Northern Ireland

Dawn Purvis: UVF 'hasn't gone anywhere'

'Prepared For Peace, Ready For War' mural at the entrance to Mount Vernon Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Dawn Purvis says there are members of the UVF who do not want the paramilitary group 'to leave the stage'

A former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) has said the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force "hasn't gone anywhere", despite decommissioning its weapons in 2009.

Dawn Purvis said she had "taken people at their word" when the group announced it wanted to "leave the stage" in 2007.

However, when UVF members were implicated in a murder in 2010, she said she felt "cheated".

The PUP has long been acknowledged as the political wing of the UVF.

The UVF is a loyalist paramilitary group that was responsible for hundreds of murders during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In some cases, its members continue to be heavily involved in violence and crime.

Last month, the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) said the UVF was "flooding the streets of Belfast" with drugs.

Expulsion promise?

The PUP played a prominent role in supporting the peace process of 1998.

In 2018, loyalist paramilitary organisations said they fully support the rule of law and suggested any members involved in crime would be expelled.

The joint statement was issued by the UVF, Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commando.

Image caption Church leaders sat alongside prominent loyalists during a joint paramilitary statement issued in 2018

It was the first time such a move had been made since the loyalist ceasefire in October 1994.

'They didn't trust me'

Dawn Purvis was the first woman to lead the PUP.

She held the post from 2007, following the death of her predecessor David Ervine, until 2010.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Dawn Purvis led the PUP from 2007 to 2010

Speaking to the BBC's Talkback programme, she said was "gobsmacked" to learn that Mr Ervine had nominated her to replace him before he died.

"I thought it was incredible, and I saw it as a huge honour that out of everyone in the party and every colleague and every member, that he thought I was capable and up for the job."

"My relationship with the UVF was different to the relationship that David had with the UVF and that was clear from the start," she explained.

"David came from within, he was one of them."


Who is Dawn Purvis?

  • 1966: Born in the loyalist Donegall Pass area of south Belfast
  • 1994: Joined the Progressive Unionist Party
  • 1997-98: Talks co-ordinator for the PUP during the multi-party talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement
  • 2007-2011: MLA for East Belfast
  • 2007-2010: PUP leader
  • 2012-2015: Director of Belfast Marie Stopes Clinic

"He had been a member of the UVF, he had served time as a UVF prisoner, and I was regarded as a woman with no paramilitary history or record - no prison record.

"Therefore, what would I know?

"They didn't trust me, but I made it clear that the relationship I wanted, and the relationship I was there for, was to see through David Ervine's project.

"And that was to bring paramilitarism to an end, and to see the decommissioning of weapons and the disbandment of the UVF."

Image copyright © Albert Bridge/CC Geograph
Image caption A memorial was erected in east Belfast after David Ervine's death

In 2007, the organisation declared that it was renouncing violence.

Ms Purvis added: "I truly believed in 2007, when David died and the UVF issued their endgame statement that we were heading in that direction.

"With decommissioning in 2009, I thought: 'Great. The next step is for the UVF to go away and leave the stage.'"

However, she said that all changed in 2010.

'Killed off the PUP'

The day after a friend's wedding in Donegal, Dawn Purvis received a call from a journalist, telling her that Bobby Moffett, a loyalist, had been murdered on the Shankill Road in Belfast.

"I realised then that there were people who didn't want to go away," she told the BBC.

"They never wanted to leave the stage.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The police say the UVF still remains active in criminal activity

"In the context of their end-game statement, in the context of them having decommissioned weapons the previous year, I thought: 'This is not the way to go. This is not the right way forward. They have just killed off the PUP.'

"I felt, having taken people at their word in 2007, that we were working towards this, we were going to achieve this - David Ervine's project - but now it was not going to be deliverable.

"Certainly not with me at the head of the PUP," she said.

Image caption Dawn Purvis joins William Crawley in studio for a BBC Radio Ulster Talkback special

She resigned from the PUP leadership and left the party, remaining as an independent MLA until losing her seat in the 2011 election.

It may have marked the end of Ms Purvis' career in politics, but she continued to maintain a high public profile.

From 2012 to 2015, she led the work of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast during a time of intense public controversy around abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

Ms Purvis is now the chief executive for a housing charity that is based outside Belfast.

You can catch up with Dawn Purvis' interview on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback on the BBC Sounds app.

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