The end of political loyalism?

Tom Griffin
7 June 2010

When former Red Hand Commando Bobby Moffatt was shot dead in Belfast last month, senior loyalists suggested that the killing was the work of rogue elements. Stormont Assembly member Dawn Purvis appeared to give the lie to that story on Thursday, when she resigned as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The political fallout from the killing raises a number of questions about the future of loyalism. The most significant concerns the status of the UVF ceasefire.

The commission appointed by the British and Irish governments to monitor the paramilitary ceasefires issued its most recent report only days before the Moffett killing. It admitted that the UVF had retained some weapons after decommissioning, but concluded:

Nothing has happened during the period under review to cause us to reconsider our previous assessment of the direction in which the UVF leadership is seeking to take the organisation or its commitment to the strategy it enunciated three years ago. The leadership is cohesive. In the period under review it continued its work to guide the organisation away from paramilitary activity and to reduce the incidence of criminality amongst members, and it made worthwhile progress to that end.

With police now investigating the possibility that the UVF leadership sanctioned the Moffet killing, that verdict will have to be reassessed.

Dawn Purvis met with the UVF leadership shortly before she resigned as head of the PUP last week. Whether that party will now survive is a second major issue arising out of recent events.

Purvis had succeeded against the odds in retaining the support built up by her charismatic predecessor, the late David Ervine, and articulating a uniquely left-wing unionist voice. Without her East Belfast assembly seat, the party's electoral base amounts to no more than a handful of councillors.

The PUP's acting leader, Dr John Kyle, has admitted that other members may follow Purvis out of the party. It could be facing a fate similar to that of the defunct Ulster Democratic Party, which was fatally hamstrung by the antics of the Ulster Defence Association.

A third key question is where Purvis and her supporters end up. One possibility is simply a reconstituted PUP without the UVF link. 

However it has been noted that much of the PUP vote in East Belfast went to Alliance's Naomi Long at the general election, contributing to the defeat of First Minister Peter Robinson. This has prompted speculation about to a formal link between Purvis and the Alliance. 

Commentator Ken Reid has dismissed that prospect, suggesting that the Ulster Unionists are a more likely home for Purvis, as they were briefly allied to David Ervine in the assembly. That link-up caused controversy at the time, not least because some saw it as confirming a historic relationship between the Ulster Unionists and the UVF.

With Purvis out of the PUP, the main sticking point might be the implications for the Ulster Unionists' political positioning.

There is a labour unionist wing in the UUP, but it has not been in the ascendancy in recent years. Recruiting Purvis would be an ironic move for a party which recently sacrificed its only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, for the sake of an alliance with the Conservatives.

That it is a possibility reinforces the image of the Ulster Unionists as a party with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to strategic options, and an inability to choose between them.

In the wake of the Westminster election, there has been renewed talk of a realignment within unionism. The PUP's trajectory has perhaps two lessons for that debate. 

One is that there is a working-class constituency which is not being represented by the mainstream unionist parties, and which they risk losing to centrist politicians like Naomi Long. The other is that this does not equate to a constituency for paramilitary loyalism.

That is a heartening conclusion in many ways, but it may have uncomfortable implications for an official strategy of engaging loyalist paramilitary leaderships. While there are many on all sides who would not mourn the end of that approach, it is not at all clear what would replace it.


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