COMMENT: After the resignation of Dawn Purvis, is there any future for the Progressive Unionist Party? asks AARON EDWARDS
The murder of Bobby Moffett in the Shankill and Dawn Purvis’s subsequent resignation has dealt a body blow to the PUP.
With a ‘heavy heart’ the PUP’s only MLA stated that she could ‘no longer offer leadership to a political party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others’. Three and half years after David Ervine’s death, the PUP is once again rudderless.
Dr John Kyle, who replaced Ervine on Belfast City Council, has stepped forward as the party’s interim leader. Yet Purvis’s departure has led many commentators to sound the death knell for the PUP.
As the party’s membership takes stock of these recent developments it is worth pondering what the future holds for Progressive Loyalism.
Formed in 1979, the PUP portrays itself as ‘a Political Labour and Unionist Party’ committed to ‘watch over, promote and protect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom’. That it is a labour-orientated party rooted in the Protestant working class community is no accident. Founding members Jim McDonald and David Overend were previously office bearers in the Shankill branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
However, it is the party’s close association with the UVF-RHC that distinguishes it from other unionist parties.
As the late Billy Mitchell – a former party strategist – once remarked, ‘the PUP provides political analysis for the UVF-RHC’; ‘sometimes that analysis is accepted, at other times rejected’. Thus, the connection between ‘party’ and ‘army’ is less formalised than that enjoyed between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. Consequently the PUP’s standing amongst rank-and-file UVF members is poor.
Nonetheless, the PUP remains committed to transforming the UVF-RHC beyond violence.
A degeneration of internal discipline and the continued balkanisation of the UVF means that several of its units have retained weapons. This is unsurprising. PUP attempts to ‘civilianise’ the UVF-RHC were initially hampered by the deaths of Billy McCaughey, Billy Mitchell, David Ervine and Jim McDonald, which came at crucial moments in the internal conflict transformation process. Indeed, the incomplete nature of the process made UVF claims to have ended its terrorist campaign in May 2007 and decommissioned its weapons in June 2009 disingenuous.
Under Purvis the PUP failed to capitalise on the ‘heavy lifting’ of conflict transformation. Furthermore, the party has been reluctant to turn its pivotal role in UVF decommissioning into tangible political rewards, instead its association with the UVF-RHC has meant what Billy Hutchinson described as ‘the kiss of death for the PUP’.
Speculation that Purvis may move either into mainstream unionist politics or further into the margins of the local Labour Party branch is debatable. Examining how Purvis retained Ervine’s seat in 2007 is instructive here, especially since she played down the PUP’s brand of democratic socialism in the Assembly election and moved towards a more liberal unionist position.
Whoever becomes the next PUP leader faces a familiar decision: either return to the party’s roots as a ‘think-tank’ for the UVF, or carve out a greater niche as a progressive, socialist-based choice for the working class. The second choice will mean a radical decoupling from the UVF-RHC but may ensure the PUP’s long-term survival.
This article originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 8 June 2010.