Why does the small TUV party frighten the DUP so much?

Leader and sole MLA Jim Allister presents as the man whose job it is to ‘hold the DUP to account’

Jim Allister: he  “frightens” the DUP not because of the TUV’s potential to win elections but because of his power to disrupt the electoral landscape. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Jim Allister: he “frightens” the DUP not because of the TUV’s potential to win elections but because of his power to disrupt the electoral landscape. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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As Edwin Poots found himself without a party on the tumultuous Thursday which ended in his resignation as DUP leader, one political opponent wasted no time in getting stuck in.

The leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Jim Allister, was quickly out of the blocks accusing Poots of “rolling over” to Sinn Féin.

This was no surprise coming from Allister, an Assembly member for North Antrim and a QC who is known for his forthright language both in the Assembly and in the media.

That Allister had dubbed Poots the “Rollover King” was the least of the outgoing leader’s worries on Thursday. Nevertheless, the spectre of the TUV – a unionist party to the right of the DUP – has long held the power to spook the largest party.

A LucidTalk poll in February, in which the DUP’s popularity fell 4 per centage points to 19 per cent and the TUV gained four to reach 10 per cent, pushed the DUP into a harder stance against the Northern Ireland protocol, and concern over the TUV threat was a factor in the coup which forced former leader Arlene Foster to announce her resignation at the end of April.

Yet by the end of May the figures were even worse; LucidTalk’s quarterly Tracker poll had the DUP at 16 per cent – lagging well behind Sinn Féin on 25 per cent – and mired in what appeared to be a virtually three- or four-way split with Alliance, also on 16 per cent, the Ulster Unionists on 14 per cent, and the TUV up again to 11 per cent.

Harder line

Part of Poots’ attraction as leader was that he was to the right of the party. He would take a harder line on things like the protocol and so stem disaffection among the grassroots and, so the theory went, the threat from the TUV.

Yet, aside from Allister – who can be confident of re-election in his personal stronghold of north Antrim – the TUV has only ever been a minority party at the ballot box.

Allister’s seat is currently its only Assembly seat; in the last Assembly elections, in 2017 the party ran a single candidate in 13 out of 18 constituencies and secured 2.6 per cent of first-preference votes.

While Allister is strong in his constituency, says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, he has not managed to grow a wider party and does not have candidates with sufficient profile to win.

“They will get some disaffected DUP voters who are sickened by the internal chaos, so I think the TUV can expect a small electoral dividend, but I would still think they’ll be on one seat after the next Assembly election, albeit with an increased vote share.”

Why, then, such concern over the TUV? Partly it is about personalities.

Allister represented the DUP until his resignation in 2007 in protest over power-sharing with Sinn Féin, and was a strong critic of the late former leader Ian Paisley. There remains “bad blood”, says Tonge, not least because Allister is a very vocal reminder that the DUP did change its stance on the Belfast Agreement.

“He plays the Jiminy Cricket role,” says political commentator Alex Kane. “He presents as the conscience of the DUP, the man who has never wavered, who never took the baubles of office, whose job is to hold them to account.”

Next election

Allister “frightens” the DUP, says Kane, not because of the TUV’s potential to win elections but because of his power to disrupt the electoral landscape.

“Nobody in the DUP expects the TUV to come back with eight or nine seats at the next election, or even to poll around 10 per cent.”

But, says Kane, their fear is of the “double whammy”, that the TUV and UUP would do well enough to deprive the DUP of seats – and with a single-seat majority over Sinn Féin in the Assembly at the moment, it would then lose the designation as the largest party and the First Minister role.

This is the prospect that the DUP fears most.

Speaking on the BBC on Friday morning, Allister said Poots had left unionism “in a weaker position than how he found it”.

It will certainly be put to the test at the ballot box.