WHEN Jim Allister pledged on being elected an MLA in May of last year that he would be “a thorn in the flesh” of the DUP and Sinn Fein, few doubted his commitment.
Mr Allister’s relations with his former party, the DUP, have been particularly acrimonious since he left in protest at the decision to enter government with Sinn Fein and founded Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in 2007.
So, speaking to the News Letter ahead of his party’s annual conference tomorrow in Cookstown, it is a slight surprise when the former MEP refers to the DUP and says “they readily did the right thing” on some recent issues and says that his former party has over the last year started seeking to find common ground with him.
But lest it appear that the TUV leader is going soft, the satisfaction is audible in the lawyer’s voice as he dissects what he sees as the failures of Peter Robinson’s party and what he says is the unfitness for government of Martin McGuinness.
He says that despite his low expectations of Stormont he enjoys being an MLA and his abilities at scrutinising the government have even been recognised by nationalist opponents such as commentator Brian Feeney.
Mr Allister’s enjoyment of his Opposition role is alluded to by an Ian Knox cartoon framed on his office wall in which Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness look up from their desk in horror exclaiming ‘Oh no – it’s the AUDITOR!’ as Mr Allister marches in, briefcase in hand, to inspect their department.
As Mr Robinson has steered the DUP towards the centre ground over the last year, his party appears to have become more reticent about allowing its members to speak out on moral issues such as opposition to homosexuality or abortion where it once campaigned vigorously.
Mr Allister says that the DUP is “trying to be all things to all men”, something he claims is leading to it “losing touch with some of its base”.
“They do what they do. As far as I’m concerned, we seek to do what’s right and if that fills a vacuum that they’re leaving then so be it.”
However, he says that the relationship between himself and the DUP has essentially evolved as “the more we’ve done in Stormont, the more they’ve come to realise that we’re not going away and they’re going to have to live with that reality”.
How are personal relations between Mr Allister and the DUP at Stormont?
“I suppose it varies. Particularly at council level, I would constantly meet people who are DUP councillors – I met one yesterday – who will say to me: ‘You’re doing a good job, keep it up... our boys need you to keep them on their toes’.
“That’s something that’s been freely expressed to me to my face, though obviously they wouldn’t say it in front of their party hierarchy.
“To me, personal relationships aren’t the issue. I can deal with most people on a personal level and seek to do that.”
On many issues in Stormont, Mr Allister votes with the DUP (and the other unionists, for that matter) where they have common ground.
“Of course, and the voting record would demonstrate that. I’d have to also say, in fairness to them, that they have been prepared to find common ground with me in terms of the special advisers bill [introduced by Mr Allister and supported by the DUP], in terms of this week in amending their motion on the boxing to introduce the critical issue of local governance for boxing.
“I acknowledge that they readily did the right thing on those issues and that’s how it should be. I don’t think any party has a monopoly on good ideas.”
When the TUV was formed almost five years ago, there was enormous rancour between it and the DUP and it would have been unimaginable for Mr Allister at that point to have said anything favourable about his former party.
When asked if his comments are evidence of maturity on both sides, the QC says: “I don’t think I’m on the Christmas card list for a lot of them and I think there’s a lot of resentment maybe from the fact that I’m the abandoned conscience of some of them.
“But I think as we’ve been here longer and they’ve seen that I’ve a serious contribution to make – as I say, I’m not going away – issues are going to be raised and dealt with and if they to an extent are coming to terms with that, so be it.”
He says that he enjoys “relatively good relations” with most UUP MLAs but says that Mike Nesbitt’s party “doesn’t really know where it’s going or what it stands for, which is causing a continuing haemorrhaging of its support”.
He adds: “If the UUP, or indeed the SDLP, are ever to reassert themselves it seems to me that the basic political conclusion is that they have to significantly distinguish themselves from the two respective larger parties... it seems to me that the route of Opposition is the obvious way to go because then there is very clear water between them and people can see the reality that it is a Sinn Fein-DUP coalition.”
When asked whether he expects defections to TUV in the Assembly, Mr Allister essentially says no. However, Mr Allister, who has appeared to have inside knowledge of the DUP at various points in recent months, intriguingly appears to hint at working relationships with other MLAs who will not necessarily join the party.
“I am aware that there are a considerable number of people who find this quite an unhealthy arrangement and I’m happy to work with those people. They don’t have to be members of TUV for that to happen but I’ve talked to many such people about all sorts of issues.”
The former MEP says that he is enjoying being an MLA “more than I thought I would” and adds: “Having the opportunity to articulate a viewpoint which was absent and which required to be articulated is quite satisfying and to be able to do it in an environment which is inherently hostile to that viewpoint, yet to succeed in getting that point across, is in itself satisfying. But I suppose in a fairly simplistic way, I was given a job to do and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
He says that the TUV is “not a huge organisation and we don’t purport to be” but says that there has been a “small but steady” growth in party membership with several former UUP members joining recently in his own North Antrim constituency.
“They’re looking for a party that’s clear on where it stands, that doesn’t blow with the wind and where you know what you’re getting,” he says of the new recruits and adds: “The momentum that we’ve sustained at Stormont has flowed through to momentum within the party. For a party that did poorly in the last elections, I’m pleasantly surprised by the fervour and the modest growth that we’re seeing.”
Mr Allister is non-committal about fighting the next European election, a decision which could have significant implications for the UUP – whose seat could be under threat if the party’s vote continues to decline – and for the DUP, who may decide to stand an unprecedented two candidates in the absence of a TUV candidate.
“Europe’s obviously a Province-wide election, it’s a very big challenge; a big monetary challenge. Watch that spot but we’re not making any commitments either way at this moment in time.”
He says that the party will definitely contest the elections to the new ‘super councils’ which will be held on the same day as the Europe-wide vote.
Mr Allister says that he has not been approached, even informally, about Peter Robinson’s ‘Council of the Union’ proposal to bring together all unionist parties under a banner where they could work together for the maintenance of the Union.
He says that parties other than the DUP will need to know more about the proposal before they will want to get involved but says that he would have “no problem” with it if there was a clear purpose for such a body – such as a simple pro-Union position which can encompass all those who wish to stay within the UK.