Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Catching up with Dawn Purvis

Back in November 2009, I posted an interview with Dawn Purvis on the blog. Since then she has left the PUP and stepped out as an independent MLA for East Belfast.

If you ask me, deep down Dawn Purvis is a political anorak who could carve out a career as a party strategist or advisor. While conveniently fitting her positive self-belief about her re-election chances, I realise that her analysis and explanation of how the other parties around her in East Belfast are approaching the upcoming election (and in some cases playing into each others’ hands) is certainly more sophisticated and well-constructed than most of the commentators who get paid to write columns in the local press.

But talking to Dawn earlier today, it was clear that she has no intention of becoming a part-time pundit or party advisor. Instead, she is confident that she’ll be re-elected to the Assembly in May.

She suggests that four years ago “people didn’t really know who I was at the time of the last election as I didn’t really have a track record in East Belfast but I’d like to think that over the last four years my record stands on its own and I think people will see that through hard graft and sticking to my principles and what I believe that I’ve done my best to represent the people”.

Her independence means that she’s “not boxed in by any party policy and can focus specifically on local issues” and have a constituency focus. She can “choose to look at big picture issues if I want but I’m not expected to be a Jacqueline of all trades and mistress of none”.

Dawn highlights the continuing educational underachievement in protestant working class areas and says that the DUP and UUP have done “absolutely nothing” about the issue.

Asked about her sense of where the UVF are in their journey towards non-violence Dawn simply answers “I don’t know, I’ve no idea”, refusing to speculate in more detail.

“I made a decision last June based on the information available to me at that time that I thought that the statement of intent that they had issued in May 2007 and subsequent to that their act of decommissioning but then followed by the murder of Bobby Moffet was a clear intent to me that there were individuals within that organisation who were never going away. So I made my decision to resign at that time, so I don’t know.”

Despite early promise, Dawn’s own private members bill (seeking to eliminate double jobbing between local councils and the Assembly) ran aground. Last night, John McCallister’s caravanning bill was completed and became the first private members bill to negotiate the legislative assault course since 1948.

A complete session of the Assembly with no suspensions and yet only one private members bill passed seems a tad lethargic? Dawn disagrees and points to comments in the chamber last night that compared the Assembly with other UK legislatures that also have low volumes of private members bills.

Asked about the achievements she is most proud of over the last four years, Dawn quickly compiles a list:

“Track record in the constituency. Networking with the community and voluntary sector. Being chair of the all party group on children and young people and pushing those issues up the agenda within government departments. The working group I established to look at educational underachievement, particularly within protestant working class boys. My bill on double jobbing, although at this point we don’t know how successful that has been as we’ve still to table final stage. I think overall the four years has been quite a learning experience and I’ve certainly gained in my knowledge of the issues that affect my constituents and I hope that I’ve represented them well.”

Earlier today - about half a mile away from Dawn’s constituency office - Tom Elliott outlined his ideas around the review of the Stormont administration and the possibilities for parties to be in opposition in 2015. Dawn recalled her advice to the SDLP and UUP after the 2007 election not to take up the three ministerial positions offered to them and to “work together with the other smaller parties in the Assembly to form a constructive opposition”.

“I think the past four years would have been better spent by those parties in forming an opposition. Their electoral gains this time around would be looking a lot more hopeful than what they are at the minute. But we need to evolve our structures in the Assembly. I think constructive opposition is a good thing. With [just] a few individuals it’s much more difficult because you lack the combined resources of parties.”

Alliance are running two candidates to pick up on any bounce from Naomi Long’s success at the Westminster elections. The DUP are a lot more confident than this time last year. The UUP haven’t quite given up - though running three candidates in East Belfast may be self destructive. And the PUP are running Brian Irvine. I asked Dawn if she felt squeezed?

“No I don’t. I think it’s all to play for. I think every candidate that runs will be going after every single vote. I don’t feel squeezed. I think maybe some of the other parties need to review their strategy in light of the last four years and even in light of the last year. I think that maybe some of them are basing their strategy on figures that may not add up at an Assembly election particularly when you are running different candidates.

I think the field is wide open. I think it’s anyone’s for the taking and it’s up to me when I’m going around the doors to convince people that they should vote for me.”

[Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole as one of a series of interviews with representatives from smaller political parties.]

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