Tom Elliott: When I called Sinn Fein scum, it was directed at murderers
The Big Interview
He once caused furore by calling Sinn Fein scum and later apologised but Tom Elliott, the unionist unity candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, is hoping for support right across the divide. He spoke to Adrian Rutherford.
Q. There has been a lot of focus on electoral pacts, particularly in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Why is it so important?
A. There is an opportunity to win back the seat for unionism. In the community there is a very strong feeling about the lack of representation at Westminster since 2001. We don't feel that Sinn Fein provide representation, simply because they don't take their seats. People in the constituency feel they are missing out by that. An agreed candidate gives a much better opportunity to provide that representation for the people.
Q. From a unionist view, it seems an obvious step. Yet it has taken a fair bit of negotiation. Why was that?
A. The Ulster Unionist Party proposed it first, right back in October, so it has taken quite a while to get it agreed.
I kept out of those discussions, simply because I had a vested interest in that I was chosen in that period for the Ulster Unionist Party. Why it has taken so long, I'm not sure. Other areas were in the field. Most political discussions take time, they don't happen overnight. That can be one of the frustrating things about politics - it takes so long to get things done.
Q. We've been here before, notably 2010. What makes you think you can win this time?
A. The seat was only lost by four votes. We have to pull out all the stops, so that where there are opportunities we didn't get before, we utilise those opportunities. We have to make sure people realise that there is one chance for change.
Q. Why is it so important that the constituency is represented at Westminster? On many days our MPs aren't even in the chamber.
A. It's very important to be there. Not only are they listening to other members at Westminster, they are having their say and actually voting.
I remember a situation involving Frank Maguire, the independent MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. While Frank wasn't an abstentionist, he didn't attend very often. In 1979 there was a vote of no confidence in the Labour government. He went to Parliament, and everyone thought he was going to vote for Labour.
But he actually abstained and that one vote brought down the government. It just demonstrates how important a vote can be.
Q. Michelle Gildernew seems to be popular across the divide in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Why do some unionists think she is doing such a bad job?
A. She has been largely unheard of in the last couple of years.
It's only in the last few months that Sinn Fein are putting her out to the front in the media, I'm assuming for electoral purposes.
What she's been doing, I just don't know. She certainly hasn't been in Westminster voting.
Q. She claims unionists voted for her. Do you find that difficult to believe?
A. I've never heard any unionist say they have voted for her.
I think unionists still remember the atrocities carried out by the Provisional IRA and how they murdered many of the citizens of Fermanagh/South Tyrone. I don't think people forget that.
Q. Looking at it from the other side, do you think Catholics will vote for you?
A. I think it's possible. I've never looked at it as a religious divide. I'm not saying I get as many, but I would get a fairly sizeable number of people from what I perceive as the nationalist community coming to me for advice on a constituency basis. They are not afraid to visit my office or phone me. Certainly I'd be hoping that if you do a good job for them that they will remember it.
Q. You were Ulster Unionist leader between 2010 and 2012. Do you see your time as a success or failure?
A. I wanted to improve internal party issues - communication and working with the media, and by in large I was probably quite successful at that.
On the wider external policy issues, I just didn't have the opportunity to get that done. I would say that I didn't get as much done as I would have liked to.
Q. At the time you said you hadn't been given a fair chance, and that people within your party were briefing against you?
A. Absolutely, I said that at the time and I stand over it.
I was concentrating on internal issues, and that included internal rules, but I got so lumbered with that and the internal issues of people briefing against me that I didn't have the opportunity to move off those issues. I just felt, if this is the way people are going to continue, what is the point in me trying to lead them if they don't want to be led?
Q. You don't regret standing as leader though?
A. No, I generally don't do regrets. I stood for leader, I was elected as leader and was very privileged and proud to be leader. I don't regret doing it, I don't regret standing down, I'm someone who just gets on with life.
Q. Some will remember your time as leader for the day in Omagh Leisure Centre when you criticised the Irish tricolour and called Sinn Fein "scum". You apologised after that - clearly it was the wrong thing to say?
A. I apologised to the wider nationalist community if they took offence, because it wasn't directed at the wider nationalist community.
The comments were directed at a number of people in the room who had convictions for serious terrorist activity and not the broader nationalist community or Sinn Fein voters in general.
Q. So do you still regard some in Sinn Fein as scum?
A. People talk about that issue but to me it was fairly minor when you compare what some Sinn Fein members have done throughout their lifetime. It seems OK that people can sit in government now who are murderers, but for someone to say what I did is made a huge issue.
I think people need to put that in perspective. I don't hear the same questions being asked of Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew, when Gerry Adams said in November that we have to break the b*****ds and Michelle Gildernew referred to a particular unionist as a b******s.
Q. Do you still stand by what you said that day?
A. Maybe if you had to say it again you'd say it differently, but the reality of it is that people in the community know what many members of Sinn Fein did in their lifetime. Not all Sinn Fein members were in the IRA, I'm not saying that, but a number of them were and carried out dastardly deeds and never showed any remorse. I think that is one of the things that proves difficult for people in the unionist community - the lack of remorse.
Q. Do you think it could come back to bite you in this election?
A. I think I made it absolutely clear at the time that it wasn't directed at nationalists. It wasn't directed at all Sinn Fein voters. It was directed, and I made this absolutely clear, at those Sinn Fein people who had murdered and maimed many of those within our community.
On the day I said what I said, and I clearly, specifically, said it was about those who had murdered and maimed. I made it clear afterwards that it wasn't about the general nationalist community, it wasn't even about those who had voted for Sinn Fein. It was about those who carried out those acts in the past.
Will people hold that against me, but they won't hold it against Gerry Adams for calling us b*******? Will they hold it against me but not against Sinn Fein members who murdered the citizens of this community?
Q. Michelle Gildernew said some unionists will not speak to her. Do you?
A. Oh yes, of course. She was MLA here. I met her at many events throughout the constituency so of course I would say hello to her. I've also had to correspond with her in the past, and she with me.
Q. A lot of people say the UUP has got a bad deal out of the electoral pacts. Do you agree?
A. No I don't. I refer back to my earlier answer. It was the Ulster Unionist Party which suggested the deal involving Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Belfast as far back as October. It was rejected at that stage by the DUP, but they've eventually accepted it. So I'm not sure how people see it as a bad deal when we suggested it in the first place.
Q. People will say that out of the four seats the DUP got the two which are most winnable. Your two seats are more challenging.
A. Yes, absolutely, I agree with that.
Q. So how was it allowed to happen?
A. I wasn't party to those negotiations, but like any talks they were extremely difficult.
I just don't think it was possible for us to get East Belfast and North Belfast, and allow the DUP to have Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh.
Q. South Belfast seems to be the one which got away for the UUP.
A. As I understand it our proposal was that East Belfast and South Belfast were part of a deal, which was not accepted at an early stage, and never progressed.
Q. In Fermanagh/South Tyrone there is a big rivalry between the DUP and UUP. Can you draw everyone together?
A. I feel I can maximise the vote as much as possible.
I think people will rise above rivalry for this election. They will see a massive opportunity to return a unionist candidate to Westminster and get representation back in the House of Commons once again.
Q. People know you as a politician. But what are your interests outside politics?
A. I'm a big family person, and enjoy spending time with them. Football plays a big part. I help out at Ballinamallard United when I can and that would take up a good bit of time. Church life is another important aspect. I enjoy reading books, particularly autobiographies. I'm not a huge television fan apart from sport or documentaries.
Q. Your two children are adopted - that has played a big part in your life.
A. Yes, it has and it still plays a big part. It has got me involved in areas of life that I wouldn't otherwise have been involved in - fostering, children in care issues and so on.
Q. What are the big issues in Fermanagh/South Tyrone?
A. There's not a huge difference to any other constituency.
Health is massive, whether that's in Fermanagh around the South-West Acute Hospital or South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon and the retention of its minor injuries unit. You also have the additional aspect of jobs and how many businesses want to set up in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
Indigenous businesses play a huge part. I want to focus much more on those businesses and getting them to grow.
Q. If you are elected MP, what would be your priorities?
A. The economy, and trying to secure corporation tax, but I would also look to go further and at some stage promote the flexibility to allow Northern Ireland to have its own fuel duty taxation.
I think that would be a massive bonus to the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone. The Government is losing in two ways - some people are still going south to buy fuel, so it is losing that revenue, and secondly because the fuel duty is quite high it is tempting for the fuel launderers to run their business, and that is also costing the government.
Q. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been critical of pacts, claiming they are sectarian headcounts - do you agree?
A. Sinn Fein are in favour of pacts, they have asked the SDLP for a pact.
Gearoid O hEara, the Sinn Fein candidate in Foyle, said on radio that election pacts are a valid mechanism to use. So I don't see how they can criticise it.
Regarding the SDLP, that's their choice.
However, at the last European election they were encouraging co-operation between Sinn Fein and the SDLP to get two nationalist candidates returned to Europe.
While it may not be an actual pact, it goes a long way towards co-operation.
And it's not sectarian. It is only sectarian if you decide that unionism is sectarian, and unionism is not a sectarian philosophy.
There are Catholics who vote unionist, there are people who don't believe anything who vote unionist. Therefore it can't be sectarian. It's a cheap accusation, but it's wrong.
Q. Is it not a regressive move, going back to the old Orange versus Green debate?
A. For us it's not about Orange and Green supporters.
It is about unionism, and I am unashamedly unionist. I want to retain the union with the United Kingdom.
I believe it's better economically and socially. It doesn't mean I can't have a good relationship with other countries, including the Republic of Ireland.
Q. Is this the last throw of the dice for pacts?
A. I'm not someone who says never. You take each challenge as it comes. We have a massive opportunity this time to return a unionist and ensure representation at Westminster for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. I'm confident voters will respond positively, and I think they should focus on the here and now rather than four or five years' time.
Q. Are you confident of victory?
A. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't confident. We have done a lot of work to make sure people understand the importance of it and having a candidate who can win.