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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 07:42 GMT
Leader loss hits party hard
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Taking part in a political debate last year, David Ervine remarked that if he had been told in 1998 what the future held for the Good Friday Agreement, he would have walked away.

Ervine's willingness to stick with a deeply exhausting, high-pressure and at times tedious process is perhaps a mark of his stamina, his character and his leadership.

Indeed, he succeeded, against the odds, in securing his East Belfast assembly seat, not once but twice.

David Ervine PA/Harrisons
David Ervine was a former combatant with street-cred
The PUP's longevity when other smaller parties, including the loyalist UDP and the Women's Coalition, faded, is largely down to his personal charisma.

A sometimes controversial figure, who could be quite blunt, Ervine was both intelligent and capable.

The downside of having such a formidable personality as leader is that the loss is sometimes too much to bear.

Most commentators agree that the Progressive Unionists have lost their best hope for a political future, and loyalism a strong anchor.

Ervine would sometimes get depressed over the notion that loyalism and unionism had "its boots stuck in the cement".

His greatest desire was to build unionist confidence, to provide a positive message and, in his words, "lift his people to look at the mountains".

His message - that unionism had won the war - often sharply contrasted with the DUP's doom-laden predictions that the union remained in jeopardy. His ability to deliver this message is arguably unmatched in unionism today.

Some argue his confidence in the future encouraged timid traditional unionism to proceed with the Good Friday Agreement.

UVF mural
Bidding farewell to arms is a step the UVF has yet to take
Clearly, as Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble took comfort from Ervine's support when the DUP left the multi-party talks in 1997.

The Irish News columnist Roy Garland is a keen observer of loyalist working class politics.

He believes that the PUP - and David Ervine in particularly - have had a huge impact in encouraging fellow unionists, including Ian Paisley, towards agreement with nationalism.

As a former UVF combatant himself, and an ex-prisoner, Ervine had the kind of street-cred that gave him influence, if not control over the UVF.

His efforts and willingness to take a chance on peace in 1994 impressed not just then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, but also many republicans and nationalists.

Can anyone fill the gap that David Ervine has left - that is the big question in loyalist politics
Joe O'Donnell
Ervine is also widely credited as a calming influence on loyalists, particularly in 2002 when violence erupted at the Short Strand-Cluan Place interface in his constituency.

Joe O'Donnell, a former Sinn Fein councillor turned community worker, said Ervine played a key role in resolving the dispute. He remains hopeful that peace will prevail in the area, as part of Ervine's legacy.

"Can anyone fill the gap that David Ervine has left? That is the big question in loyalist politics. I don't know. I would hope so. I think it is important that someone does. We'll have to wait and see," he said.

Roy Garland does not underestimate the challenges facing the Progressive Unionist Party.

But he remains optimistic about the party's future, having recently attended a series of meetings involving loyalists.

Uphill struggle

"Their capacity was very impressive, (there are) some leading loyalists that are not on the public stage at the moment. Whether they have got the ability to become politicians is maybe slightly different. But some obviously have," he said.

Even with David Ervine, the PUP was facing an uphill struggle in forthcoming assembly elections.

His East Belfast mandate was seen to be in large measure a personality vote and his seat was never taken for granted.

The party's problems, according to Garland, are compounded by the fact that Ervine's passing follows the deaths some months ago of two key behind-the-scenes figures, William McCaughey and Billy Mitchell, both former prisoners who turned to politics and supported the peace process.

The PUP has a unique brand of unionism that marks it out but also poses challenges.

Unionism generally has tended to be more conservative and when the PUP emerged to fight elections on a more left-wing shared future ticket, its "socialist" label was used to batter it.

Then there's the problem of paramilitary baggage.

Leadership contenders

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey was widely condemned within unionism for signing up UVF-aligned David Ervine to his assembly team. Much of the condemnation came from other unionists.

Whether this was fair or not, Garland is not alone is believing that the PUP's future prospects depend on shaking off the paramilitary past and firmly embracing law and order.

One way of doing this is tackling the issue of UVF weapons - a formidable challenge.

The party's soft-spoken chairperson, Dawn Purvis, a working class woman who sits on the Policing Board and boasts an university education, has been tipped as a possible future leader.

Speculation about her intentions is premature, but some believe she may have a chance at securing an East Belfast seat.

It is understood David Ervine named two people who might take his assembly seat, should it become vacant. But those names have not been released and there is no guarantee the nominees will want the seat.

If the seat is filled however, Ervine's sucessor has little time to make much impact ahead of a looming assembly election.

Indeed, the PUP has lost its star at the worst possible time.

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