The TUV stubbornly refuses to die. Despite their poor showing in the Westminster election they refused to go away and despite only getting Jim Allister elected to the assembly they are still there.
The single biggest reason for their continued survival is of course Jim Allister himself. His opponents hoped he would be an irrelevant lone voice in the wilderness. He has indeed proved to be pretty much a lone voice of opposition.
Alliance followed its leader David Ford to become an executive party: The truffles of power being enough to bring all the Alliance snouts to the trough apart from Naomi Long stuck at Westminster, able only to sniff the much larger power truffles there, without any hope of her snout reaching that ultimate trough. Allister does have two “colleagues” in opposition but David McClarty seems to have largely vanished from the radar following his success in East Londonderry and subsequent refusal to be wooed back into the UUP fold. Steven Agnew has made a few contributions but has been less obviously active in Stormont than when he was campaigning.
Jim Allister has had the huge advantage of having been in the European Parliament for one term and as such was a well practised and notably effective parliamentarian prior to his Stormont election. He has used that experience along with his forensic lawyer’s approach to great effect. His lists of questions both written and oral have unearthed a number of issues the main parties especially the DUP and Sinn Fein would rather have left either hidden or minimally discussed: these have included the issue of special advisers and more recently the possibility of Patten-esque changes to the prison service. The attempts to ensure that Jim’s questions are not answered verbally but in writing has not stopped their efficacy. The extremely cack-handed attempts by Willie Hay to silence him has had no effect on Allister’s efficiency as an opposition spokesperson and has even raised some private disapproval from within the DUP as well of course as gravely undermining Hay’s credibility.
Jim Allister is undoubtedly the single person most responsible for the TUV’s survival and the main reason why should there be an election in the near future it is almost certain that the TUV would retain their one seat and might well gain another one. However, it is not merely Jim’s competence as a spokesperson which has helped ensure that a dissident unionist view has survived. The fact remains that there is a significant part of the unionist electorate who either reject or at least have grave misgivings about the current agreement.
There are no doubt some unionists who reject the agreement for straightforwardly bigoted reasons: there are no doubt some who simply cannot stomach the idea of power sharing with nationalists who are committed to an end to the union. This view, however, seems to be a small minority one: it does not explain the level of support or the resilience of the TUV; it certainly does not explain the European election result of two years ago. A variant of that view is probably the one which simply picks the hardest line unionist position and votes for it.
A more common position amongst TUV supporters is that of opposition to power sharing with Sinn Fein. Many may feel that we need to move on but there is a significant group within the unionist community who, whilst happy to have nationalists in government, remain extremely unhappy with terrorists and their cheerleaders in power. The counter that it is not for the unionist community to decide whom the nationalist community elect as their representatives is one which convinces many unionists but there remains a constituency who answer that by simply saying that they would rather have no power than share power with terrorists.
A further group of TUV supporters are genuinely despairing of the uselessness of the form of government we have here whether it be the sectarian carve up or the inability of the system with its interlocking vetoes to achieve anything quickly, allied to the lack of a properly constituted opposition. Such people are sometimes remarkably liberal but see in the lack of a proper democracy such a problem that it makes Stormont unacceptable and see the TUV as the only party whose prime aim is complete reform of the system.
The above views or a combination of them along with Jim Allister’s personal qualities have prevented the death of the TUV but thus far failed to achieve any significant breakthrough beyond Jim’s his own seat. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that these positions – especially the latter two do not have a significant resonance within the unionist community and possibly even further afield. Frequently people suggest that they are emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to the TUV’s position but do not vote for them. One of the most common reasons those who claim to be sympathetic to a TUV position give for not voting for them is the danger that if the TUV were able to defeat the current system that it would result in the resumption of violence. The TUV have repeatedly suggested that this means that people are bring blackmailed as well as conned but it is a fear which has been repeatedly articulated. As time goes on and the distance from the Troubles increases, however, this fear reduces and the intellectual justification that the current ugly scaffolding of the agreement is necessary becomes less convincing.
The TUV are unlikely to be able to bring down the agreement any time soon. However, there remains a potential constituency for them which is considerably larger than their vote at the Westminster or Stormont elections. Furthermore with Jim Allister at Stormont they have a voice out of proportion to their representative strength. That voice has proven far from one dimensional: Allister has demonstrated himself to be an oppositional politician par excellence and has gained respect grudging or otherwise within the assembly and in the media. As I said some time ago if the TUV did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.