My first encounter with him was in early May 2001 in the PUP’s old offices on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.
‘Alright kid,’ he said to me, as I waited patiently in the office reception to meet PUP Chairperson Dawn Purvis. I was a little shy then, not quite believing that I had just encountered a man who had an enormous influence on my own thinking about politics in Northern Ireland. ‘Who are you here to see?’ he asked pointedly. ‘Dawn,’ I replied, before speaking up. ‘I’m here to interview Dawn Purvis.’
Ervine stood tall behind the front desk with his hands behind his back. He had the bearing of a military man about him, with his sharp tidy suit, smartly done up tie and sensible shoes. His heavy moustache completed the picture I always had in my mind’s eye of what a paramilitary turned politician ought to look like. Ervine seemed to be waiting on a phone call. I didn’t think he was interested in continuing the conversation. ‘What for?’ he asked me in his deep Belfast voice. I ‘ummed and ahhed’ a little before I answered. ‘For my undergraduate dissertation on the PUP,’ I told him. Ervine immediately raised his eyebrows as he glanced over at me with a smile on his face. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘It sounds like a very ambitious undertaking.’
Just as we were about to delve further into a conversation, the phone rang and he answered it. I went back to waiting but couldn’t help but listen in to the conversation he was having. Whoever he was speaking to made him quite animated. He spoke with humour, colour and a degree of charm in a manner that was forthright but respectful.
It seemed that the call was regarding a housing issue. He was clearly conversing with a representative of a statutory body on behalf of an elderly constituent. Just then I realised what PUP politicians meant when they spoke about ‘bread and butter politics.’ It’s something I have seen countless times with Billy Hutchinson over the years too. It’s about being a good constituency representative, speaking up for those who feel powerless or voiceless, and speaking to people how you would like to be spoken to yourself. It’s what makes the PUP the PUP.
A few moments elapsed before a shout came through from the back office. Dawn was ready to meet me. I got up to move. Ervine looked up from the phone. ‘All the best with your thesis,’ he said, as I brushed past him. ‘You’ll need it.’ He smiled at me, then went back to his phone call.
When I think back to that day, I knew then that David Ervine was one of the most impressive politicians I’d probably ever meet. I’ve since met countless politicians from all around the world but none of them have ever been as genuine, down to earth or honest as David Ervine.
In my eyes, what made Ervine special was that I could identify with him and his politics. I come from a similar Protestant working class background as he did, I was engaged politically as a teenager (though, obviously, took a very different path than the one he walked at that age), I believe strongly in the creative potential of my community, and I’m unafraid to engage in self-critical analysis about the world around me. Ervine encouraged people like me to do all of this and to remain in the corner of the most vulnerable people in our society, to do all that we can to highlight their plight and, above all, to support them as they seek to productive members of their communities.
Meeting people like David Ervine has been one of the greatest privileges in life. The void left behind by his passing a decade ago is still keenly felt today, especially at a time when working people need champions now more than ever.