed and hurt” by his son’s involvement with the paramilitaries.
David Ervine was jailed for 11 years and in the film a number of his former colleagues in the compounds at Long Kesh, later to become known as the Maze jail, said the UVF leader Gusty Spence became a mentor.
Journalist Brian Rowan told the documentary that discussions among prisoners in what some of them called a “kitchen cabinet” at the jail including Spence and Ervine centred on the future and the need for “talking their way out of the conflict which couldn’t go on for ever”.
The current PUP leader Billy Hutchinson, who was also in the jail for a double-murder, told the film that he was part of a group of prisoners who produced papers which were seen as precursors to the Good Friday Agreement 20 years later.
The film heard that once he was on the outside, David Ervine travelled extensively throughout Ireland for meetings with a wide range of influential figures.
Cleric Chris Hudson, who worked behind the scenes in the peace process, said that in Dublin, Mr Ervine invited him to talk to UVF leaders in Belfast and after subsequent meetings he believed that Ervine was “the narrator” of the loyalist ceasefire and that the UVF’s number two was the engineer/architect.
But after the UVF murdered six men in Loughinisland as they watched an Ireland World Cup game on television in June 1994, Mr Hudson told Mr Ervine that he couldn’t go ahead with his role in the peace process because some people close to loyalists were “speaking with honeyed words” while the paramilitaries were still carrying out “dastardly murders”.
In one TV interview that features in the documentary, Mr Ervine said that Loughinisland was one of the worst days of his life, adding: “We were on the cusp of something wonderful when horror strikes. I thought there was no chance of a ceasefire but thankfully I was wrong.”
The film includes footage of the announcement of the ceasefire by Gusty Spence on October 13, 1994, when David Ervine was also at the top table.
With the IRA having announced their ceasefire in the previous August, the push was on to find what the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern described as “an alternative strategy”.
He praised Mr Ervine for having the strength to stand up to the DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, and for bringing his community with him in the quest for a formal peace accord between 1994 and 1998.
“He had the ability to see that he could carry the troops with him,” added Mr Ahern.
Jonathan Powell told the film-makers that early in the negotiating process he noted in his diary that Mr Ervine had charisma and a sharp brain. He said: “A combination of those two things made him a real leader. He was head and shoulders above most political leaders in Britain as well as Northern Ireland itself.”
He added that during talks at Weston Park in 2001, the PUP man made Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams “squirm” to the point where he walked out after Mr Ervine kept challenging him on the IRA’s position on peace and a united Ireland.
Women’s Coalition founder Monica McWilliams said she believed Mr Ervine’s work for peace killed him, adding: “He drove himself into the ground.”
She said she and Jeanette Ervine had both begged him to take more care of himself after he fainted at the Assembly and he responded by saying: “Yeah, yeah.”
Mrs Ervine said that in the Ulster Hospital just before he died, her husband urged nurses, who had been telling them about the problems they were facing, to get in touch with him after he was discharged.
Gerry Adams was one of a large number of politicians from all parties who attended Mr Ervine’s funeral on the Newtownards Road.
Former secretary of state Peter Hain said Mr Adams had phoned him before the funeral. “He said he would like to attend the funeral because he had so much respect for David and wanted to honour his memory.”
Alex Maskey, who was also there, said they wanted to send out a message with their presence to loyalists and to their own people.
Jonathan Powell said Mr Ervine’s death was a tragic loss that had left a gap in loyalism that was still felt now.
He said he believed that the PUP leader could have finally brought loyalists from criminality and out of paramilitaries to the table of ordinary politics.
The title of the documentary, Lusting for Peace, was suggested by Monica McWilliams who based it on words that Mr Ervine had said to her to sum up what drove him on.
She revealed she was so stunned by the news of his death that she forgot to put the handbrake on her car outside her home and it rolled away to smash into another vehicle.
She said: “I never got the bumps fixed because they were there to remind me of him and the dents he used to talk about in the peace process.”