Jim Allister, who founded and leads the TUV, has said that the party needs to be seen as consisting of more than just himself.
In a broad hint that he may not stand in next year’s Westminster election, Mr Allister said that the party — which performed strongly in May’s elections but is often seen as a “one-man band” — needs other prominent candidates if it is to grow.
Mr Allister also warned the DUP and UUP not to “gang up” on the TUV and Ukip, which between them attracted 100,000 unionist votes in May, by forming a DUP-UUP pact to the exclusion of other unionist parties.
The former MEP, who said that if he lived in Great Britain “I am quite sure I would be a Ukip activist”, was speaking ahead of his party conference on Saturday, which will be held in the north Antrim village of Kells, rather than the traditional venue which the party has used in Cookstown.
Mr Allister said that decision should not be seen as an indication that the party was targeting North Antrim in the General Election, nor that he will be the candidate in that constituency.
Rather, he said, the old venue had been outgrown by the party, which he said now has in the region of 500-600 members, reflecting its 75,000 votes in May’s European election.
“We’re moving to somewhere with a bit more space because the party is growing — that is the genuine reason for moving,” he said.
The North Antrim MLA said that the local TUV association would meet in the new year to “progress their position on the Westminster election”.
When asked if he would allow his name to go forward to such a meeting, Mr Allister hinted that he might not. He said: “There are a number of considerations for me. I think in truth I would be making the most impact here [Stormont].
“I think also it is important that the party is more than Jim Allister. I think those are all considerations in that.”
There was a rumour on BBC politics programme The View that Mr Allister might stand in East Belfast. The TUV leader said that “wasn’t something that was in my contemplation”.
Looking ahead to May’s General Election, the QC admitted that it was “difficult” for small parties to break in at a Westminster election but that it would seek to build towards the following year’s Assembly poll.
And, amid ongoing DUP-UUP negotiations about a pact, Mr Allister said that his attitude of Westminster’s first past the post elections is “radically different” to proportional representation (PR) elections.
Although he is dismissive of claims that standing in multi-choice PR elections splits the unionist vote — and points to the increased unionist vote when many unionist candidates stood in May – Mr Allister conceded that such a strategy cannot be applied in marginal Westminster seats.
However, his definition of ‘marginal’ may not mirror that of the DUP.
The TUV leader expressed support for the principle of a pan-unionist pact in seats such as Fermanagh-South Tyrone if it is achieved “on an equitable basis” between the parties.
But he added: “Where’s East Belfast in all of that? I have to say that traditionally East Belfast had not been a marginal. East Belfast has traditionally been a safe unionist seat.
“The fact that the First Minister so spectacularly lost it, I’m not sure it makes it into a marginal.”
He went on to say that there is a “stronger argument” for Upper Bann needing an agreed unionist candidate, than there is for such a stance in East Belfast.
Mr Allister, who has largely focused his fire on the DUP and Sinn Fein, indicated that he now sees potential for attracting UUP supporters frustrated at that party’s continued participation in the dysfunctional Stormont Executive.
“I think it was interesting that in the European Election we were within touching distance of the UUP vote...
“I think the Ulster Unionists handicap themselves by the fact that they allow themselves to be the doormat of this Stormont Executive, instead of taking the principled stand they should take of being outside it and articulating an opposition view.”
Growing momentum for Opposition
There seems to be a growing momentum towards the creation of a Stormont Opposition, with widespread acceptance of the need for a change to the structures now extending to the SDLP.
Mr Allister said “people are talking about it now who weren’t talking about it four years ago”.
“I think that’s one of the successes TUV can claim — we’ve put the Opposition issue and the structures of Stormont,
“I believe, on the front page and we’ve done that by constantly getting the spotlight onto the ludicrous absence of the structures for Opposition and the spotlight on lamentable failures of the government without Opposition.
“I think there are many who still want to play it down and give the minimum, whereas what we need is a proper thorough reform of Stormont to democratise it, to get rid of mandatory coalition and to establish a coalition of the willing and an Opposition of those who are not willing to be part of that coalition to provide that vital role.”
‘I know many don’t love me’
When asked if, given Peter Robinson’s unpopularity, it suited the TUV for him to remain as DUP leader, Jim Allister said that it would be “rather presumptuous of me” to think he had any role in who was DUP leader.
But he added: “It’s not really about personalities – it’s about the foolishness of the policies that puts us at odds with the DUP...
“You’re possibly right that Peter Robinson struggles to be loved by many in the unionist community.”
He added with a laugh: “I’m sure I struggle to be loved by many in the unionist community as well.”