Maverick voice on winning run With his Special Advisers’ Bill and campaign against the Maze Peace Centre, Jim Allister has had a good 12 months. But can he shake off his animus against the DUP and build a broader consensus, asks Alex Kane
When Jim Allister was elected to the Assembly in May 2011 – returned below quota and as the sole representative of Traditional Unionist Voice – the expectation of commentators and political opponents was that he would be “nothing more than a surly, ineffective voice from the back benches”.
The TUV, which had looked like a serious headache for the DUP when Allister took 66,000 votes in the Euro election in 2009, now seemed to be a spent force: with its leader a “lone reminder of the old days of anti-Agreement unionism”.
Yet, he is now widely regarded as one of the most sure-footed performers in the Assembly. Indeed, the BBC’s flagship politics programme, The View, named him as the ‘Best MLA’ in an awards show in July.
He got his Private Member’s Bill on special advisers on to the statute book, even though the odds were heavily stacked against him. He was the central figure in the campaign against what he described as an “IRA terror shrine” at the Maze – a campaign which is reckoned to have forced a U-turn from Peter Robinson.
His flow of Freedom of Information questions about departments and ministers has fed the media and irked both the DUP and Sinn Fein. Far from being a spent force, he is taken very seriously inside and outside the Assembly, not least for his ability to discomfit the DUP generally and Peter Robinson in particular.
James Hugh Allister was born on April 2, 1953 into a farming family near Crossgar in Co Down. He was the youngest of four children. His parents were both from Co Monaghan and were part of the Protestant exit after partition.
He attended Regent House, Newtownards, followed by Queen‘s University where he studied law and qualified as a barrister in 1976. His first real taste of politics was at Queen’s, where he was active on the Students’ Representative Council and stood – unsuccessfully, although it was a surprisingly narrow defeat – as an ‘anti-republican candidate’ in the presidential election in 1975.
He had already joined the DUP shortly after it was formed in 1971 and was a member of the East Belfast Association. Even at that early stage, his talents as an organiser and strategist were recognised by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson: so much so that he was Robinson’s election agent in the 1979 General Election, helping him to a surprise win – by a majority of just 64 – over the UUP’s sitting MP, William Craig.
Between 1980 and 1982, he served as Ian Paisley’s PA in the European Parliament before being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982 and serving as the DUP’s chief whip until the Assembly was dissolved in 1986. He also stood in the 1983 general election in East Antrim, losing to the UUP’s Roy Beggs by just 367 votes.
After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, he became a key member of the Joint Unionist Working Party to oversee the campaign against the agreement and organised many of the rallies across Northern Ireland over the next couple of years.
There were suggestions that he was unhappy with some aspects of the Unionist Task Force Report (written in 1986 by Peter Robinson and the UUP’s Harold McCusker and Frank Millar), which concluded that unionists should be more open to broader negotiation and co-operation with nationalism.
In the 1987 General Election, he was refused permission to stand against Beggs again in East Antrim (a decision, he says, was “primarily Ian Paisley’s doing”) and left the DUP “to provide for my family”.
In 1978, he had married Ruth – whom he’d met at Queen’s – and they moved to Kells, in north Antrim, to suit her job as a librarian there. They now have three children: a son who works in the media in London, another who works for Price Waterhouse Cooper in Belfast and a daughter, who lives in Ballymena and works for her father.
He built up a private practice at the Bar, taking silk in 2001 and specialising in criminal defence work. He was counsel in a number of major terrorist cases, including Greysteel. He’s also represented several politicians, including both Paisleys, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson in a memorable photographic copyright case.
But the passion for politics had never left him and, by his own admission, “allowed myself to be tempted back to fight the EU seat in 2004 – and look where that has led.”
Those who know Allister well say that he’s “not good at compromise”, so it should have come as no great surprise when, from as early as the Leeds Castle talks in September 2004 he expressed personal concerns that the “DUP was on a journey into power with Sinn Fein, which I did not wish to take”.
The real surprise was why the DUP – and it clearly had the imprimatur of both Paisley and Robinson – chose to bring him back in the first place. He admits that, after the Leeds Castle talks, “my role was largely a thwarting role, which doubtless made me enemies, though, in truth, I was soon ostracised from key decision-making. It was a particularly turbulent time for me in the DUP post-St Andrews, until I resigned the day they sat down with IRA/SF. And, as they say, the rest is history”.
Having walked away in 1987, there was surprise when, in December 2007, he decided to form the TUV rather than resign as an MEP or become an independent.
But Allister reckoned that he had tapped into a vein of discontent, particularly within the DUP’s founding grassroots core.
Whatever the real reason – and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a mixture of solid principle and a sense of personal and political betrayal – his decision to create TUV presented the DUP with a challenge.
Yet, as with so many offshoots of mainstream unionism, TUV hasn’t really gone anywhere. Allister did well in his attempt to hold on to his Euro seat in 2009 – taking almost 14% – but in the 2011 general election his candidates gathered just 2.5%.
At this point, even with his successes in the Assembly and Maze, it seems unlikely that the TUV can be transformed into a significant political/electoral force.
That said, there is clearly a continuing role for him: assuming, of course, that he wants one. He’s had a really good run since 2011 and he will have taken enormous pleasure in proving his critics wrong and in wrong-footing the DUP so often. But the spat between him and his old party is becoming increasingly bitter and last Monday it descended into very personal allegations involving his wife and family.
The problem is that both the media and wider public – many of whom have become fonder of him than they could ever have imagined – may get bored with what has all the hallmarks of an unending grudge-match.
And once the media and public get bored with you – it happened with UKUP leader Bob McCartney, during the 2003-7 Assembly – then they tend to switch off.
Allister has always been a maverick. He’s the sort of politician who will always put principle before the party, as well as before his personal electoral interests.
Some critics say that “it’s because he can afford to”: but there was no evidence he could afford to when he walked away from the party in 1987.
The decision he must make, and make soon, is whether he can shake off his animus against the DUP (as well as Sinn Fein) and develop a much broader political agenda, or whether he will continue to beat the same two drums to no particular end.
He proved with his Private Member’s Bill and Maze campaign that he has a canny knack for building the oddest of alliances: and his political future will now depend on building more of them and directing them towards the voters he needs to start attracting again.
A life so far
He was born in Crossgar in 1953 to parents who had arrived from Monaghan after partition
His wife, Ruth, is a librarian n They have three children
He joined the DUP in 1971 and was Peter Robinson’s election agent in 1979 when he won his East Belfast seat
He was the DUP’s chief whip in the 1982-86 Assembly
He left the DUP in 1987 when he wasn’t allowed to contest East Antrim in the general election. He rejoined in 2003
He likes Mr Bean
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