Allister hoping to stage an election upset in unionist ranks


ON THE CANVASS with JIM ALLISTER:JIM ALLISTER visited the United Dairies stand at the Balmoral Show in south Belfast, sceptically observing artist Rachel Dickson chiselling away at a cheese sculpture of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, a work entitled “The Big Cheeses”.

His ambition is to explode an “earthquake” under the big cheeses in this election.

Up to 70,000 people attended the three-day annual agricultural show, an obvious magnet for the seven candidates in this three-seater Northern Ireland constituency.

Allister not only rented a stand at the show but, exploiting the opportunity to the maximum, had a van and a truck circumnavigating the roads around the King’s Hall area, emblazoned with his face and slogan, “experience, principle, integrity”, loudspeakers blaring out his mantra: “there must be no terrorists in Government”.

His opponents have depicted him as a politician who would drive Northern Ireland back to the “dark ages”. That’s as maybe, but there was no shortage of supporters to drive the vehicles, to staff the stand, to join him out on the canvass.

Equally, there was no antagonism towards him at the show or later out on canvass in loyalist Sandy Row. There was no one saying if he gets his way he could destroy the political process that took so long to achieve. And that’s his goal.

In the showgrounds, the paths of the three unionist candidates – Allister, Diane Dodds of the DUP and Jim Nicholson of the Ulster Unionists/Conservatives – cross at different times. There’s fairly friendly chat between Allister and Nicholson, but just a curt acknowledgement of each other’s existence between the DUP and TUV canvass teams.

Allister was the DUP candidate when he won the seat in 2004, ironically having been attracted back to the party by Peter Robinson after a previous falling-out that goes back to the early 1980s. But he fell out again with Ian Paisley after the Doc decided to share power with Sinn Féin. He resigned from the DUP, established the Traditional Unionist Voice, a party that argues that Northern Ireland somehow can have a political dispensation that excludes the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, or his line, one you don’t hear so often these days, “Sinn Féin/IRA”.

George Wilson tells Allister that he’s a retired farmer from Ballydougan near Portadown, Co Armagh, “although he still “footers about with a load of calves”. He’s impressed that Allister has battled for farmers and could see him returned to Brussels. “I think Diane Dodds could be in for a rude awakening,” he suggests. “What does she know about farming?”

At the Hereford cattle stand a well-dressed unionist supporter says he’ll not be voting UUP this time. “That’s one down,” says Allister. And after further conversation he says he won’t be voting DUP either. “That’s two down,” says Allister. And there’s only one left.

During the walkabout there’s little or no reference to “constitutional issues”, the talk is mainly of farming matters where Allister has made an impression.

It’s different in the evening in Sandy Row where Sinn Féin in Government is an issue. To enter into the maze of well-kept houses off Sandy Row he must pass by a mural of George Best that is juxtaposed to a UDA mural – one reflecting a softer image of Northern Ireland, the other the harder violent image of the recent past.

An early encounter is a man collecting for Christian Aid. “I can guarantee you my vote,” the man makes a point of telling Allister.

“I voted for the DUP the last time because I believed Ian Paisley wouldn’t go into Government with Sinn Féin. But the DUP are even bigger traitors than the Ulster Unionists.”

A youngish woman also pledges her support because she too can’t stand the thought of Sinn Féin in the Northern Executive – “Paisley led us up the garden path”. And while she concedes that Northern Ireland is “now a better place”, she is quick to add, “but it’s still a bitter place”. Voting for Allister will allow her vent her anger, she feels. She has no particular thought on how that might affect political stability.

A 51-year old “loyalist” in a Northern Ireland soccer sweatshirt called Colin says he didn’t get involved in the conflict to prop up the “political dynasties” of the Robinsons, Paisleys and Dodds. “It’s not jobs for the boys anymore, it’s jobs for the families.” The subject of politicians’ expenses comes up regularly. There’s a disenchantment with politicians.

It’s clear that Allister is making steady progress, but at this stage it’s impossible to predict how well he might do. At the very least he should establish a platform for the TUV to contest Westminster and Assembly elections as a serious political opposition. But he’s aiming for more. “I fight to win.” Such a result could force the big cheese First Minister to resign, he believes. “If Peter Robinson cannot carry the unionist people in support of what he has done then the consequences should be pretty obvious . . .” Allister is very determined, very ambitious.

“Look what 800 votes did in Dromore?” he adds. That’s a reference to how the TUV competing in a minor byelection in Co Down in February last year, helped trigger a chain of events that culminated in the resignation of Ian Paisley. “We rocked the political establishment,” says Allister. “I have no doubt that a victory in this election will send an absolute political earthquake through the political establishment here. And the sooner the better.”