There are clear and consistent signs emerging from the constituency, however, that conventional wisdom is about to be turned on its head. Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice has failed to capture the public imagination in this unionist heartland. And, confounding expectations, the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists electoral pact is performing better than expected.
In candid moments TUV canvassers have admitted that their estimates are being substantially revised, downwards. And the Conservatives and Unionists are increasingly confident that they can mount the main challenge to Paisley in North Antrim.
Irwin Armstrong, the Conservative party member and local businessman chosen by UCUNF to contest the seat, claims that there is strong anti-DUP feeling on the doorstep, but he can detect no drift toward Allister. Anecdotal evidence from TUV activists bears his thesis out.
Contrary to some expectations, Armstrong has been able to call upon wholehearted support from the local UUP association. He might be a Tory, but he can point to strong Ulster Unionist connections, having actively campaigned for the party in previous elections.
Critics alleged that the candidate’s selection was a sop to Northern Ireland’s tiny local Conservative party, in a seat which UCUNF have no chance of winning, but any scepticism about Armstrong’s credentials has proved to be unfounded. When push came to shove, the North Antrim UUP rowed in behind its man with enthusiasm.
He has consistently fielded committed canvass teams and the constituency’s Ulster Unionist MLA, Robert Coulter, signed the Conservative and Unionist candidate’s nomination papers. The UUP is fully behind its local candidate and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed on the doorsteps.
Meanwhile, affection for Junior’s father hasn’t laid to rest suspicions, held by many in North Antrim, that the younger Paisley is a wide-boy on the make. His forced resignation from the junior minister’s role in Northern Ireland‘s Executive, his connections to property developers and controversy about an expensive DUP constituency office in Ballymena, all remain fresh in the public mind.
Even as Junior attempts to rehabilitate his reputation, new questions about his general election campaign expenses could yet emerge. A farewell letter from his father to every constituent in North Antrim appeared after the election was called and should, by rights, substantially restrict the party’s election war chest. And the DUP candidate’s choice of Davy McAllister, a Moyle councillor convicted of benefit fraud, to sign his papers, is hardly likely to soothe voters anxiety.
The saving grace for Paisley could yet be a total lack of enthusiasm for Jim Allister. Although the TUV polled well in North Antrim in last year’s European Election, even committed DUP supporters were sceptical of their candidate, Diane Dodds.
This time, the popular perception is that Allister is not a viable alternative to the Paisley dynasty. If Junior does hold the seat for the DUP, and he is still the favourite, the TUV leader could easily find himself beaten into third place by UCUNF.