The main political representative of the unionist paramilitary UVF has joined the assembly group of the Ulster Unionist Party in a move described both by nationalists and rival unionists as “breathtaking hypocrisy”.
The tactical ploy by the Ulster Unionists is intended to gain an extra minister under the d’Hondt formula at the expense of Sinn Féin.
Mr Ervine remains leader of the PUP but his move gives the Ulster Unionists 25 assembly members - meaning they would be able to claim three ministries if and when an executive is formed.
Sinn Féin, which has 24 assembly members, would be eligible for just two ministries plus the post of deputy first minister.
Mr Ervine’s positioning in the assembly also means that the Ulster Unionists will be called ahead of Sinn Féin in terms of speaking rights.
He and UUP leader Reg Empey justified the move by pointing out that any executive formed in Belfast would now have a unionist majority, with seven unionists to five nationalists.
Belfast man Gerard McErlean, who lost two brothers to two UVF gunmen on May 23, 1975, said the move showed the UUP’s past position on refusing to deal with republicans unless the IRA decommissioned its weapons to be “one-sided” and devoid of principle.
He questioned whether the UUP was now to be considered the political representatives of the UVF.
“This move is a farce. Are we to use the phrase UUP/UVF when describing their Stormont team?
“The last Stormont executive was collapsed because Ulster Unionists threatened to walk due to the alleged republican spy ring. They said they couldn’t, in principle, deal with active paramilitaries.
“It seems the party never ascribed to that principle and it is clear all they want is power. They’ve shown sickening expediency and double standards.”
Ray McCord Sr, whose son was beaten to death by UVF members and dumped in a quarry on the outskirts of North Belfast in 1997, said the UUP had shown “total hypocrisy” by bringing Mr Ervine into the party’s assembly team.
He pointed out that spurious allegations of an IRA “spy ring” centred on Sinn Féin’s head of administration at Stormont, Denis Donaldson [exposed as a British double agent earlier this year] were used by the UUP to collapse the Assembly in 2002.
“The Ulster Unionists walked out of the assembly three years ago over what the IRA was doing, but the Provos weren’t killing Protestants, the UVF have been,” he said.
“I believe unionist politicians have shown no sympathy or any urgency for bringing people to account for the UVF’s silence.”
“The reason for his inclusion is for power, to get an extra seat and take a seat away from Sinn Féin. That’s not satisfactory.”
Speaking outside the chamber afterwards SDLP leader Mark Durkan, accused the Ulster Unionists of hypocrisy.
Branding the move as “a stroke too far”, he added: “Never again can the UUP use allegations of IRA paramilitary activity as an excuse not to go into government without being asked to answer for the UVF.”