Blood brothers. John Lloyd on fear and loathing among the loyalist gangs of Belfast

David Ervine: uncharted waters

Henry Sinnerton <em>Brandon Books, 255pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0863223

Terrorism seldom achieves its goal in modern democratic societies. As Michael Ignatieff reminded us in his fine series of Gifford Lectures, given in Edinburgh last year, none of the modern movements in Europe - the neo-Marxist murder and kidnap squads in Germany and Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, the Basque terrorists and the IRA - has accomplished what it wants, whether disintegration of the capitalist state or the creation of a new state.

What terror groups do well is to exert a grip on their own communities, one that demands loyalty to their self-proclaimed mission to speak for that community. This loyalty is bought in part by playing on, and magnifying the oppression felt by, that same community, but more by using the instruments of terror on that community itself.

This is what Northern Ireland has now come to: a state of affairs in which substantial sections of the working-class areas, almost wholly "pure" Catholic-nationalist/republican or Protestant-unionist/loyalist, live in communities where the fear of one or other version of terrorist republicanism, or terrorist loyalism, rules. These are now networks of organised crime, especially on the loyalist side, where drug-dealing is a major source of income and wealth.

To describe this in the abstract cannot convey the fear, the stuntedness of life, the glamour of the terrorist-crime bosses for the young men on the housing estates, the struggle, especially for women, of trying to keep families decent and optimistic, and the arbitrariness of punishment and of injury or death. The details are needed to give flesh to what is happening in a British province, and these are given by the skilled and (in Ulster) famous crime reporter Hugh Jordan. His book is a luridly presented but carefully and vividly documented account, from the 1950s to the present, of the murderous incidents in all their cruelty, squalor and panic. In one of the most horrific, in 1982, an IRA punishment squad shot the legs off a helpless drunk because one of the organisation's political officers had seen him steal a bottle of whisky.

In 1993, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, a loyalist killer, shot dead - after prolonged torture - a 26-year-old man with a mental age of 11. He was, according to Jordan, wrongly suspected of having betrayed two loyalist paramilitaries to the police. Adair was jailed the following year, released and is now in jail again, yet is still credited with exercising the tightest control on the lower Shankill Road, a loyalist redoubt. In recent weeks, reports have quoted his supporters as claiming that he ordered the killing of another loyalist hit man, John Gregg, a failed assassin of the Sinn Fein leader and former IRA commander Gerry Adams.

The shooting of Gregg demonstrates that Jordan's book will soon have enough material for a sequel; it also casts doubt on how far loyalism has produced a sufficiently active and powerful antidote, in the shape of a political leadership, to the tyranny of the gunmen and drug dealers who infest their communities. There have been real efforts, in tough circumstances: Henry Sinnerton's biography of David Ervine tells the story of the most prominent of these. Ervine, who joined the Ulster Volunteer Force in his late teens, more than 30 years ago, was arrested in 1974 for carrying explosives and sentenced to 11 years in Long Kesh jail. There he came into contact with Gusty Spence, himself a former UVF volunteer who had banged his head against enough walls to knock sense into it, and who had come to see education, self-development and argument as a better friend to loyalists than matching brutality for brutality. The story of the Spence "university" in Long Kesh, accompanied as it was by an accent on cleanliness, physical exercise and engagement of all other prisoners available (including the Official IRA volunteers, more amenable to debate than the Provisionals) is a fascinating one, and deserves better than the sketch Sinnerton gives it. Yet even that is enough to show how impressive the sessions were, albeit attended, in the case of both Spence and Ervine, with an overdependence on orotund rhetoric, a love of impressive speech used as an instrument of power.

Ervine, together with Billy Hutchinson - another graduate of the Spence university - founded the Progressive Unionist Party. It is seen, and rightly, as the political wing of the UVF; but it is clear from the narrative that it was founded independently, and that the UVF command then decided it required "political analysis" from those it could trust. Ervine had to argue and win strongly sceptical support for the line that he and Hutchinson had worked through under Spence's guidance: that, as Spence put it in a speech he gave in Long Kesh in 1977, "polarisation [is] complete, with one section of the community cut off from the other except for some middle-class contacts, which appear to be more concerned about their class than the community . . . Dialogue will have to come about some time, so why not now?"

Long Kesh gave protection to these sentiments, which were strongly influenced by socialism and by a critique of the Ulster Unionist Party as being socially reactionary, as well as often cynical in keeping the Protestant working class within their sectarian mentality. Out on the Shankill, such ideas could be seen as almost treacherous: a weakening in the face of an enemy that had, for decades, had no compunction about blowing up as many Protestants as it took to persuade them that their future was safe in a United Ireland.

But Ervine and others were able to bring the UVF to a number of ceasefires; to use the party as a base both for arguing for acceptance of the Belfast Agreement and for a vote which, though never large, was enough to put its leaders in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ervine, with his big moustache, pipe and measured, articulate responses, became a leading spokesman. Greatly favoured by the first new Labour Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam, and by the US senator-cum-mediator George Mitchell, he was seen by some on his side as too slick and by others as moving ahead of the loyalist-unionist community. A large part, perhaps now a majority, of that community is deeply distrustful of an agreement seen as delivering a great deal of legitimacy to the political representatives of an IRA that retains its arsenal and whose proclaimed aim is United Ireland.

The PUP and the other loyalist political groupings have not made the breakthrough they had hoped for. Many adolescents and young men in the loyalist communities continue to give pride of place in their affections to the hard men, such as Johnny Adair, or Billy "King Rat" Wright, the violent subject of a biography by Chris Anderson. The book tells us little about the motivations and context of the man; it concentrates instead on a detailed exploration of the (many) discrepancies in the account of how he was murdered, and on suggesting that Wright, an adamantine hater of the kind of explorations of intercommunal links which Ervine favoured, as well as of the Belfast Agreement, was assassinated by republican killers assisted by the state.

Protestant-unionist/loyalist politics are in a hard place. The Belfast Agreement has stopped most of the killing other than the terror practised within them. It has done so by conceding a very large role to Sinn Fein, the best-organised political force north of the border (and beginning to challenge seriously in the Republic of Ireland, too). Another British government begins to wonder what it gains from the province, to compensate for the evident pain. The courage of those who have renounced violence, and challenged hatred, should have a reward more substantial than Nobel prizes, media attention or the praise of the great and the good. But it is not yet visible, and there are many more acts of boldness and endurance to be demanded before it will be.