Northern Ireland

Analysis: Will Jim Allister’s elevation to Westminster blunt the thorn in Stormont’s side?

The TUV leader’s election has solved one problem for the DUP and created another - and will his Westminster commitments keep him out of the executive’s hair?

Jim Allister taking to the media at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt, during the count for the 2024 General Election
Jim Allister overturned a majority of more than 12,000. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA (Niall Carson/PA)

It would be wrong to say no-one predicted Jim Allister’s victory in North Antrim. However, those who suggested the TUV leader was in with a good shout tended to be his supporters, so it was dismissed merely as wishful thinking.

Yet in what was arguably the greatest surprise of this election, the former DUP MEP, who went solo in 2007 after the decision to share power with Sinn Féin, took the seat that has had a Paisley name on it for the past 54 years.

Mr Allister hadn’t contested the North Antrim Westminster seat since 2010, when Ian Paisley Jnr first succeeded his father as the constituency’s MP with a majority of 12,558.

The former DUP junior minister’s cushion was at a similar level going into Thursday’s election but the TUV challenger overturned it and ended up 450 votes ahead.

On paper, it was another huge blow to the DUP, which saw its Westminster representation almost halved, with Gregory Campbell holding on in East Derry by only the slimmest of margins.

But it’s fair to say that there will be few tears shed within DUP headquarters at the departure of Ian Paisley, someone for whom the concepts of humilty and discreation would appear alien.

Regarded within the party as less of a maverick and more an enfant terrible, Paisley jnr had been an outsider for almost two decades, ever since Peter Robinson assumed the leadership of the DUP.

Controversy such as his links to property developer Seymour Sweeney and his advocacy for the Sri Lankan government following a free holiday were an embarrassment to a party that traditionally liked to portray itself as austere. The former MP’s swaggering persona and large expenses claims were also out of step with DUP’s largely sober image.

Thursday's election ended the Paisley family's 54-year association with the North Antrim Westminster seat. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA

But his personal popularity in North Antrim created a dilemma for the DUP, which was unable to deselect him for fear he would run as an independent. That problem has now been solved, albeit not to the DUP’s entire satisfaction, while it can also be claimed that Mr Allister’s election to Westminster will help nullify one of the biggest thorns in his former party’s side.

However, the DUP must now find a candidate for North Antrim who can appeal to the constituency’s comparatively hardline unionist electorate yet adequately differentiate themselves from the TUV. Perhaps the only consolation is that the Mr Allister will be 76 when the next general election is scheduled to take place, so a reign matching that of his predecessor in terms of its longevity is unlikely.

Meanwhile, the King’s Counsel once labelled ‘Stormont’s unofficial opposition’ – in the days before the assembly had an official opposition – has been a constant critic of mandatory coalition and the transactional, carve-up politics that the arrangement fosters. It’s also argued that his readiness to be interviewed and to attack mainstream unionism, gains him an elevated media platform.

Mr Allister is equally comfortable pouring derision on the “protocol implementers” of the DUP as he is casting up Sinn Féin’s historical ties to the IRA.

His media profile is expected to remain high but his effectiveness in his new legislature less so, where speaking opportunities are more limited and there’s less potential for his voice to be amplified.

It can also be argued that the new MP for North Antrim’s influence has diminished since Sinn Féin superseded the DUP as Stormont’s largest party.

There’s no doubt that the very capable TUV leader will retain a strong interest in developments in the assembly, ensuring his as yet unidentified proxy continues to hold the executive to account, however, there are only so many gig commitments a one-man band can fulfil.

It will be interesting to see how the dynamic shifts and where the new MP for North Antrim concentrates his ire. The colour of the benches may differ but, as yet, he hasn’t gone away, y’know.