Sam McBride: Opposition won, now Allister has a new target

Jim Allister seems determined to carry on despite the setbacks of this year
Jim Allister seems determined to carry on despite the setbacks of this year

In a year of tumultuous political upheaval, Jim Allister’s speech to the TUV conference at Cookstown was evidence that some things barely fluctuate.

While the anecdotes have changed down through the years, Mr Allister’s message is remarkably similar from that first delivered as TUV leader nine years ago.

Yet Saturday’s conference was far more restrained – and considerably smaller – than in previous years, visual evidence of a bruising year for the party.

The scale of the party’s failure to break through in May’s election was such that some rival unionists were speculating that Mr Allister might call it a day, something which would surely end the TUV as a serious political force.

He now seems determined to carry on and the party faces two and a half years before its next electoral opportunity.

With the DUP and Sinn Fein moving closer together than ever before, there is the hope – although it could be yet another forlorn hope – for the TUV that it benefits from unionist unease at the inevitable compromises required in such a coalition.

Mr Allister’s strengths and weaknesses are well known. At this point there is probably little that he can radically change, while solving one major problem – the lack of sufficient candidates with anything like his ability – is now more difficult, given the party’s poor electoral performance.

But Mr Allister has proved that even if his party largely fails electorally he can wield enormous influence.

On Saturday, he reminded the party that when he arrived at Stormont in 2011, “no one was talking about opposition, except TUV”, yet in that period that issue had become mainstream to the point where there now is the first Official Opposition since 1972.

Now he has his sights set on pressing the UUP and SDLP to argue for “the next and inevitable and logical step” of ending Stormont’s mandatory coalition (though not its cross-community rule), something which would then mean that voters could choose between the current administration and an alternative.

Persuading the SDLP of that would seem exceptionally difficulty. But, as Mr Allister said, just five years ago few thought there was any chance of an official opposition.