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Wish List for Unionist Leadership

With unionism, Orangeism and loyalism in crisis, the Protestant people should look for a new leader of vision - that man, he contends, is DUP MEP Jim Allister

Dr John Coulter • 18 September 2005

European MP Jim Allister is the person best positioned to lead the DUP when Paisley gives up the post through retirement or death.

With the Paisley party now occupying the political parking space previously held by Trimble's Ulster Unionists, the unionist family now needs a radical and confident leader who can steer the DUP back to its traditional Right-wing stance and into a coalition with the Empey-led UUP.

The North Antrim-based MEP would also make an excellent replacement for Paisley himself as Westminster MP for the constituency. Allister has already made his seat in the European Parliament a 'safe one' for the DUP.

In the 2004 European election, Allister increased Paisley's personal 28.4 per cent vote of 1999 into a DUP vote of 31.9 per cent - up almost 4 per cent. The new MEP certainly scotched all rumours that the party's success in Europe was entirely based on 'The Big Man's' popularity vote.

Indeed, Allister surprised many pundits in Northern Ireland by handsomely winning the DUP's European nomination in the first place, fighting off stiff challenges from Paisleyite 'big guns' such as Maurice Morrow from Fermanagh South Tyrone, and the present South Antrim MP, the Free Presbyterian Gospel-singing cleric Rev William McCrea.

The surprise was because Allister had bowed out of politics in 1987 to concentrate on his legal career following the decision of the two unionist parties not to oppose one another in the General Election of that year.

Four years earlier, Allister had been pipped as MP for the new East Antrim seat by Roy Beggs senior of the UUP by a mere 367 votes. Ironically, in this year's General Election, Beggs lost the supposedly 'safe' UUP seat to the DUP's Sammy Wilson.

Allister first effectively shot to political fame in 1982 when he took an Assembly seat for North Antrim. He became the party's Assembly Whip. A barrister by occupation, he had been a European Parliament personal assistant to Paisley and DUP Press officer from 1980 to 1982.

He further established his unionist credentials as joint organiser of the UUP/DUP 'Operation USA' publicity campaign in the United States in January 1982. When the boundary changes created the new East Antrim seat, it had been widely anticipated that Paisley would contest the new seat, leaving Allister to campaign in what remained of the North Antrim constituency.

However, it has been suggested that Allister was parachuted into East Antrim at the last minute because Paisley wanted to remain in North Antrim. Had Allister been the original DUP runner for East Antrim, there is no doubting that with more time, he could have beaten Beggs for the seat.

Since returning to the political arena last year, Allister has gained himself a reputation of being a tough-talking yet articulate exponent of the traditional unionist ideology. His greatest strength is not simply his extensive popularity amongst the DUP's grassroots, but also his growing stature amongst Right-wing sections of the UUP, who are keen to see a coalition - even a merger - of the two unionist parties.

Having secured the European seat, under the dual mandate ruling, he could not hold a Westminster seat, too. He would have to give this up if he won North Antrim as a Westminster seat.

Although many traditional Paisleyite fundamentalists assume Paisley's son, Ian junior, will be his father's natural successor as North Antrim MP, many in the party's modernising wing see Allister as the man to not only hold the seat, but also win the DUP leadership.

Whilst he has given a lifetime of service as leader of the DUP since its inception in 1971, Paisley senior cannot continue forever. Although his successor might be expected to come from the ranks of the DUP's expanded Westminster team, Allister's strong rank and file popularity amongst both unionist parties could be the deciding factor in tipping any leadership race in his favour.

At present, the leading contenders are deputy leader Peter Robinson, North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, and McCrea. Former UUP man Jeffrey Donaldson, now Lagan Valley's DUP MP, is the hot tip for the deputy leadership as well as a grassroots favourite as a future Grand Master of the Orange Order.

His extensive legal background and experience would give Allister a keen sense of responsibility and maturity in intense political negotiations, especially if the DUP has to 'do the business' with Sinn Fein to get the Stormont Assembly up and running again.

What many grassroots unionists want is a united front amongst the various unionist parties. At the very least, they want a return to the 1970s and the United Ulster Unionist Council, or Unionist Coalition, which operated a very effective 'one seat, one candidate' philosophy.

There are a number of Ulster's 18 constituencies which are presently in nationalist hands because of a split unionist vote. Ideally, many unionists want to see a return structurally to the early 1960s when there was only one unionist movement, simply known as The Unionist Party.

Unionists know what they want - formal unity. What they lack is a unionist leadership capable of successfully delivering that vision. That dream could become a reality if three people were put in position - Allister as leader of the DUP, Donaldson as Orange Order Grand Master, and Reg Empey remaining as UUP boss.

There can be no doubting that unionism will re-align itself once more when Paisley senior is no longer in control of the DUP, whether that situation is brought about by his retirement or death.

The real fear amongst some DUP grassroots is that if the party does a deal with Sinn Fein to restore legislative devolution, a post Paisley DUP will become a cozy liberal unionist version of the late Brian Faulkner's old pro-Assembly unionist movement.

Already the UUP is starting to adopt the stance held by the former Vanguard Unionist Party in the mid 1970s. Whilst Paisleyism is now the majority voice in the unionist family, a post Paisley era will more than likely see the re-emergence of a strong radical form of traditional Protestant unionism.

Such a radical movement will require a clear and unambiguous leader. That man is Jim Allister. Many in unionism feel he should have stuck to his guns in 1983 and remained in North Antrim. Many felt in 1987 he should have insisted on running again for East Antrim.

When Paisley senior finally relinquishes the DUP leadership, many in both parties hope Allister has the political will to allow his name to go forward as a leadership contender. Paisleyism is in its twilight years politically. The time has come to awaken to a new dawn - that of Allisterite Unionism.





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