Allister on Robinson, Paisley, TUV’s Future, Irish and Opposition

As the TUV annual conference approaches this weekend, I caught up with the party leader Jim Allister. We talked about his work on the Social Development Committee, the Irish language and his relationship with other parties in the Assembly. (Note I did this interview before Gregory Campbell’s conference speech)

I began by asking him how he planned to expand his party and build on the gains they made at the 2014 election.

Allister told me that the 2016 Assembly election will be a critical moment for the party in terms of how it can expand its support base. He believes that in order to push the agenda of creating a normalised government with an effective opposition that more TUV representatives can help deliver that goal. Allister pointed out to me, that with just one MLA, the party had already achieved some success in making the functioning of Stormont a front page issue and that if the people want progress “give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.”

Looking back through history, I put it to him that other Unionist parties who had broken away did not last very long, yet his party has lasted 7 years, why were the TUV different to other parties?

Allister said to me that the TUV’s success was largely down to the failures within the current system; he told me that at times he feels like he doesn’t need to register any criticism as the current Assembly speaks for itself. Allister argues that the institutions are essentially built upon a rotten foundation which cannot be sustained as the basic right of voting a government out of power does not exist in Northern Ireland.

As Allister was talking I couldn’t shake the feeling that I heard all this before, I put to him sure Ian Paisley would have told me that ten years ago.

He was quick to respond “that’s part of my problem,” as he argues that Unionists were mis-led and betrayed by the DUP, which makes people suspicious about any politician today who tries to hold to the principles articulated before 2007.

So, what did he make of Unionism under the leadership of Peter Robinson and the DUP?

Allister quite happily pointed out that in fact following the last election, the DUP were actually a minority party within Unionism now. The TUV leader told me, that Robinson quite rightly recognised earlier this year that Stormont “wasn’t fit for purpose” which he argues was right off the “TUV’s script.” Had he been in Robinson’s position he would be telling the British government that the mandatory coalition experiment has failed, but we now need to move to a system of voluntary coalition.

Yet, under that scenario could Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance not gang up and Sinn Fein get the First Minister’s post?

Ever the realist he told me, McGuinness is effectively the joint First Minister at the moment and there is nothing stopping Sinn Fein taking the top post in name under the current system. But, ultimately for Allister, he says you either live by the rules of democracy or you don’t. He also pointed out that due to the history of Northern Ireland that some form of weighted majority on budgetary issues might be needed in order to ensure that there is no abuse of the system and give some cross-community aspect to government.

We moved onto the upcoming Westminster election, I wanted to know would the TUV be standing candidates in all seats or would they be entering into pacts in some areas?

The TUV leader told me that they will be standing candidates in a number of areas, although he would not tell me if he would stand again in North Antrim. In marginal seats however, the party is willing to enter into pacts with other parties in order to maximise the Unionist vote in places where vote splitting might give a seat to either a Nationalist or Alliance party representative.

Whilst Allister has a reputation of at times being divisive, I wanted to ask him about Steven Agnew’s comments to me that the two will work together and co-operate on a number of issues and told him of my shock that this happens, he told me;

What should be surprising about that? I have spent my professional career co-operating, negotiating…with people on other sides of the arguments in the law. It’s no great challenge for me to negotiate and find common ground on issues where that is sensible and necessary. There is a small coterie of MLAs here who are outside the Executive parties, who are seeking to be some pale semblance of opposition and it makes eminent common sense to me that amongst that coterie of MLAs there should be such co-operation as is possible.

I wondered how did he find working with a Sinn Fein Chairman in Alex Maskey on the DSD Committee in Stormont?

Allister told me that he “simply accepts” Maskey’s role in chairing the meetings and that he is able to sit and wait his turn to speak and ask questions.

When I went on to discuss his most recent work on the committee over the Jenny Palmer/NI Housing Executive issue, Allister told me that he finds Ms Palmer to be “transparently honest” and “courageous” in how she had dealt with this affair and interacted with the committee.

As he spoke with such disdain about how he claims the DUP had treated Cllr Palmer on this issue, I wondered now that he was nearly 8 years out of the party did he regret at all leaving in 2007?

Swiftly he told me no, as he told me that would have meant abandoning his principles and “I didn’t come into politics to do that.” Allister went further telling me that he does have some regrets about joining a party that eventually went into government with Sinn Fein, but clearly stated that he has no regrets about leaving the DUP over that issue.

As we were on his former party, I wondered what his impressions of Paisley and Peter Robinson were.

On Paisley, Allister still feels sad that he entered into government in 2007, despite everything he had said over the previous three decades in politics. He believes that Paisley should’ve stuck to his guns and refused to go into government with Sinn Fein and that way he would’ve retired with his legacy intact. As we pressed on to the current DUP leader, Allister told me that Robinson is a politician to his “finger tips” and he feels that he was definitely well ahead of Paisley in attempting to get the party into government.

I concluded by asking him about Gregory Campbell’s remarks in the Assembly about the Irish language, what did he make of Gregory actually saying it and Sinn Fein’s response to it?

On this issue, Allister believes that there is some doubt over Campbell’s words as he argues that as Culture Minister he gave several million pounds to Irish language bodies. However, whilst he had little regard for the remarks made by Campbell and did highlight his respect for people such as Patsy McGlone, who are fluent in the language he rejects what he calls “Long Kesh” Irish, that he feels is used for political purposes. Allister told me that he feels Sinn Fein “love to be offended” at times and that they rose to the bait offered by Campbell.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs