When Jim Allister resigned from the DUP in March 2007 (following an overwhelming decision by the party executive to endorse an arrangement which would result in a DUP First Minister with a Sinn Fein deputy in May), it spooked the party. They knew they were taking a huge risk, anyway, so the departure of their MEP was a blow. What they couldn't be sure of is what he would do next; with both Bob McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party and the UUP suggested as possibilities.
But on December 7, he founded Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and committed the party to fighting against mandatory coalition and for the rule of law. Some sources within the DUP suggest it was the creation of this new party on their right flank, combined with Ian Paisley's easygoing "Chuckle Brothers" relationship with Martin McGuinness, which led to the internal coup which toppled Paisley in May 2008. As a DUP MLA told me at the time: "This could be Jim's ultimate moment: he is hugely respected across the party and could take people with him. The leadership is worried."
The TUV's first electoral outing was a council by-election in Dromore, in February 2008, where it took almost 20% of the vote, with a majority of its transfers going to the UUP - enabling it to hold the seat - rather than the DUP. In June 2009, Allister failed to retain the Euro seat he had won for the DUP in 2004 (the party's best result since 1994), but he still managed to win 66,197 votes (13.5%) and his transfers ensured the UUP's Jim Nicholson was elected before the DUP's Diane Dodds. And, in a second council by-election, in Craigavon, in January 2010, the TUV polled 19% after the DUP stood aside and allowed the UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson to win with 63%.
At this stage, it looked as if the TUV could be a real electoral irritant for the DUP, albeit in the sense that it seemed to be helping the UUP, rather than winning anything for itself. So, the 2010 General Election was going to be a real test of TUV's impact. But it turned out to be a damp squib.
In the 10 seats it contested, it won just 26,300 votes, almost 40,000 down on Allister's 2009 tally; although it took delight in the fact that in East Belfast their candidate's 1,856 votes probably cost Peter Robinson his seat (Long's majority was 1,533). At the Assembly election in May 2011, the TUV contested 12 seats, but saw its vote fall by another 10,000 to 16,480. Allister won in North Antrim, coming in on the last count, but, to all intent and purposes, it looked as though the DUP had squashed the TUV.
That's certainly what the DUP hoped. Indeed, one veteran member of the party told me he thought Jim would get bored on the Assembly back benches and quickly become an irrelevance. At first glance that looked like a reasonable assessment, for a similar fate had befallen other independents or one-man-bands after 1998. But he overlooked some key factors.
Allister is the best natural performer unionism has. He writes well. He thinks brilliantly on his feet. He has a nose for an issue that will attract media and grassroots unionist attention. He is a great interviewee. He does his homework and takes a forensic approach to every issue.
One former barrister colleague summed it up: "I think Jim looks upon every audience as a jury. So, his job is to present the evidence and marshal the arguments in such a way that the jury will come down in his favour. He relishes the challenge." Former SDLP MLA Alban Maginnis said: "Jim and I were called to the Bar at the same time. We were reasonably friendly as colleagues and I had a great respect for his professionalism. He brings his forensic skills to bear in the Assembly with a wit and lethal effectiveness that is unrivalled among his peers. In private, he is pleasant and humorous company. It's a pity his politics are so negative."
I first met Jim Allister at Queen's University, Belfast in the mid-1970s and campaigned for him when he was the joint unionist candidate for the presidency of the Students' Union in 1975. I remember being struck by his affability, even though he and I would have disagreed on many things. I also remember being struck by a quality I'll describe as rigidity: a sense that this was a guy who wasn't flexible when it came to his political beliefs.
Back then, when the DUP had only been going for a few years, it was usual for their members to be described - although "dismissed" is probably the more accurate term - as "purists": people who rejected the weakness of "Big House unionism", particularly the likes of recent leaders like Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner; people who weren't willing to compromise their beliefs, their unionist identity in this case, for the sake of a bad deal.
Almost 50 years on and Jim Allister is still a purist. Still unwilling to compromise for the sake of a bad deal. It's why he resigned from the DUP in 1987, when the party agreed a general election pact with the UUP which prevented him being the candidate in East Antrim (where he had cut Roy Begg's majority to just 367 in 1983.) It's why he resigned again in 2007 when the DUP opted to form an Executive with Sinn Fein. It's why he continues with his mantra that a mandatory coalition is bad for unionism and Northern Ireland. It's why he set-up his own party, rather than retiring, or returning to his legal career. It's what keeps him going even when the election victories don't stack up.
It may also be the purist in him which accounts for what Alban Maginness describes as "negativity". Yet, that negativity resonates with a broad section of unionism and loyalism and accounts for his standing in a recent LucidTalk poll. With a negative rating of -9 (and all political leaders have a minus rating as well as a positive one), he is well ahead of the UUP's Steve Aiken (-22) and Arlene Foster (-30). Which, by one interpretation, makes him the most popular unionist leader. The fact that the TUV is on 10% (the first time in double figures), while the UUP seems stuck on 12% and the DUP is down to 19% is another clear indication of success.
And he remains one of the busiest MLAs: a constant stream of uncomfortable questions to ministers and departments, another Private Member's Bill, articles for publication and what sometimes seems like a permanent presence on radio and TV. His criticism of Chief Constable Simon Byrne on a recent Nolan Show was typically brutal: "... he has thrown that officer under the bus. And why? Because he is in the business - as he was with the (Bobby) Storey funeral - of pandering to forces that will never be satisfied. But, obviously, the sensitivities of the unionist community don't matter a whit and he still seems to duck and dive over that funeral."
But here's his problem: given the figures from previous elections, it still seems likely that, when people think TUV, they actually mean Jim Allister. So, while 10% looks good on paper - particularly spread across a couple of pages - it may not translate into votes for the party.
Jim Wells, who has known Allister since the 1970s and now sits with him in the Assembly's "naughty corner", agrees: "No one can dispute his ability. But the very significant rise for TUV in the poll is about him, rather than the party. There's a vast chasm between him and rank-and-file members. If his name was on the ballot paper in every constituency, he would represent a major political threat to other unionist parties."
Allister is aware of that. In previous elections, TUV election posters have had pictures of both the candidate and Jim: the subliminal message being, "Vote TUV anywhere, in any constituency, and you get Jim Allister." But it didn't work. Voters seem to want the real Jim Allister.
The loyalty to Allister from party members is astonishing. Not one person I talked to - even when I said it was off-the-record and not for use - had a word of criticism about him. What was interesting, though, was the number who gave me a variation of: 'I sometimes wish people could see the Jim Allister who is good company and often very funny, rather than the stern Jim.' Perhaps the most instructive point came from a former candidate: "I don't think Jim has ever fully understood that being respected and admired and agreed with isn't enough in politics. Being liked helps, too. And if Jim showed the side that many of us have seen over the years, he might be surprised about how it could help with growth."
The TUV's core support seems to be people who didn't cross the Rubicon in 1998 (GFA) or 2007 (DUP deal with SF). There's nothing to suggest that anyone in the TUV, let alone their leader, is ready to cross anytime soon. So, how does he even begin to persuade pro-Union non-voters, or people who are voting for other unionist parties, that the TUV is worth voting for? Is there a genuine appetite for a party - more importantly, a party capable of winning seats - led by a purist?
His biggest problem, I suppose, is this: how does someone who represents what could be described as the "Banquo's ghost" of traditional unionism offer a viable and available agenda for the needs of unionism right now?