Two years ago Jim Allister scored one of the most stunningly successful defeats of recent Northern Ireland political history: he may have been defeated but his success and share of the vote sent shock waves through Northern Ireland politics. Today the same Jim Allister scored a fairly pyrrhic victory being elected on the final count in North Antrim.
The TUV’s share of the vote was approximately what had been predicted (and what a number of us personally suspected – without boasting I usually come fairly close in my suspicions but keep them to myself). The TUV has pretty even, though limited, support throughout the province: its failure to energise the sorts of numbers of voters who gave Jim Allister that 66,000 vote in 2009 is multi-factorial.
In 2009 Allister had incumbency on his side and he had demonstrated an amazing ability for hard work in Europe which gained him votes. In addition the electorate (especially the DUP core vote) were still smarting from the DUP’s decision to enter into power sharing with Sinn Fein. In addition the DUP seemed just too pleased with what many saw as their political U turn. All this combined to give Allister a massive vote.
The TUV, however, failed to make any significant inroads at the Westminster election. In this election they achieved a similar result.
The TUV critique of the current arrangements at Stormont has essentially been two fold: firstly that allowing ex-terrorists and their cheerleaders into power is unacceptable. The second critique has been of the shambolic system of government with semi detached ministerial fiefdoms, no real collective responsibility and no opposition due to the mandatory coalition imposed upon the parties.
The reality seems to be that although many unionists may not like the current arrangement with Sinn Fein in government they are not willing to try to destroy the system to remove them. Many unionists bitterly resent the fact that ex-terrorist godfathers are in positions of political power but they seem to have accepted the reality of the position. They feel, however, that at the end of the day the unionist electorate cannot tell the nationalist electorate whom to vote for.
The TUV at this election as previously have suggested that allowing ex-terrorists into government lest they go back to violence is accepting blackmail but the majority of the unionist electorate either disagrees or feels that the level of blackmail being operated by SF is not so severe as to risk calling its bluff. On the issue of democratic mandate the TUV have repeatedly stated that it is not that they are telling nationalists whom to vote for but that they (the TUV) are saying that they would refuse power themselves rather that power share with Sinn Fein (they have repeatedly said they would share power with the SDLP). Whether the unionist electorate believe the TUV to be lying and actually be bigots or feel that the argument is too nuanced and impractical the reality is that this argument seems to carry very little weight with the unionist population.
The other argument, however, regarding competence of the government, the lack of opposition and the lack of proper accountability seems to be vastly more widely accepted. Danny Kennedy pointed to this problem on Friday on the BBC, Pete has noted a similar argument being advanced in the Irish News today.
There are now two independents and Jim Allister in Stormont; since Alliance are now part of the governing coalition, that means that there are 3 out of 108 opposition MLAs. This actually means that Allister has a vital role to play and one to which he is well suited. Barristers are very well versed in picking apart spin, nonsense and half truths. The Public Accounts Committee made a fairly good job of delving into the NI Water debacle; Jim Allister also did as good a job from outside Stormont. With him in Stormont his ability to hold government to account will be greatly increased which is to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.
In terms of creating a more normal system of government with a proper opposition (ie more than 3 opposition members) and the creation of voluntary coalition: all the parties apart from Sinn Fein seem to feel that the “ugly scaffolding” of the agreement is less than ideal. On this as well Allister can argue for and point towards a more sensible and normal democratic future.
Whether people like the TUV or not, Jim Allister can be a major asset to the Assembly and Northern Ireland. In four years time some more people may agree politically with him (or may not) but many more will probably respect his hard work for constituents, his ability at opposition (including constructive opposition) and his personal integrity. Many here may dislike the TUV and may celebrate their poor showing. However, it is only reasonable to respect Allister’s mandate (I agree it is small) and pass judgement on him after seeing what he does.
Update: In deference to Paddy Reilly and pauluk’s valid criticism I have modified the title