TUV's Jim Allister: I was aghast to see terrorists sitting in government ... being advised by other terrorists
The most probing interviews: Jim Allister, North Antrim TUV MLA, on why he admires Claire Hanna of the SDLP... and having a young George Best playing football in his yard.
Q You’re 64 and have been married to former librarian Ruth (64) for 39 years. You met when both studying at Queen’s. Love at first sight?
A For me it was. We got married on July 14, 1978, after dating for five years, and honeymooned in Jersey.
Q You have three children — Karen (35), who works for you, Graeme (33) who works for a media company in New York, and accountant Phillip (31), who lives in Dubai. Were you a strict dad?
A Only when necessary.
Q Tell us about your parents — Mary and Robert, who were farmers — and siblings. Were you a spoilt child?
A My mother was very kind to me. Being the youngest, I suppose I fell into that niche. My mother died in 1996, aged 80, and my father died in 1998 of heart failure when he was 86. When my mother was 70 — the very week that Phillip, our youngest, was born — she took a severe stroke and was disabled for the rest of her life. My father looked after her very diligently. They’d been married over 50 years. Brother Bertie (76) is a retired farmer, Jack (74) is a former civil servant, as is my sister Agnes (66).
Q What about your daughter’s children Calvin (7), Dan (4) and new addition Sophie, who’s almost six months old … are you a doting granddad, and has it mellowed the so-called ‘Angry Man’ of politics?
A I refute that scurrilous suggestion (laughs). I’m only angry when I need to be. Small children are a delight in the things they say and do. Very often they create a totally different context to your daily routine. It changes you in that it gives you a different perspective at times.
Q Would you accept that you’re a one-man party … people are voting for you personally and not the TUV, aren’t they?
A There’s an element of that, although we’ve had some very successful elections at local government level where they’re not voting for me. But when a party only has one MLA then of course that person is going to become the primary focus.
Q You were strongly supportive of Ann Travers’ objection to the presence of Mary McArdle (involved in the IRA murder of Ann’s sister Mary) as a special adviser at Stormont. How did that come about?
A When I went to Stormont in 2011 I was aghast not only to see terrorists sitting in government but being advised by terrorists. I determined that there was something I could do about it, and that was to bring legislation to prevent someone with a serious criminal conviction from holding such a publicly paid office.
Q Who brought it to your attention?
A The media. And certainly Ann Travers was very prominent in her protestations. I can’t honestly remember who contacted who, but we soon found we had common cause and she was phenomenal. I could’ve drafted bills until the cows came home but, without the personal crusade that Ann waged, the legislation would never have made it. I labelled it ‘Ann’s Law’ because that’s a proper tribute to the driving force behind it. That’s probably my proudest moment as a politician … to have left on the statute book the first victory in years for innocent victims.
Q You’re a regular on the Stephen Nolan show. Are you two friends?
A We’re no bosom buddies but I think there’s a mutual respect. He’s a very effective journalist.
Q You’re renowned as a masterful interrogator, but can you appreciate some people being disappointed with the pre-planned ‘grilling’ you recently gave him over his massive salary?
A I’m sorry if people thought that. I certainly didn’t set out to go easy on him. The Nolan Show refused me all assistance, so anything produced was by dint of my own research. I didn’t think I went easy on him, I’m not sure he thought that either.
Q Which current politician here do you most admire?
A I admire people because of their ability, their capacity to think on their feet and put in a good performance with obvious sincerity so … I’d say Claire Hanna, who is able and effective and can provide you with a good argument.
Q What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?
A When I was wrestling with whether I should be a barrister or not, my old mentor and friend Desmond Boal QC said: “If in your heart you know that never trying to succeed at the bar will be something you’ll regret for the rest of your life then do it; if it’s something you can do without, then don’t bother.”
Q Did you enjoy life as a barrister? What big cases were you involved in?
A I thoroughly enjoyed it. You survive on your wits. Nobody owes you a living so you’re only as good as your last case and therefore you have to build a reputation as being competent and effective.
Primarily I did defence. One case that drew a lot of attention was that of young Bryn Boothby, who was charged with the murder of his sister (in May 2000). He was ultimately acquitted. I was involved in the McGoldrick case (murder of taxi driver Michael McGoldrick during the 1996 Drumcree protests), in which I notoriously examined a witness for 13 days …
Q Your stance on same sex marriage is well documented. Are you anti-gay, full stop?
A I’m anti same-sex marriage. If someone is gay that’s their concern. It’s not a lifestyle of which I would be approving, but I certainly do object to the undermining and redefining of marriage to accommodate same-sex marriage.
Q So if someone close told you they were gay, you’d be fine about it?
A If one of my family, for example, told me they were gay I would still love them. I would be disappointed that their lifestyle was not something of which I could approve but they’d still be my kith and kin.
Q Would you attend the wedding?
A No, because by doing that I’d be endorsing something I don’t believe in.
Q Tell us something readers might be surprised to learn about you.
A As a small boy I knew George Best. When we lived outside Crossgar the wider Best family had a summer house nearby and George used to kick a ball around our yard.
Q If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?
A For the sake of my wife I’d try to be a bit more patient. (Looks sheepish). I don’t suffer fools gladly.
Q What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
A Parascending in Florida and hoping that the ropes wouldn’t break.
Q You have a holiday home in Portstewart and enjoy walking along the cliffs. What else do you do in your spare time?
A The north coast is a good place to clear the head and think. I do a bit of gardening too.
Q Who’s your best Catholic friend?
A I’ve got a number of good Catholic friends from my time at the bar of Northern Ireland.
Q You now live between Kells and Moorfields in Co Antrim, but grew up on a farm in Co Down. You had a pony and love horses. Do you still ride?
A I’ve good memories. We lived in Crossgar until I was nine, then moved to Craigantlet. I had various ponies, and was particularly fond of one called Pepsi. When my own kids came along we’d a pony for a while but I think I had more interest in it than they had. I never was a serious rider, I just messed about and broke a wrist or two doing it.
Q You attended Barnamaghery Primary outside Crossgar and Dundonald PS and then went to Regent House Grammar in Newtownards before heading to Queen’s to study law. Did you always want to be a barrister?
A For a while I thought I’d like to be a vet, but then discovered I couldn’t handle the science.
Q Briefly tell us about your career to date.
A I graduated in 1975, graduated with my BL (Barrister of Law) in 1976, entered private practice as a young barrister in 1976. Towards the end of 1980 I paused from practice to work for the European Parliament as (the late DUP leader) Ian Paisley’s PA, did that for two years, was elected to the Assembly in October 1982, remaining there until it collapsed in 1986. Left politics in the spring of 1987, returned full-time to the bar — because by then I had a wife and three kids and earning a living was the priority. I was called to the senior bar in 2001 [became a silk]. In 2004, I was tempted back into the political arena and the rest is history.
Q You joined a fledgling DUP in 1971. Why politics?
A Having gone to Queen’s in the autumn of 1971 it was a very febrile, traumatic time and politics in its rawest form was all about you. I got drawn in primarily through student politics, became a spokesman for unionist tradition in the Students Union, ran for student president and simultaneously got involved in politics outside university.
Q You left politics from 1987-2004 after falling out with Ian Paisley. Did you two ever make up?
A I wouldn’t have categorised it as a falling-out. We certainly, when I came back, had a more fundamental difference of opinion over him going into government with Sinn Fein.
Q And were your issues with Paisley’s successor Peter Robinson political or personal? Surely you two were close colleagues once?
A It was political, not personal. I was actually Peter Robinson’s election agent when he won east Belfast in 1979. There was a time when we were close but our political perceptions diverged, particularly when I discovered I was going back to a different DUP than the one I’d envisaged.
Q You left the DUP for good in 2007. Has the party moved closer to your way of thinking over the last decade — or even further away?
A There is a realisation today, with the current shambles, that maybe I was right all along, that Sinn Fein was never going to be in Stormont to make Northern Ireland work, that the day would inevitably come when the institutions would implode, as they have, and that those who convinced themselves it was going to be different were fooling themselves.
Q If the Assembly collapses, what’s next?
A I hope for Northern Ireland’s sake we are rid of this useless Assembly … what happens to me is neither here nor there. I think I could amuse myself sufficiently.