Will Jim Allister stand in Lagan Valley?

I want to examine the TUV’s current strategy which could have a significant impact on the direction of political unionism. There are two alternative strategies available to them. With one, Jim Allister taking to the hustings in Lisburn could well be essential to its success. With the other, were he to stick to Ballymena it would almost certainly fail.

I start from the assumption that the TUV objective is to turn the greatest part of political unionism against what Allister calls the “Donaldson deal”.

Destroy to Rebuild

I call the first alternative ‘Destroy to Rebuild’. This is the approach that his new partners, Reform UK, are taking in Great Britain. Knowing that they can only hope to win a handful of seats (at the very best) in the coming General Election, Reform are contesting every seat in order to maximise their own vote, but much more importantly to maximise Conservatives losses. They calculate that a Tory debacle would result in the election of a new more right-wing Tory leader with whom they could join forces in a sort of reverse take-over of the Conservative party to be rebuilt in a Faragist image. They believe that the bigger the Tory defeat, the more they can move that party to the right and that when, eventually, power returns to Tory hands their ideas will be in control.

It is highly unlikely that a similar approach would enable the TUV to create the conditions for a reverse take-over of the DUP:

  1. This strategy can only work in a First Past the Post electoral system. Reform UK can cut a swathe through the ranks of Conservative MP’s with a relatively small vote share, and could repeat the trick in future council elections. The same tactic could cost the DUP some Westminster seats, but small vote shares won’t take seats from the DUP at Assembly or Council elections.
  2. Although painful, the loss of Westminster seats would be far less traumatic to the DUP than to the Conservatives. For the Conservatives Westminster is the ‘be all and end all’. Not so for any NI party, where there is a greater focus on the Assembly.
  3. DUP member backlash against the party which handed one or more “unionist” seats to Alliance and was prepared to risk gifting one to Sinn Féin might be insurmountable. This may well be a bigger factor in the smaller polity of Northern Ireland where these things are more personal than in Great Britain.

There are two further arguments against it from the TUV point of view:

  1. Every loss of a DUP MP increases the party’s need for a functioning Assembly to give it a reason for existence. The more DUP MP’s the TUV/Reform remove – the more difficult it would be to achieve another DUP withdrawal from the Assembly in protest against the Windsor Framework.
  2. It would strengthen the UUP on the opposite wing of a diminished political unionism.

How vulnerable are DUP seats?

At this point it is useful to understand the potential impact of TUV/Reform candidates in the eight Westminster seats won by the DUP in 2019. The following chart shows who would have won each constituency in 2019 at different levels of TUV/Reform total NI vote share. The TUV/Reform votes are distributed to each constituency in the same proportions as the TUV won in the 2022 Assembly election. The TUV/Reform votes have been subtracted from the DUP. No allowance has been made for changes since 2019 in constituency boundaries, candidates, general party support, or local factors. Also, no estimate has been made for possible changes to tactical voting which would have occurred if a TUV candidate had been in the race. This is the starting point from 2019, not in any way a prediction for 2024.

For example, take East Belfast. If the TUV vote across NI were greater than 4%, the constituency would have been won by Alliance. In actual fact the boundary changes could be expected to reduce that break point to somewhere between 2% and 3%. If other candidates entered the race that could rise back up to 4 or even 5%. And Alliance can point to their Council vote share in 2023 being 4% higher than in 2019. So, these figures can only be broadly indicative for each constituency.

Chart 1: Winning Party A chart of different colors

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For context, the TUV won 7.6% of the vote in the last Assembly election where it stood in every seat. The latest opinion polls placed it between 5% and 6%.

It can be seen that TUV/Reform candidates would likely cost the DUP two seats at their current level of support (East Belfast and South Antrim), while North Antrim would be on a knife’s edge if they return to 2022 levels. Under the “Destroy to Rebuild” strategy, Allister would stand in North Antrim as the TUV candidate most likely to take the seat.

But while higher levels of TUV/Reform support could result in the loss of further DUP seats, it is not until they achieve a 17% vote share in Northern Ireland that they are in the running to win a second seat.

Indeed at 20% the DUP have lost every seat except East Londonderry, but TUV/Reform still have only two.

The 1973 Strategy

But does Allister really want or intend to contest every seat? When he was asked that question the other day he could have replied with a simple “Yes!”. Instead, the lawyer chose to say, “That certainly is the aspiration and intention. We haven’t named our 18 candidates, but I said it was our intention to seek to do that.” Not exactly an unequivocal contractual commitment.

He then went on to say, “If the greater number of unionists reject the Donaldson deal, then it’s dead in the water and that’s the opportunity they’ll be given”.

What Allister is hinting at is the ‘1973 Strategy’.

In the Assembly elections that year the candidates for the dominant Ulster Unionists self-declared as either Pro or Anti the White Paper which created a power sharing Executive and led to the Sunningdale Agreement. They all stood as Ulster Unionists. The Pro White Paper UU’s won handsomely, taking nearly 183,000 votes to the 86,000 for Anti White Paper UU’s. But within 8 months the Pro White Paper faction had lost control of the party and many left. The votes cast for the DUP, Vanguard and Anti-White Paper candidates had meant that a majority of unionists had voted against the White Paper. Before long Vanguard had been absorbed back into the Ulster Unionist party.

The first step of the 1973 Strategy would be to treat the Westminster election as a referendum for unionists on the Protocol /Windsor Framework/Donaldson deal. The second would be to encourage DUP candidates to declare themselves, as the sitting MP’s already have, as being pro or anti the Donaldson deal; rewarding the Anti’s with the withdrawal of the TUV/Reform candidate in their constituency.

The Race to 172,000 votes

There were slightly under 344,000 votes cast for unionist candidates in 2019. If a similar number of unionists vote this time the target for the Antis would be 172,000

If the TUV/Reform took the same share as in the 2022 Assembly election they would have only 61,000.

If Allister frames the election as a unionist referendum on the Protocol with TUV/Reform as the representatives of outright rejection he gets a result that looks like this.

Chart 2

It could be more, it could be less, TUV/Reform could even be well into a double figure vote share, but the overall picture remains the same – a colossal defeat for those who outright reject the Donaldson deal.

“Ah, but” Jim might like to claim in the TV studio as the results come in, “other unionists such as Sammy Wilson and Carla Lockhart don’t like the deal either.” But how much water will that carry when TUV/Reform candidates have spent the previous six weeks or more denouncing Wilson and Lockhart and all other DUP candidates as offering only half-hearted opposition at best?

If Allister wants to place the votes for the four DUP MP’s who criticised the deal in the ‘No’ column he will have to direct his supporters to vote for them and stand down his candidates for East, South and North Antrim and Upper Bann. But even this would not be enough. Again, assuming TUV/Reform candidates perform at 2022 share levels, the outcome would look like this:

Chart 3

A graph with blue squares and white text

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Still a very long way short. Clearly, barring an unlikely tsunami of movement to TUV/Reform, Allistair will need to move up to 60,000 or so votes which were cast for other unionist candidates into his column, by getting those candidates to declare against the Donaldson deal. But that will not be far from easy. The size of the challenge can be seen in Chart 4.

Chart 4

A graph with numbers and text

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As well as the Core Anti Dealers shown in Chart 3, there are Core Deal Accepters – the 3 pro-deal DUP MP’s (Robinson, Campbell and Shannon), plus the UUP and Conservatives. Tom Elliott, who may well once again be the UUP candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone, has been highly critical of the Windsor Framework, so those votes have not been included in the Core Accept column at this time.

Diane Forsyth voted for the Donaldson deal, if she is the DUP candidate for South Down those votes will go to the Core Accept column. Likewise, if Poots stands in South Belfast.

It is obvious therefore that the chances of the Anti’s clocking up the most votes are slim if they cannot command the bulk of the uncommitted from at least two out of FST, North Belfast, Lagan Valley or North Down.

The picture is complicated in FST, where Elliott historically runs as a UUP candidate with DUP backing, the two parties running a combined operation for the election. Lord Morrow, a key figure in the Fermanagh DUP, is believed to have voted against acceptance of the Donaldson deal. There will be a strong temptation to take a sufficiently Anti Windsor Framework stand to keep the TUV out of the contest. Allister could have some negotiating power here. But enough?

Would the DUP candidate in North Belfast be willing to join the Paisley/Wilson faction to gain a free run? With the possible encouragement of Lord Dodds, the Anti-deal former MP for the constituency?

With a UUP candidate for North Down already nominated, the DUP may see little chance of taking the seat from Alliance. Would that reduce or increase the incentive for their candidate to declare opposition to the Donaldson deal in order to keep the TUV out?

Which brings us to Lagan Valley. If the DUP candidate is pro the deal that could be over 16,000 votes added to the Accept score. Since ‘1973 Strategy’ would prevent Allister from standing in North Antrim he could be usefully deployed in Lagan Valley. An early declaration, while the DUP are still sorting out who to stand, could position him as the prime unionist candidate, the one other unionists would need to coalesce around to hold off the challenge from Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood. Especially since he could spend several months in the constituency lamenting the effective abandonment of the constituency by the sitting MP who refuses to resign – a theme he has already voiced. He could almost ignore the DUP candidate and frame his campaign as a man of stature versus the ghost of the absent Donaldson. The symbolism of leading opposition to the Donaldson deal in Donaldson’s old seat could also be potent.


Adding to the unpredictability of all this is the age of some of the DUP MP’s. Will Jim Shannon (pro deal) wish to remain an MP until he is 74, or Gregory Campell (pro deal) and Sammy Wilson (anti deal) until they are both 76? If any of them chose not to go forward it could change the balance significantly.

An election which produced a majority of unionist votes against the Donaldson deal, with the DUP leader losing his seat, would inevitably lead to consternation in the DUP. The last such shock, when TUV opinion poll shares passed 10%, led to the overthrow of the leader, two leadership elections in quick succession, and more than two years in which Jim Allister appeared to be the dominant influence on the party’s direction. In that situation a restructuring of the party, incorporating absorption of the TUV, could not be ruled out. Jim Allister could then be influencing a new direction from the inside.

Where will Jim stand?


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