Profile: the new Dr No
Intellectual, hard-nosed and even more right-wing than his party leader, DUP MEP Jim Allister is leading the internal revolution against Ian Paisley and the St Andrew's agreement. By Fionola Meredith
There is an extraordinary picture on Jim Allister's website. Eyes tight shut and mouth gawping open, the DUP MEP is shown being solemnly splattered with paint by a brush-wielding toddler. Taken last year during a trip to Taughmonagh nursery in South Belfast, it's obviously a publicity shot, designed to show Jim as an all-round fun guy (the type who doesn't mind red paint dripping inelegantly off the tip of his nose), a cuddly political Santa Claus who has come to shower the grateful kiddies with European peace money.
It's an interesting photograph because Allister isn't normally seen as a ho-ho-hoing kind of man: far from it. Currently engaged in a campaign of dissent against the (already fragile) St Andrews Agreement, which would restore powersharing in Northern Ireland, the balding ex-barrister and political hard man is firmly ensconced on the right wing of the DUP. He customarily wears what the Americans call “a shit-eating grin” – a smug, self-satisfied smile – and, you suspect, rejoices in his nickname of “Paisley's Brain”.
It's undeniable that Allister has a verbal felicity and political acumen that some of the more intellectually-challenged members of the DUP could only dream about. But his hard-nosed views keep his popularity with the party's grass-roots high – there's nothing they like better than thoroughgoing rejectionism, and Allister has shown he can out-Paisley Paisley, the original Dr No, on that score.
Carmel Hanna of the SDLP slammed him as the worst of the North's three MEPs: “a man of undoubted intelligence and ability, but [one] who is a right-wing ideologue in social and economic matters in a way that not even Paisley would have dared to be”. He's not only admired in traditional DUP circles – Allister gets a nod of approval from right-wing Ulster Unionists too, especially those who favour the idea of the two parties ultimately merging.
Born in 1953 in Crossgar, Co Down, Allister was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland as a barrister in 1976. He specialised in criminal law, before ‘taking silk' (becoming a QC) in 2001. As an MEP, Allister is Euro-sceptic, believing in “a Europe of cooperating nation states, rather than a coalescing conglomerate, whether federal or otherwise”. And he loves to preen over his 100 per cent attendance record in the European parliament, not to mention the numerous speeches he has made there – more than either of the North's other two MEPs. Allister lives in the rolling unionist heartlands of Co Antrim, with his wife Ruth, their three children, and – that icon of cosy domestic bliss – a golden Labrador.
A member of the DUP since its founding in 1971, Allister left private practice in 1980 to become Ian Paisley's personal assistant in Europe, a post he held for two years. He represented the party as assembly member for North Antrim, in the ill-starred Northern Ireland Assembly from 1982 to 1986, where he took the role of DUP Chief Whip. Things were looking rosy for the ambitious young barrister. But in 1987, an election pact between the two main unionist parties meant that he was barred from standing for East Antrim in Westminster, forced instead to withdraw in favour of the Ulster Unionist Party's Roy Beggs.
The row that ensued between Allister and his party leader meant that it wasn't until 17 years later, in 2004, that he sought election once more as a DUP candidate, this time aiming to fill Paisley's still-warm seat in the European Parliament. As it turned out, Allister increased the DUP's vote by 4 per cent on that occasion, successfully squashing the long-held belief that the party's position in Europe was only guaranteed by Paisley's substantial popularity vote.
That decisive victory must have gone some way to soothing the old wound of East Antrim for Allister. But many observers believe that the 1987 row still rankles uncomfortably with the politician. Despite the DUP's strenuous efforts to present a seamlessly united front, there have been tensions for years between Allister, Paisley and deputy leader Peter Robinson. Some say that a lingering sense of injustice has more than a little to do with Allister's current oppositional – and perhaps opportunistic – stance on St Andrews.
But if Allister is indeed Paisley's Brain, then the party leader must be experiencing something of a dissociative episode at the moment. As the DUP gingerly circles ever closer to power-sharing with Sinn Féin, Allister has been vociferous in his opposition, constantly churning out lengthy, lawyerly, bullet-point-heavy statements. The ink was barely dry on the St Andrews deal before Jim popped up with his carefully-marshalled concerns. And he didn't bother checking with the boss before airing them, insisting that such behaviour wasn't a prerequisite in the DUP.
In essence, Allister argues that proactive support for the police, the rule of law and the judicial processes are essential pre-requisites for the entry of Sinn Féin into government – and he wants more than sweet words from that party; he wants “up-front delivery” before he'll even contemplate the prospect of powersharing. As Allister puts it in his usual cumbersome legalese, “We have no room for manoeuvre on this perquisite of full testing of any verbal commitments over a credible period before devolution of any inclusive form could be contemplated.” Deciphered, he's saying that 26 March 2007 – the projected date for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland – is way too soon.
Like the strict schoolmaster he resembles, Allister has a few tests in mind for Sinn Féin, to prove that they're for real. He wants to see Sinn Féin encouraging Catholics to join the PSNI (measurable, he says, by an upturn in Catholic recruitment applications); publicly promoting direct co-operation with the police; and returning what Allister describes as “ill-gotten gains”. Allister says, “Clearly, Sinn Féin has far to travel in this regard. Wholehearted support for the rule of law will see an end to Sinn Féin's fatuous denial that the IRA was responsible for the Northern Bank robbery. You can't be in support of the rule of law and the police and at the same time repudiate the intelligence findings of the police in order to excuse and accept ‘the word' of an illegal organisation.”
Allister is seriously unimpressed by Sinn Féin's progress to date. The party's motion on policing, due to be put to members at a special ard fheis in Dublin later this month, falls far short of Allister's requirements. “True to form Sinn Féin is bowling short in its ard fheis motion,” he says. “It makes all its trumpeted support for policing conditional on its demands on powersharing and devolution of policing and justice first being met. What this amounts to is that the DUP jumps first by permitting Sinn Féin into government before they will deign to support the police. That is not acceptable.”
His exclusive concentration on the policing issue is designed to give Sinn Féin not an inch of room to manoeuvre – and to keep them hanging on for a lot longer than Paisley himself is willing to settle for. But he's not having things all his own way within the party. He was recently shouted down at an internal party meeting by the Big Man himself, in a dispute over the latest deal. And the DUP Assembly group's unanimous endorsement of the party leadership's handling of the St Andrews talks – which Allister did not attend: a significant absence – was seen as a distinct rebuff to the sceptical MEP.
So where next for Jim Allister? Political commentator John Coulter has him tipped for the top. “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.” His uncompromising vision is bound to appeal to die-hard unionists aghast at the prospect of Dr No turning into Dr Maybe – and even Dr Yes.