Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Progressive Unionist Party has a new leader. Will it make any difference?

It was announced yesterday that Billy Hutchinson, a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) arrested for a double murder in 1974 and a former member of the Assembly, will be the new leader of the sole remaining loyalist party, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He takes over from Brian Ervine, the brother of David Ervine, who was the leader of the party during its glory days from 1998 to 2003 and who served in the Assembly with Hutchinson. Hutchinson will be the fourth party leader in 18 months. After David Ervine's death Dawn Purvis took over as party leader and managed to retain his East Belfast seat in the Assembly. But then the UVF carried out a murder of a former Red Hand Commando prisoner who had criticized the continued criminality of the organization. Purvis then resigned from the party when its leadership refused to break the link with the UVF. There was a temporary interim leader before Brian Ervine took over. Now Ervine is giving up the position because he cannot afford to give up his job.

After being released from prison in the 1990s, Hutchinson worked as a social worker in loyalist areas and found that he had a talent for dealing with people. He served as David Ervine's assistant both in the Assembly and in running the party. Both men were given a political education in prison by UVF founder Gusty Spence, who was imprisoned for murder of a Catholic barman in 1966 before the Troubles formally began. Spence died recently. Hutchinson and Ervine then served their political apprenticeship on the outside under party founder Hugh Smyth, who served briefly as mayor of Belfast in the early 1990s.

Two loyalist paramilitary parties were founded in the mid-1980s: the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA)-aligned Ulster Democratic Party. In Northern Ireland there are three tiers of representation: the Westminster parliament in London, the Assembly in Belfast, and the local councils throughout the province. Westminster has always been beyond the reach of the loyalists. The Assembly proved to be beyond the reach of the UDP once the "topping-up" feature was removed in 1998. The PUP was able to elect Ervine from East Belfast and Hutchinson from North Belfast in 1998, but in 2003 in the election to the Second Assembly Hutchinson lost his seat. 

There are three countries in the West with paramilitary parties: Israel (up until 1992 when Yitzhak Shamir retired as the leader of the Likud), the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In the Republic most parties can claim some connection to the IRA--either the original IRA of the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, the Official IRA of the 1970s, or the Provisional IRA of the 1970s-2000s. In the Republic, as in Israel, most of these paramilitary parties have been continuity parties--parties that were a continuation of the paramilitary group in a new form after it had ceased its armed operations. But in Northern Ireland the three paramilitary parties (UDF, PUP, Sinn Fein) were political wing parties where they ran candidates for operations while the terrorist operations of the armed wings were still ongoing.

In Northern Ireland nationalists have had no problem voting for former terrorists either because they supported the terrorist campaign or because they wanted to reward the IRA for ending it. But on the unionist/loyalist side things are quite different. Most unionists regarded the loyalist paramilitaries as terrorists and criminals rather than as freedom fighters. Even working class loyalists who supported the loyalist terror campaigns against nationalists usually ended up voting for the DUP rather than for the UDP or the UVF. The UDP lacked a geographically-concentrated base of supporters that would allow it to elect members to the Assembly. The PUP had such a base only in North Belfast and East Belfast. The loyalist parties have fulfilled their historic role in bringing about the loyalist ceasefire in October 1994 and finally bringing about decommissioning in 2009. But they still have a role to play in representing the political and social concerns of working class unionists. To do this they must do two things. First, cut all links with the paramilitaries and the criminal rackets. Second, combine figures from the UDP like Gary McMichael, Tommy Kirkham, and David Adams and those from the PUP in a single party. In 2001, shortly before the UDP disbanded McMichael told me that the animosity between the two paramilitary organizations was too strong to allow for a single party. But a decade has passed since then. Yitzhak Shamir, one of the former leaders of the Lehi terrorist movement, did not get to be prime minister by being elected from the Lehi's party--which lasted for only two years--but by joining the party of the rival Irgun Zvai Leumi paramilitary group.

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