Jim Allister did well – better than many had initially thought (but the evidence from the bookies showed that as the campaign progressed more people realised his potential).
However, despite losing his European Parliament seat, he will not be leaving the world of politics behind. In his concession speech yesterday he announced that he would run for the Westminster seat in North Antrim when the eagerly-awaited election is called.
This has truly put the frighteners on the DUP. North Antrim is the DUP constituency par excellence – held by Ian Paisley senior since 1970, and home of many of the more strident party members. It was widely expected that when Paisley senior stands down, he will be succeeded as DUP candidate by his son, Ian Paisley junior. However, Ian junior is not the man his father was, and may have trouble holding the seat even on a good day. With Allister as an opponent it would not be a good day!
Unofficial reports from the European Parliament election count suggest that in the boxes from North Antrim votes for Allister exceeded those for the DUP's candidate, Diane Dodds. If this is true, then the DUP's prospects for holding the seat become uncertain.
The DUP is by far the largest party in North Antrim, scoring around 50% of the vote (54.8% at the last Westminster election), and no other party scores even half of that. However, in the past (as late as 2001) the UUP could reach around 24% of the total, so a greatly reduced DUP vote, and a strong vote for Allister could provide room for a surprise candidate to sneak between them and win the seat. Against this, though, must be placed the reality that since 2001 the UUP vote has shrunk to around 14%. Even with some Cameron-bounce it is very difficult to see a UCUNF victory here.
So the contest will be between Allister and whoever the DUP stand – Paisley senior will be 84 at the next election (assuming it is in June 2010), and is already the oldest member of the British House of Commons. Can they really stand him again? It would look like an act of complete desperation by the DUP, worse even that Arlene Foster standing for Fermanagh District Council. But could Paisley junior beat Allister? Paisley junior is not strikingly popular, either in North Antrim or elsewhere – in the 2007 Assembly election he got 13.8% of the vote, but if his father was not there he could expect to inherit some of his votes.
This will be a very interesting contest to watch.
Though the Westminster election must come first, the same constituencies will be used only one year later for the Assembly election in 2011. So the outcome of the Westminster elections will be minutely scrutinised to gauge the levels of support for the parties and the likely outcome of the 2011 elections. And if Allister fights in North Antrim, it is very likely that other TUV candidates will contest other constituencies in the Westminster election. A concerted attack on the DUP, so soon after their humiliation in the European elections, and so soon before the really important elections of 2011, could overwhelm the DUP. A defeat in North Antrim would be a psychological disaster of greater proportions than the 'disaster' in the European elections.
Karl Marx noted that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce", and the outflanking of the DUP by Allister is definitely a repeat of the same manoeuvre carried out by the DUP on the UUP. The question is, though, will the repeat of history turn out to be a tragedy for the DUP?