Since Billy Hutchinson became the leader of the PUP in October 2011 there has been an awful lot of baloney talked about the PUP ‘not being the party it used to be’. As a long-standing historian of the party, having personally spilt an awful lot of ink on detailing the PUP’s trials and tribulations over the years, I feel this is a knowledge deficit that requires urgent redress, lest we should misunderstand the kind of political party the PUP actually is.
Political parties are reflective of their membership. They have to be, otherwise what would be the point in organising collectively along political lines? They are also reflective of the context in which they operate.
Consequently, many parties have to undergo ‘trade-offs’, especially those that operate in deeply divided societies like Northern Ireland, where the principal political fault-lines are over ethnic identity and the ‘national question’. These trade-offs sometimes come in the form of dropping baggage to modernise the party, as New Labour did in relation to Clause IV, which emphasised its commitment to socialism, or in re-orientating an entire political machine to account for new realities, as the DUP and Sinn Fein have done in relation to power-sharing.
Trade-offs are a necessary and unavoidable part of the political process.
In light of the latter point, the proposition I would like to investigate here is: has the PUP been engaging in ‘trade-offs’ in light of its recent membership bump amidst the flag protests?
First, however, it is necessary to dispel the myth that the PUP is not reflective of either its membership or the communities from where it draws its electoral support. Those in the chattering classes who presume to know the Protestant working class community seem to view the PUP largely through the lens of its one-time leader David Ervine, a former member of the UVF. However, even David understood that he had to put ‘party before individual’ and, ultimately, ‘country before party’, as he used to say. It is nonetheless true that in his tenure as PUP leader between 2002 and 2007 he did gain wide praise; however, that the party amounted to ‘more than David Ervine’ has been borne out by its continuing existence in the wake of his untimely death in 2007.
Indeed, it may shock some people to learn that the PUP has always contained former members of the UVF and Red Hand Commando in its ranks, as well as those who are more unionist or loyalist than liberal or, indeed, socialist. It is worth repeating this truism as it is something that is frequently used as a stick with which to beat the party.
For what it is worth, the PUP have never denied being founded by members and former members of the UVF/RHC. Yet, it has equally stressed the involvement of independent unionists and former members of the NILP, who also played an influential role in giving it its mature political complexion. Former UVF volunteers included David Ervine, Eddie Kinner, Billy Hutchinson and Gusty Spence as well as other, lesser known figures, like Billy Greer, who was a councillor for many years in Newtownabbey. Independent unionists included Hugh Smyth, the long-time party leader and Lord Mayor of Belfast at the time of the ceasefires. Former members of the NILP included David Overend and Jim McDonald. And there were a lot more who were labour-orientated, like Bobby Gourley, whose death last year robbed working class people everywhere of one of their greatest champions. Others include Londonderry PUP spokesman Nigel Gardiner, who, like Bobby, was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and had no paramilitary background. The PUP is a ‘broad church’ in political terms.
To be sure, we do the PUP a disservice by claiming it is something alien to the community of which its members are part.
It is certainly true that the PUP has had its ranks bolstered in recent months by those frustrated by what they see as an assault on their unionist identity.
Interestingly, in terms of membership numbers, its size is now on a par with what it had been 15 years ago at the time of the signing of the Belfast Agreement. The crucial difference is that now its membership has not been artificially inflated by UVF members, but is instead populated by ordinary people, many of whom have no paramilitary baggage. Some are professionals, others are unemployed labourers; there are even ex-servicemen in its ranks – most have joined the party because they feel it has risen to the challenge of leading the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community.
That the PUP reflects the community from which it comes is further corroborated by a survey I completed of the party’s membership at its annual conference on 13 October 2007. When I asked its membership to tell me what the party stood for, 42% of respondents said “socialism”, 26% said “working-class”, 16% said “loyalist” and the remaining 16% said “Unionist”. When I asked them who the PUP represented, 71% of all respondents said either “working class”, or a mix of “working class loyalists” and/or “working class unionists”. A minority were divided between either “the people”, “everyone”, or the “UVF/RHC”.
There is no current evidence to suggest that the party is not now reflective of these sentiments.
As one member of the party’s Progressive Youth has recently put it, ‘The party welcomes people of all classes… But we believe that making it a priority to improve the conditions of working class people will benefit everyone in society… To me that grassroots activism is what truly sets the PUP apart’. Another informed me that the PUP ‘gives me the chance to get politicised. It represents the ‘average Joe’ like myself. The party as a whole represents the working class PUL community’.
The main difference between the PUP of 1998 and the one we see now is that it boasts a broader geographical mix of branches – in places like Portadown, Lurgan, Craigavon and Enniskillen – though, admittedly, there has been a vibrant branch in Londonderry for several years.
In terms of ideology, it is fair to say that the PUP has rowed back from its democratic socialism in recent years. However, there are a variety of reasons for this current malaise.
Party members will tell you that principal amongst these is the perverse logic of the ‘peace process’.
Attempts by Sinn Fein to convince the Protestant working class that it has its best interests at heart is about as effective as its Orwellian propaganda campaign to convince us that the Provisional IRA never had any criminals, smugglers or barstool republicans in its ranks.
Given that the Protestant working class bore the brunt of the Provo’s long campaign, is it not appropriate that they should treat such overtures as empty political rhetoric and look to the PUP for redress? After all, if one accepts that the PUP reflects its support-base, a social group who are unlikely to lose their firm conviction that violence in service of a utopian dream of Irish unity was morally wrong and, ultimately, strategically futile, then is it not appropriate for the party to take the lead in opposing the new politics of Provisionalism?
Lest anyone should misunderstand my own personal position on this, we must not forget the other truism that the Protestant working class has also been ‘under siege’ from malign social forces in its midst too. Loyalist paramilitaries played a huge role in killing members of their own communities too, albeit on a much smaller scale. They cannot escape the fact that they must also take responsibility for pursuing a campaign of terrorism throughout the ‘troubles’. Throat-cutting, drug-pushing and detonating no-warning car bombs no more safeguarded the union than it advanced Irish unity.
While Sinn Fein may well have helped deliver the end of the Provisional IRA’s ‘long war’, it merely transformed the ‘armed struggle’ into a purely political, social and electorally polished movement. Arguably, despite its attempts to ‘reach out’ to unionists and loyalists it has done little to lessen the angst, frustration and suspicion pervading Protestant working class communities.
The existential fear among the Protestant working class has been channelled in a number of ways, including in the form of somewhat self-destructive street protests, but it has also been captured in the discourse of Billy Hutchinson and the PUP.
Billy’s populist slogans of ‘unarmed resistance’ and ‘de-Britification’ have served as rhetorical devices by which to channel the kinetic (and somewhat destructive) energy that has driven forward the ‘flags protests’. It has also acted as a mantra by which to bring the volatile membership of the UVF/RHC along with Billy’s politicisation agenda. As the Protestant working class feel more and more out of sorts with the ‘peace process’, these mantras will take on a new urgency.
Those familiar with the idea of populism will know that the aim is to express solidarity with working class and underprivileged concerns and direct them creatively towards the political class. In Northern Ireland, a divided society with a consociational political structure, this would normally be done for the benefits of securing elbow room within the ethnic bloc. However, Billy’s populism is interesting in that it is attacking opponents across the ethno-political divide.
As we know, in the past, this kind of populism was reflected in the speeches and rallying calls of mainstream Unionist parties. Indeed, voters seemed to be satisfied enough to place a mark on their ballot paper on that basis.
Today, though, all bets are off.
Ordinary people remain unimpressed by the lack of leadership being shown by these traditional unionist parties and have sought to channel their grievances through grass-roots, oppositional alternatives.
In this regard, we appear to be witnessing our very own ‘loyalist spring’.
The mainstream Unionist parties, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party, should be concerned at the challenge being levelled by the PUP, which is hoovering up people who would normally have flocked to its centrist position.
While the channelling of such angst by the PUP may be understandable, it does not explain why the PUP’s mantra of earlier days – reassuring us that the party was ‘democratic socialist, pluralist and anti-sectarian’ has fallen by the wayside.
Arguably, the hollowing out of democratic socialism started under the leadership of Dawn Purvis. The party’s electoral manifesto in 2007 contained not one reference to socialism, but traded off on its unionism, a term it mentioned some 20 times.
Perhaps this is an opportune time for the new influx of PUP members to revisit the party’s Constitution. Here they will find evidence of its democratic socialist roots in the form of Clause IV, mimicking the old Labour Party Constitution, which gives the PUP its distinctive identity. As David Ervine once told researcher Stephen Bloomer, ‘The PUP remains avowedly socialist – there are no other socialist parties in Northern Ireland, certainly not the SDLP or SF, the PUP retains Clause 4 from the old Labour Party’.
In 2001, the late party strategist Billy Mitchell explained to me how ‘We maybe didn’t articulate it in terms of socialism, as in Marxism. I’m not sure any of us ever read Marx or the academic books on socialism – it was coming from inside.’ For those of us who knew him well, Billy used to say that he modelled his socialism ‘on the Christian socialists, the likes of [J] Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, R.H. Tawney, just ordinary old-fashioned Labour politics… or… [on]the NILP’.
Thus, the PUP’s brand of democratic socialism, in Billy’s words, encapsulated ‘a socialism, or a working-classism, that gives respect to the working class, that helps the working classes to empower themselves – to take ownership of their lives and their own communities’.
I do not doubt that the PUP is, at root, a unionist party. However, it has always walked a civic unionist path. In this respect it has left the door open for unionists, socialists, agnostics, atheists and liberals, whatever their religious or class background.
Therefore, it is an opportune time for the party under its energetic leader to reinforce the PUP’s civic unionist political complexion in a way that values diversity and cherishes the long-term belief of its ‘founding fathers’ that democratic socialism can deliver a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
For analysts of Ulster loyalism, it is about time that we had honest and open debate about what kind of party the PUP actually is, how it reflects the hopes and fears of its Protestant working class support-base and why it provides an alternative political vehicle for a community eager to ‘pull itself up by the bootstraps’, to paraphrase the late David Ervine.
It is time that the hand-wringing stopped and we started to see that the PUP, ultimately, is still the party it used to be.