When Ron McDowell left the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and joined the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in 2020, there were "six people in the Belfast branch. Six," he emphasises.
“Then the protocol happened, and people left the Democratic Unionist Party and people came to support the TUV stance on it. There’s now 150,” he told The Irish Times
He is in no doubt about why they left. “The protocol is an absolute existential threat, and that’s how the people are seeing it. So the TUV are really articulating the voice of what people are thinking at the moment.”
Darrin Foster describes a similar experience. The 26-year-old chip-shop owner from Portadown stood for the TUV in local council elections in 2019.
Polling 547 first-preference votes, he was then one of only of two TUV members in Upper Bann. "The party at that time basically only existed in Ballymena, " he says, naming the home town of party leader Jim Allister. "But it's all coming right now. We formed a branch in Upper Bann and I helped to form the one in Newry and Armagh as well, and both of them have had over 100 applications to join."
A unionist party to the right of the DUP, the TUV was formed in 2007 after its leader, the articulate, forthright North Antrim QC Allister quit the larger party over its decision to share power with Sinn Féin.
Today Allister and his supporters remain opposed to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, while he has seized on the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol to put the DUP on the defensive, and he has.
Interest in the TUV "exploded" once the protocol – which avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea – came into effect on January 1st, says TUV press officer Samuel Morrison.
The party’s membership has doubled to 1,000, it claims. It has now a presence in every constituency. Some branches which had previously existed in name only have come back to life.
For the first time it bids to field candidates in all 18 of Northern Ireland’s constituencies in next year’s Assembly election, where it faces the challenge of turning fair political winds into votes.
“The protocol was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Darrin Foster. “You’re looking at it and saying, hold on, Jim [Allister] has a track record here of actually delivering and being right and standing up for unionists.”
The increase in membership is "very significant", says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. "The DUP did not have that many more members only a decade ago."
Such numbers would end the criticism usually levelled at the TUV that it is nothing more than a one-man band owned, operated and controlled by Allister and no one else.
“That increase in membership on the back of protocol protests puts them in a better position where they can make a serious effort at the Assembly election at least,” says Tonge.
The TUV’s popularity is on the rise, increasing from 10 per cent in February to 14 per cent in its most recent poll in August, when it overtook the DUP, which is on 13 per cent, according to the Belfast-based polling firm LucidTalk.
Yet Allister remains the party's only Assembly member (MLA). He received 66,000 votes in the European Parliament election in 2019, but that does not go far when shared out throughout 18 constituencies.
Aside from Allister its only elected representatives are six councillors. In the last Assembly election in 2017 Allister’s party took just 2.6 per cent of the first-preference votes, a slight fall on the 3.4 per cent gained in 2016.
However, that was then, and this is now, and the TUV is hoping that the changed circumstances of this election will deliver a result more in line with the opinion polls. If so Stormont will be a different place.
The TUV candidate in north Belfast and also the party secretary will be Ron McDowell. From Ballysillan, his entry into politics grew out of his sense of "frustration" over the "politicisation" of parades.
Formerly the DUP’s vice-chair in North Belfast, he quit in January 2020, believing that the DUP’s loss of seats in the district was explained by its failure to deliver locally or on the bigger issues.
“Things that were really important to unionists in the area, the Orange traditions ... we were bleeding out on our own culture and traditions and our confidence, I suppose.
“But at the same time we were paying a heavy price for Stormont and the heavy price just got dearer and dearer and dearer until it was too dear for me really,” he told The Irish Times.
Elizabeth Neely, a 53-year-old carer from Newbuildings outside Derry and a lifelong DUP supporter up to recently, will be the TUV's first candidate in Foyle. She switched her allegiance over the DUP's handling of Brexit and especially the protocol. "I felt I needed to do something because I didn't feel the DUP were representing me or people like me."
Neely has her work cut out since Foyle is expected to return four nationalist MLAs and one unionist, currently the DUP junior minister Gary Middleton. In 2017 Middleton took 13.4 per cent of the first-preference vote, with the only other unionist candidate, Julia Kee of the UUP, on 3.7 per cent. However, Neely believes Foyle unionists want "another choice".
“I’m not going to say that this’ll be easy, definitely it won’t be easy, but I will work hard and do my best, and hopefully people will be with me on voting day.”
This is the big question. Can the TUV translate this increased support into electoral representation that extends beyond Allister and his personal stronghold in North Antrim?
For now Jon Tonge has doubts. “I’ve no doubt that Jim Allister will be very comfortably re-elected, probably topping the poll. Other candidates may struggle, notwithstanding a decent percentage vote this time round.
“It’s still that ‘stop Sinn Féin’ ... [if it seems tight] UUP and TUV voters will flock to the DUP to stop Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister,” says the Manchester-based academic.
“If the position looks hopeless for the DUP you can go astray, you can go wandering as a unionist voter with a relatively clear conscience because it’s not going to cost the first ministership if it’s written off.
“That actually helps the TUV ironically, even though Jim Allister is bitterly opposed to the idea and doesn’t want unionist parties to nominate a Deputy First Minister.
“I expect a higher percentage vote for them for sure, that looks pretty certain, but in terms of actually winning a seat I only see Jim Allister winning a seat,” says Tonge. “I don’t think the TUV will be sufficiently transfer-friendly.”
Darrin Foster disagrees, saying he had one or two people, including his father, to campaign with him when he ran in the local elections. Now he has “maybe 50 people going out round the doors”.
“So I think a lot has changed,” he says, “There’ll always be a few that will revert to the DUP on the day, safety net and all that, but I’d be amazed if Jim Allister is the only person to be returned for the TUV.”
Yet even with just one Stormont seat the TUV has already changed Northern Ireland’s political landscape.
“The TUV is acting like a dead weight on the DUP,” says Tonge. “Donaldson tacked to the right to make sure the TUV doesn’t hoover up its votes. So the TUV is influencing the political game, and they’re fostering further disaffection with Stormont which has been brewing for a while.”