INTERVIEW: Dawn Purvis is standing for election in Thursday’s Assembly elections as an independent unionist candidate, having resigned from the leadership of the Progressive Unionist Party. She talks to FIONOLA MEREDITH about why she finally gave up on the PUP.
ON LAMP-POSTS across Northern Ireland, posters of candidates are stacking up ahead of the Assembly elections on May 5th. Amid the endless images of middle-aged men wearing identikit suits and grins, Dawn Purvis’s posters stand out a mile. It’s not just the fact that this independent unionist candidate for East Belfast is a woman – although that’s still unusual enough at Stormont, which remains a predominantly male preserve. No, it’s her expression that catches your eye: poised, smart, interrogative, defiant even – as though she’s thrown down the gauntlet to the people of East Belfast. It remains to be seen if they take up the challenge.
Because Purvis, a divorced, proudly working-class mother of two grown-up sons, is out on her own now. In June 2010, she resigned her membership and leadership of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a small, left-wing political grouping, linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), after members of the UVF shot dead Bobby Moffett, a former loyalist prisoner, in broad daylight on the Shankill Road. Speaking at the time, she said, “I make this decision with a very heavy heart . . . However, I can no longer offer leadership to a political party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others.”
Since leaving the party, Purvis has remained in Stormont as an independent, and hopes to retain the seat on the basis of her own personal reputation for fairness, open-mindedness and hard work.
That political connection with shadowy loyalist paramilitaries has always been the strangest thing about Dawn Purvis. Unlike many Ulster politicians, whose true personalities remain hidden by brash, larger-than-life public personas, Purvis seems like a real person: warm, genial, down-to-earth.
Unusually for a unionist politician, she is unashamedly pro-choice, and has campaigned in the past for the extension of the British 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Yet in the middle of a conversation, she can surprise you by speaking of certain UVF men as decent, honourable people: “Yes, there are still people in the UVF whose judgments and morals I value. People in the mould of David Ervine [the late leader of the PUP and Purvis’s great mentor and friend], who want to see community transformation . . . and the end of the UVF.” It brings you up short, but to Purvis there is no contradiction.
Although some continue to excoriate her for her former links with the UVF, she is not an apologist for violence. The central plank of the PUP’s logic was always that to bring paramilitarism to an end, there had to be political leadership. As Purvis put it when I first met her, years ago: “rather than constantly condemning [the UVF], slapping them down, we want to help them out of the jungle”. Now she has washed her hands of them. They are, she says grimly, “more trouble than they are worth”.
When Bobby Moffett was shot on the Shankill Road, Purvis was at a wedding in Donegal. “My mobile phone was on silent and when I looked at it, I had 28 missed calls. Then a journalist got through to me and told me that Bobby Moffett had been shot dead. There was no denying it was the UVF. I felt sick. I wanted to curl up in a ball. It was so wrong. I had thought the UVF were going in the right direction, and I just couldn’t get my head around it.”
Purvis still hoped that the killing was unsanctioned by the UVF leadership and was the work of renegade paramilitaries. But she didn’t get the answers she wanted, and six days after the murder, she resigned from the PUP.
Months later, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) said it had been a “public execution” sanctioned by UVF leaders. They could have prevented the murder but did not. “Yes, it was confirmed by the IMC, but I didn’t need that,” says Purvis. “While some in the UVF were moving in the right direction, others had no notion of that. As David Ervine used to say, we were doing politics with one hand tied behind our backs. And I just thought, I can’t do this any more. I’m not going to stand up there and try to explain this.”
SOME ACCUSED Purvis of making an opportunistic career move, but she says it was simply “the right thing to do at the right time”. In some ways, leaving the party was like walking away from her family. Purvis had joined the PUP in 1994, after the loyalist and republican ceasefires, and by her own account she was young, shy and deeply unsure of herself. She had been working in the community, running a mothers’ and toddlers’ group, when a friend of hers, a former UVF prisoner, approached her and asked her to join the fledgling PUP, insisting that they needed women like her in the party.
“My first reaction was ‘clear off or Mummy will kill me’,” says Purvis. She was wary, fearing that her mother would disapprove of the party’s connection with the UVF.
“But I liked what David Ervine was saying. The manifesto was written in language I could understand. They were talking about education, women’s rights, equality.” Eventually, she agreed to join the party on three conditions: “One, that they didn’t elect me to any office; two, that my name wouldn’t be on any paper associated with the party; and three, that they let me clean the office and make the tea.”
But soon those conditions went out the window, and Purvis became a deeply committed and increasingly visible party member, involved in the peace-process negotiations around the Good Friday Agreement, and serving as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Although at first awed by coming into contact with the “men with big booming voices” she had only seen on television, her confidence grew alongside her public profile.
“It was a political awakening, and a great time to be involved. I felt so enthused. I knew I was going to be part of change in Northern Ireland, that I was in a party that was going to make a difference.” With the support of her colleagues in the PUP, Purvis returned to education, starting with a community computer course and ending with a first-class honours degree from Queen’s University Belfast.
It’s when she is talking about these early male mentors – David Ervine and Gusty Spence, the former UVF leader – that Purvis is at her most expressive. Her eyes glow when she speaks of them. While loyalist working-class communities are often regarded as deeply masculine, macho territories, Purvis says that, as a woman politician, she has never encountered hostility or suspicion; quite the reverse, in fact.
“Gusty is so wise. I learned so much from him. He was a great teacher, very patient. He told me I had every right to be there . He told me I didn’t need to be in awe of people like Paisley, that I was just as much a part of this country as they were.”
But it’s when she remembers Ervine, the articulate and charismatic former leader of the PUP, who died suddenly in January 2007 aged just 52, that Purvis becomes increasingly emotional, and the tears start to fall.
“When he met me, he called me DP, and that was my label from there on in. He was such a gentleman. David Ervine was bigger than anything I ever knew. He was a key to the peace process in a way that I don’t think people recognise. He loved his wife to bits, and he was a great friend, extremely loyal, would have done anything for you.
“If I got in a flutter and things went wrong, he used to get his pipe out, take a puff, then say to me, ‘get on the balcony, DP – take a step back, get the view from above, see who’s dancing, who’s not’. He had this innate characteristic that if you told him something, you nearly felt it was resolved already.”
With Ervine gone, and personally devastated by the loss, Purvis thought the PUP was finished. But two weeks later, she was chosen as his successor. “For weeks, I kept thinking, ‘what would David do?’ But then I said to myself, ‘David had faith in you, in your principles and values’, and that helped me find my self-belief.” Purvis would remain as leader for more than three years, until she ran out of patience – already sorely tried – with the UVF. It was Jeanette Ervine, David’s wife, that she first went to when she decided to resign. “We hugged and cried for two or three hours, but she understood why I came to the decision I did.”
Dawn Purvis is fiercely, passionately loyal to the working-class community in which she grew up. Frustrated by the poor educational prospects for young people from inner East Belfast – especially Protestant boys – she set up a task force to address educational disadvantage. That’s one of the reasons people like her; she doesn’t hang back when she feels strongly about something. That terrier-like commitment may be enough to bring her back to Stormont in her own right, unfettered by paramilitary ties, and no longer working with one hand tied behind her back.
Leaving Purvis’s tiny office, I have to step around teetering piles of leaflets and posters, volunteers making calls and sending emails, to get to the door. There’s a portrait of David Ervine on the wall, smoking his customary pipe: he gazes out over the organised chaos.
“If I do win, I’m planning a victory party with all those who have supported my campaign, from the woman who sent me a tenner to those who came out with me night after night to knock on doors,” says Dawn Purvis. “And after that, I want to sleep for 12 hours.”