A Loss In Northern Ireland - An Appreciation
It was to my great regret that I heard last evening that Northern Ireland's David Ervine had suddenly passed away from a heart attack. No, that's an understatement: I'm in shocked disbelief. I'm terribly saddened.
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Ervine a few years ago, and I honestly thought that he was an exceptional beacon of hope – the people there have suffered a great loss with his passing.
For those unfamiliar with his history, Mr. Ervine would be the loyalist version of Gerry Adams. He didn't achieve the international fame (and infamy) of Mr. Adams, but that was due more to an American failure to understand their political situation, and a preference to root for the Irish, rather than anything else.
Mr. Ervine began as a street punk fighting in block wars. He was young, uneducated, and unskilled, but he was also bright, ambitious, and angry at a time of civil war. He rose quickly in the Loyalist Paramilitaries – until he was running one of them. He was sent to prison for his role in a bombing, but in the ways of the paramilitaries, that only increases stature and authority. While serving his time, he educated himself, and he started really considering the costs of the bloodshed that he and the others caused – and he started thinking if there was another way.
Out of prison, Mr. Ervine eventually renouned violence to seek a political solution. He began his own political party and – out of a small storefront office in East Belfast – rose to a different kind of power – ultimately being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Mr. Ervine's party is much smaller than the Sinn Fein or the loyalist DUP, but that he had any support at all was fairly remarkable: his constituency and party was made up of poor and working class. The other most influential guys on his block were the paramilitaries who didn't renounce violence. And it fell to Mr. Ervine to navigate between the paramilitary and political communities. Everyone I met who knew him spoke with real admiration for him. While other paramilitaries's claims at transformation are constantly doubted, I never met anyone who doubted him. Because of that, his influence exceeded the size of his constituency.
But the reason I liked him the most of any politician I met, was because he wasn't afraid to criticize his own people's failings. When I asked about some of the racism and bonfires I'd seen, rather than defend them as tradition (what most of the Loyalists did), he shot back, "If that's our tradition, God help us."
For himself, and for his people, he never let the past get in the way. And for Northern Ireland, a place where the past is the real obstacle for the future, that made him extraordinary.
While I'm not sure anyone in West Belfast would say it outloud, I expect that even Gerry himself is feeling the loss, praying that there will be someone else like him to take his place within the Loyalist community.
David, though I know that you wouldn't have been one to enjoy Gaelic, all I can think to say is Dia dhuit – God be with you.