Uncharted Waters: We Are A People: William Ennis

William Ennis is a mature student and an East Belfast based Progressive Unionist Party activist.

Uncharted waters:  We are a people


As Barak Obama claimed victory to become US president many cameras caught one particular figure in the crowd.  Rev Jessie Jackson was stood in an extremely emotional state, the kind where the tears flow in ceaseless streams and dignity is quite happily abandoned.  He had been present when Martin Luther King had been murdered and now he was bearing witness to the first black presidency.  In an interview thereafter he explained that he knew an African American president had always been a possibility, but that black votes alone would not be enough to do it, white Americans would need to be convinced they had nothing to fear from a black president.

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I bought my first copy of uncharted waters in 2004.  At that time I had opinions which I would spray in the direction of anyone who would care to listen, but they were blunt and merely held rather than formed.  I had not been a great fan of Ervine.  Throughout my teens I didn’t care what the question was, Paisley was the answer.  When I first bought the book, having noticed it had been written by an old school teacher of mine, I had no idea the battering it would deliver to my know-it-all stubborn little world.  The affect the book had on me is rivalled only by that of the long walk to freedom (Nelson Mandela), and the principles of Loyalism (Billy Mitchell), and it remains a cherished possession and source of reference to this day.

The Book, by Henry Sinnerton, charts from Ervine’s childhood through his adolescence and into adulthood.  Through his initial resistance to paramilitarism, to when he did indeed join the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).  Through his experience of the Long Kesh prison camp culminating in his post prison devotion to the politics of building peace against all odds.

But this biography told me of more than just its primary subject.  David’s wife Jeanette endured a lonely but brave battle to build a life during her husband’s incarceration with a young child to care for.  Her story in itself would be worthy of print.  In the chapter Parallel sentences the degree to which a prisoner’s sentence was not served by the prisoner alone is explored frankly and in many places Jeanette’s story would bring tears to a stone.  This is something I, as a civilian Loyalist, had not truly appreciated.

The book propels itself on how fresh Ervine’s Unionism really was as it challenged many of Loyalism’s sacred assertions.  In the chapter entitled life in Long Kesh Sinnerton relay’s Ervine’s account of the debates stoked by Gusty Spence.

“‘How dare we think we know everything about everything?  We are the people?  No, we are a people.’

Spence, by affording his men opportunities to consider different perspectives, was encouraging them to question their inherited political beliefs.”

Sinnerton’s unveiling of this Long Kesh process unpacks the political journey of men such as Ervine, Hutchinson and others.  A process which, it becomes clear through the quoted chapter and the following chapter’s the Spence regime, and Spence University, was to be one focused on self discovery.

The penny drops time and time again as one reads of this phase of Ervine’s life because passages become strangely familiar.  Familiar in that Ervine’s determination and open-minded understanding of a given situation was to present itself often in the later party-leader phase of his life as he time and again held the peace-process together despite the temper tantrums and self interested politicking of other parties.  So obvious was the making of the man in Spence University.

The book also makes clear through Ervine’s analysis the challenges faced by progressive unionists with the political battle to be fought essentially on two fronts, against Republicanism’s desire to break the Union, and against the interest of self preservation habitually displayed by the DUP and UUP which Ervine considered to be at odds with what was best for the working class.

“Spence used his input to expose the deficiencies of Ulster Unionism, which had opposed every piece of enlightened legislation, like the National Health Service and family allowances…”

Sinnerton’s book, which I had only bought because I recognised the name of its author, released me from the dull mindset of paislyite reactionary Unionism.  It made me feel a complete and utter fool for having voted against the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) six years earlier.  It exposed me to a Unionism I could relate to. It caused me to return to the book shelves and have a closer look at other political leaders of whom I had been weary, such as Mandela.  It caused me, for the first time, to attach value to education.  It caused me, (in tandem with the long walk to freedom) to go back to school and put right how little I had achieved the first time round.  It caused me to reject ‘but that’s what themuns say’ as a viable argument.  It caused me to start asking questions about education, housing, how well society treats the disabled, poor wages, access to good health-care, building bridges with the Catholic community, building bridges with Northern Ireland’s newly arrived communities.

It caused me to join the PUP.  It caused me to read the principles of Loyalism.

It caused me to be able to agree with an Irish Nationalist without questioning my Unionism.  It caused me to stop buying into the nonsense theory that one must choose between Ulster Loyalism and British Unionism.  It caused me to realise that, as David Ervine once said…

“Republicanism isn’t contagious”

It caused me to join a lobby group within the PUP to campaign for LGBT rights.  It caused me to march against racism, as well as for the preservation of Loyalist traditions.  It causes me to commend Irish nationalists at Stormont for their current committed stance against welfare cuts.

It caused me to think for myself.

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Jackson knew that to have the impact needed to exact the change which was required a black candidate would need to appeal to more than just black voters.

Those who will follow in the political footsteps of Ervine’s generation will arrive at a juncture.  The PUP has a proud and undeniable loyalist strand to our party’s history and culture.  Non-Loyalist voters most probably find this off-putting.  I firmly believe that non-Loyalists have nothing to fear from genuine Loyalism.  However, merely saying so isn’t enough.

We shouldn’t become any less Loyalist; after all, it’s who we are.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept the responsibility of abating the fears of those who are distrustful of our Loyalism.  With the growth of the real politick; this is a challenge we must meet.

As far as challenges go, we’ve overcome worse.

William Ennis


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