Jim Allister’s big test: Can unionist firebrand move in from the margins?

Assembly elections will reveal if relentlessly negative messaging can be turned into votes

These are big weeks for Jim Allister, the lone representative of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, but often one of the loudest voices in Stormont. Facing into Northern Ireland's Assembly elections on May 5th, Allister is confident that he will no longer be a one-man band but will be accompanied by one or two or maybe several TUV MLAs to beat the unionist drum even louder.

Allister is a Queen's Counsel and, one suspects, models himself on another QC, Lord Edward Carson, who 110 years ago set off across Ulster on the Carson Trail, campaigning against home rule for Ireland.

For the past number of weeks Allister has also travelled his own trail, joining rallies in towns such as Markethill, Ballymoney, Portadown and Lurgan agitating for the scrapping of the "union-dismantling" Northern Ireland protocol.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie felt the rallies were stirring up bad karma across the North and stayed away. And he has a point: at the recent demonstration in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Allister and DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson had to act to remove a poster of Beattie with a noose around his neck. They also later had to make a point of dissociating themselves from one of the speakers, a former TUV council candidate, who described Beattie as a "traitor and Lundy".

Donaldson, however, estimated that – despite the volatility and unpredictability of such events – he couldn’t give Allister a free run and turned up for some of the gatherings, while offering a slightly more nuanced and more modulated line than the TUV leader’s doom-laden outpourings about the protocol amounting to “Irish unity in transition”.

Allister is a politician who invites a binary response: people like him or loathe him. Nationalists generally don’t like him, principally because they feel he doesn’t like them. It often seems that way, although he would argue his main beef is with “Sinn Féin/IRA”.

He has a sharp intellect and is one of the most effective political operators in Stormont. He can be eloquent but it is the dismissive sneer, the curled lip, the withering verbal attack, the acerbic riposte that is off-putting for many. It seems with Allister it is never a good day for unionism. If he is not issuing prophet-of-doom warnings about the protocol, he is delivering lamentations about mandatory powersharing, the Brexit the Leavers voted for but didn’t get, the Irish language, Dublin interference, Sinn Féin and “terrorists in government”, sections of the BBC, Catholics in high legal office – the jeremiad goes on and on.

Indeed, at Stormont, former DUP first minister Peter Robinson labelled Allister as "the Jeremiah of the Assembly".

"Ah, but if you've read your Bible you will know that Jeremiah ultimately was right," counters Sammy Morrison, Allister's press officer and most senior and trusted lieutenant.

DUP history

Allister joined the DUP from its outset in 1971 but quit in the 1980s after a row with Ian Paisley. He was persuaded back to the party in 2004, when he won a seat in Europe for the party. Three years later he was out the door again when Paisley decided to share power with Sinn Féin.

Morrison, who was completing his master's in modern literary studies at Queen's University Belfast at that time, also gave up on the DUP, applied for a job when Allister set up the TUV and has been his right-hand man ever since. Both of them – as is acknowledged by other parties – punch considerably above their weight. Allister delivers his proclamations of gloom, and Morrison makes sure the public hears them loud and clear.

Morrison acknowledges that his leader’s public persona can be forbidding, but insists that privately he is good company and has a sense of humour.

He argues it was TUV pressure that compelled Donaldson to pull out of the Northern Executive in early February and points to how Allister over the years steered two Bills through the Assembly, respectfully networking with other parties – aside from Sinn Féin, of course – to gain support. One Bill was designed to prevent people with serious paramilitary convictions from working as special ministerial advisers in Stormont, the second, more recent Bill to further rein in the power of the advisers.

Recent different polls have the TUV at between five and 12 per cent. The low end of that polling could mean just one seat, Jim Allister’s, but the high end could mean four to six seats or even more if it can attract a greater number of transfers – always a problem for the TUV. Most pundits think the outcome will be on the low level of that estimation, although TUV people emphatically beg to differ.

The party is running a single candidate in 17 of the North's 18 constituencies, and Allister has a running mate in his own constituency of North Antrim. None of them is high profile. The hope is that gains could be made in predominantly unionist constituencies such as East Antrim, Strangford, East Derry, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann and that it has a chance in South Down, where former DUP MLA for the area Jim Wells, who was unceremoniously ousted as party candidate, has now offered his support for the TUV candidate Harold McKee rather than the woman who replaced him on the ballot paper, Diane Forsythe.

Newry and Armagh

It also believes it could cause surprises in the chiefly nationalist constituencies of West Tyrone, and Newry and Armagh. That may seem a fanciful stretch but Keith Ratcliffe, a 47-year-old businessman who is standing in Newry and Armagh says, no, the seat is winnable.

A year ago he quit the DUP and threw in his lot with Allister and the TUV, mainly because of the protocol, unhappiness with the turmoil in the DUP at that time and a feeling that unionism was taking hit after hit.

This particular Thursday afternoon as we walk around a cosy, middle-class estate in the predominantly Protestant village of Laurelvale, Co Armagh, the prospect of his taking a seat doesn't seem all that preposterous. The response is overwhelmingly positive; there is no doubt that the callers are solidly with him and the TUV, or else are oscillating between the DUP and his party.

The protocol comes up regularly. “We feel this time that people want change,” says Ratcliffe. “People hear the line from the DUP that ‘If you don’t vote for us, you will get Sinn Féin’. Well, they’ve heard it before and from what I’m hearing I don’t think that will wash any more.”

"I do agree with everything Jim Allister says but he sometimes comes across as a wee bit aggressive"

Ratcliffe says what is important to him is his family, his community, his Presbyterian church affiliation and the loyal orders – the Orange Order and the Royal Black Institution – which he thinks will assist in getting out the TUV vote.

There is a quiet simmering unionist resentment that will play well for him, he feels. He also believes there will be good pickings in places such as Markethill, Tandragee, Bessbrook and Loughgall. He won't be canvassing in Crossmaglen.

Here in Laurelvale one middle-aged woman says she will definitely vote for him but is deliberating whether her No 1 should go to him or the DUP. A little hesitantly, she offers: “I do agree with everything Jim Allister says but I have to be honest with you, he sometimes comes across as a wee bit aggressive.”

Ratcliffe, a cheerful, easy-going man, acknowledges this can be an issue but in mitigation says the difficulty for his leader is that as a sole political trader, so to speak, he tends to be nearly always campaigning or fighting “against something”.

But it seems that Allister just can't help himself. That very night he appears on BBC Northern Ireland political programme The View. Shortly into his slot, when quizzed by presenter Mark Carruthers, he growls that he wants to "maximise our support and greatly disappoint the BBC by getting extra seats".

And on it continues with Allister accusing Carruthers of seeking to “deride and demean the TUV and the people who vote for us”.

Allister constantly has Northern Ireland on the road to perdition

Carruthers hangs in and asks about whether returning with just one seat – his own – would be a failure. Allister predicts he will “not be alone” in the next Assembly and fires the added barb: “Going back without anyone would be total failure. Going back with only one would be relative failure and that would be disappointing for me but ecstasy for the BBC.”

The acid response is not in line with the reasonable nature of the questioning but perhaps Allister feels this works for his constituency – that his voters like snark and snarl? Or maybe the woman on the doorstep in Laurelvale is more perceptive?

The sweet irony in this exchange with Carruthers – which few in Northern Ireland will have missed – is that there are regular political blowouts and Twitter storms over claims that Allister, and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, "are never off" BBC Radio Ulster's popular and confrontational Stephen Nolan Show scaring unionists about a looming united Ireland.

Road to perdition

His pronouncements seem remorselessly negative in contrast to Jeffrey Donaldson, who, while deploring the protocol, at least in the DUP party political broadcast makes positive arguments about the benefits of the union. Allister constantly has Northern Ireland on the road to perdition. And this when the latest University of Liverpool/Irish News poll has those who would vote now for unification at only 30 per cent.

Allister studied law at Queen’s University, qualifying as a barrister in 1976 and rising to QC in 2001. He specialised in criminal cases and also has expertise in constitutional law.

Those who have witnessed him in action describe him as "able and professional", although no one puts him up there with the exceptional Northern Ireland silks such as Robert McCartney and the late Desmond Boal and Michael Lavery.

“There was none of the repartee that you would have with other of your colleagues,” says one QC.

The same QC says most lawyers, whether from a nationalist or unionist background, were "profoundly disappointed" when in 2011 Allister in a statement headed "Cold House for Protestants" raised the issue of how, at the time, the three main legal posts in the North were held by people from a nationalist or Catholic background: Barra McGrory as DPP, John Larkin as attorney general and Declan Morgan as lord chief justice.

Allister would respond that he was questioning the background, not the competence of these legal eminences, but the QC says his comments left a “sour taste” at the Bar.

At the moment there is evidence of a good wind behind Allister's firebrand unionism

Allister is 69, and this could be his crowning moment. Success would be a curious affair: it could help ensure that Sinn Féin wins most seats and would therefore be entitled to the first minister post. It could be severely damaging to the DUP. It could signal last rites for the Stormont Assembly, something that wouldn't bother Allister at all. His view is simple: if Sinn Féin has the takings on first minister, no unionist should accept the deputy first minister position.

At the moment there is evidence of a good wind behind Allister’s firebrand unionism. But whether that will last to polling day or whether those now leaning to the TUV revert to the DUP, because of old loyalties and the prospect of a Sinn Féin first minister, is a difficult question to answer.

But if Allister’s whipping-up of unionist anxieties does yield extra seats, it will mean that the unrelenting negativity and all those Carson Trail anti-protocol rallies will have paid off.

Dublin and London will have to listen to that message.

But if he fails in his ambition, then it will mean unionism isn’t quite as apprehensive about the imminence of a protocol-created united Ireland – which he fiercely contends is happening – and that the majority of unionists aren’t as enamoured of old-style fear-inducing evangelical unionism as they were in the past.