Belfast Telegraph

Jim Allister: The 'angry man' of politics on why brickbats don't bother him, how he (eventually) wooed his wife and what he does to get away from it all

In the first instalment of a two-part interview, TUV leader Jim Allister describes how being a lawyer was the perfect primer for politics

By Suzanne Breen

High on the kitchen wall of Jim Allister's north Antrim home, above the cooker and a set of Russian dolls, hangs a rifle. It's a Winchester - seen in the hands of countless cowboys and Indians in old Westerns. "There are a few cowboys sitting on a certain party's benches at Stormont who would have history in using something like that!" jokes the TUV leader.

He has a strong sense of humour, admittedly a tad sharp and dry for some tastes.

The gun is only a replica and, growing up on a farm, he knew how to use one himself "although for lawful purposes only", he adds.

We're in Tawny Lodge, Mr Allister's impressive ivy-clad detached home on the outskirts of the village of Kells. Mock Victorian street lamps line the driveway and a huge birdhouse sits on the expansive front lawn.

The baronial hallway - the size of a small house - is lit by a chandelier. It's brimming with furniture and knick-knacks - a chaise longue, wind chimes, old clocks, and hand-carved owls.

But the first piece greeting visitors is a wooden servant holding a plate which the TUV leader has filled with mints.

It's his domestic dig at fellow MLAs. In 2014, he revealed they had munched their way through £1,400 of mints funded from the public purse. "We pay for our own mints down here!" he quips.

He leads me into a lovely room, with wine red walls, a plump leather sofa, and a roaring, wood-burning stove.

His grandchildren's toy trains are scattered around. A cranberry scented candle fills the air. This is Jim Allister as we rarely see him.

But let nobody think he's going all cuddly. "I've just spent the day annoying the Deputy First Minister over Brexit and the Social Investment Fund," he announces, chuffed.

"Don't be asking me soppy stuff!" he warns as the Belfast Telegraph interview begins. I stress that I want him to open up. "Good luck with that!" Ruth, his wife of 38 years, smiles.

James Hugh Allister was born in 1953 in Crossgar, Co Down. He was the youngest of four and "my mummy's pet".

His parents, Mary and Robert, had moved north from Co Monaghan four years earlier when the Irish Republic was officially declared. "My father said they felt the noose was tightening," Mr Allister recalls.

It was a happy childhood, roaming the fields, milking cows and helping out on the farm. "I had a pony as a kid and I've loved horses ever since," he says.

He studied law at Queen's University Belfast where, in 1972, he formed a DUP branch. He was narrowly defeated for the Student Union presidency.

"They were turbulent times, just after Bloody Sunday," he explains. "But I enjoyed the cut and thrust of politics, the rumbustious meetings."

In the same year was future DUP MP, Sammy Wilson. "We got on the best - Sammy's hard not to get on with - although we were quite different. Sammy adopted a minimalist attitude to studying!" he adds.

Last year, Mr Wilson was found guilty of breaching the Assembly's code of conduct for calling the TUV leader "a thug" at a committee meeting.

He refused to apologise but, says Mr Allister, "we're still friends".

At Queen's he met Ruth, a history student, whom he first saw in the Students' Union. "I liked everything about her - her personality, her looks, and she was a soulmate. I was smitten but it took longer for her to feel the same way. Ruth was a work in progress!" he admits.

Ruth says her future husband "would arrange to accidentally bump into me on the library steps".

Their first date was "to the Skandia restaurant in Bangor on a freezing February evening".

After they were married, they moved to Ballymena where Ruth had secured a job as a librarian. Upping sticks for his wife's career was unusual for a man back then. "I thought nothing of it," Mr Allister says. "Ruth landed a decent job, that was it."

At a time when it was fairly rare, Ruth says her husband was present "at the births of our three children, and he only fainted at one!"

Half a dozen mini-statues of barristers sit on Mr Allister's mantlepiece. The law, not politics, is his first love.

His mentor was the late Dessie Boal QC.

"When I asked him should I go to the Bar, he told me to follow my heart, that if something makes you happy, to give it a go whether it works or not," he recalls.

"Dessie also said, 'Jim you will never surpass the feeling when you hear those two magic words from a jury foreman - Not Guilty'. He was right."

While Mr Allister prosecuted some cases initially, he soon gravitated to defence work. "It was far more challenging and interesting," he says.

"As a defence QC, the responsibility of whether someone spends the next 20 years in jail, or goes home to their family, lies in your hands. I acted in several high-profile loyalist cases, including one where I cross-examined a journalist for 13 days. I didn't act in republican cases of any magnitude, but I'd have had no professional difficulty doing so."

On internment and the 1980s supergrass trials, which he says "brought the law into disrepute and weren't terribly smart moves", his views aren't stereotypically unionist.

He admits to sometimes missing the law. "When a big case is on, maybe the Colin Howell or Hazel Stewart trials, I'll say, 'I'd love to be on that'. But I've also been there and done it, and it's not the sort of thing you want to do forever.

"It's a very intense life. There aren't many free evenings.

"The buzz now comes from exposing things at Stormont that need to be exposed and getting through something like Ann's Law (which bars certain ex-prisoners from holding ministerial positions) against the odds."

The TUV leader is immensely proud of his three children. His daughter Karen - "she is married to a man called David Cameron and I have great fun with that" - works part-time for him. Graeme, has a media job in New York, and Phillip is an accountant in Dubai.

But what if one of his children had brought home a Catholic partner or announced they were gay?

"Given the tradition I'm from, I'd be a bit surprised if they brought home a Catholic partner. But I have Catholic friends from the Bar, and 2,000 of my first-preferences in the 2014 EU election went to the SDLP, so conservative Catholics did vote for me," he says.

"If one of my kids said they were gay, I'd tell them I disapproved of their lifestyle, but I'd still love them as my child."

He has two grandsons - Calvin (6) and Dan (3) - Karen's children.

"They're just fascinating, the things they say and do. There's nothing better than kicking a ball about the garden with them," he adds.

Although he doesn't enjoy it, he can cook. "His steak's better than mine!" says Ruth.

But her husband has never drunk alcohol, nor wanted to.

Relaxing is watching Have I Got News for You on Friday nights.

The couple have a holiday home in Portstewart and spend weekends "walking on the beach and around the cliffs".

Remarkably, the TUV leader doesn't like music. "I can appreciate Classic FM but, really, I'm a philistine. I just don't get music," he says.

"Even when I was young, I wasn't into pop music. And I'm quite tuneless.

"As a boy, my mother sent me to piano lessons. After three weeks, the music teacher told her not to waste her money!"

When I ask him if he dances, he looks as horrified as if I've asked him whether he eats babies.

"No," he proclaims. "I can't dance, I've never danced. I've two left feet."

According to his wife, he is romantic.

"I'm not as good at bringing home flowers as I should be, but I'll surprise Ruth with weekends away and I'm good at big gestures," he says.

"I booked a cruise to Alaska for our 25th wedding anniversary."

But how easy is the man - who in politics always seems angry - like to live with? "Well she hasn't left yet," Mr Allister says.

"Let's just say, we've got used to each other over the years," his wife diplomatically puts it.

The TUV leader recalls a party canvasser knocking on a door in Broughshane during May's Assembly election campaign.

"The man who answered it said, 'Don't bother talking to me because I'm voting for that crabbit wee man. When they enquired who the 'crabbit wee man' was, it was me!" he says.

He is comfortable with being cast as the awkward outsider.

"Being a criminal defence lawyer isn't the most popular thing. Foolish people say 'How can you defend a guilty man?', forgetting that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

"It's far easier to be a prosecutor, just as in politics it's easier to swim with the tide than against it," he says.

"People say 'You're a bit of a loner, how do you do it?'

"Well, if you've stood on your feet for a week in the Court of Appeal, taking brickbats from three judges with no inclination towards your case, it toughens you up.

"I don't lose sleep over criticism.

"What others think of me, doesn't concern me."

Asked if he has ever thought of walking away from politics, he replies, "not yet".

A common exhortation from members of the public is 'Keep at 'em boy!', he says.

The hardest time in his political career came two years ago, when eight-year-old Adam Gilmour was struck by a car while walking with his family to catch the school bus.

Just three weeks earlier, his mother Sarah had asked Mr Allister to beg the local education and library board to pick up Adam nearer home as the walk was too dangerous.

"I thought to myself afterwards, 'Was there more I could have done?'" he says.

"I don't think there was.

"I took it up promptly, I pushed it hard.

"But a kid died because the authorities failed to do what they should have done - and that does get to you."

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