Jim Allister set to upset both pro Agreement Unionist parties?

This election is way too screwy to bet with any confidence on concrete predictions. I’ve heard the estimated size of the TUV vote run from 15,000 to 80,000. But Brendan over at Stakeholder notes that Paddy Power is giving the shortest money on a 60,000 plus haul of first preferences to Jim Allister. That’s certainly above current DUP estimates. And the TUV think it could go significantly higher. If it does break 60k, depending on how the Nationalist race goes (Maginness is arguably a stronger candidate than the party’s 2004 choice Martin Morgan), Sinn Fein’s Ms de Brun will likely top the poll. You will note just how quickly after the campaign’s start the DUP softened their ‘let’s top the poll’ message.The TUV thinks the expenses row is demotivating the support for the two main parties, (and it seems to be hitting Unionists in general more than nationalists) but they hope to prosper from it. The DUP are putting their hopes in limiting that damage by focusing on his expenses as an MEP (something they most know in much fuller detail than they are prepared to go in public since Allister was their MEP until two years ago.

It remains to be seen whether Allister’s performance under withering fire (for 40 minutes; up to three times longer than the other politicians on the show) from an extremely well briefed Stephen Nolan this morning, in which he was interrogated about his earnings as a barrister (having done work for former party colleagues Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson).

If the prices at Paddy Power are in any way realistic, Allister is proving much more competitive than many expected at the outset of the campaign. The odds are against him taking the third seat. But he doesn’t need that to happen to stir up some muddy water in Unionist politics. High enough, and Mrs Dodds will not make quota. Higher and Jimmy Nicholson may be caught up in a messy race for last place.

From what I can make out they are most active in this campaign in Upper Bann, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, East Londonderry and North Antrim. Their most credible result will be to stack up enough seats in these places to take seats off the five or six most vulnerable DUPers in 2012. Or, if they push it right to the top, look for some of the more unhappy bods inside the Assembly to peel away to them in advance.

On this last, Peter Robinson allegedly has signed contracts from all sitting MPs that in theory would bind the resigning member to resign his seat as well as the whip. How well that might stand up in court, is quite another matter of course.

But probably the party with the greatest worries in this campaign must be the Ulster Unionists (or UCU – NF). Much of the on-the-ground intelligence is anecdotal (all parties have to run their Stormont offices throughout the campaign so there is a short of that close to the ground intelligence you get with other elections).

Their support is widely held to be the most vulnerable to the stay at home response to the Westminster affair, regardless of the quality of the campaign. And they have been far from effective in making the Cameron effect translate to local audiences. Mark Devenport’s Potemkin Villages schtick probably most accurately sums up the faux nature of their campaign. Other party’s gleefully report a meltdown in their former support on the ground.

On the sunny side of the street this time out, both nationalist parties have much to be happy about, it would seem. The SDLP vote in 2004 was poor. They’re saying this year’s campaign is a larger scale version of the successful 2005 doorstep campaign in Foyle. But what they are hoping for is a Belfast South scenario; where they squeeze through the pack to take the last seat.

They calculate they need another 20,000 votes from 2004. Though the read across is not that simple. One of the things in their favour is the differential way the Westminster row is feeding into the Unionist and Nationalist bases. And, they say, the possibility of winning a second nationalist seat seems to be motivating people who have not bothered in the past, to get out of the house and do their constitutional business.

Sinn Fein is quietly confident. They have studiously avoided talk of topping the poll, though that is pretty much the educated guess of most of the other parties in the race. Though McGuinness’ ‘traitors’ moment has played badly with some of their activists, it is proving very popular on the doorsteps. Conor Murphy’s promise* to continue the subsidy of water rates is playing well too.

For once there is a kind of edgy harmony between the two parties, or at least a studied avoidance of face to face contact. Sinn Fein concentrated on digging in as the major force in Northern Irish nationalism, and the SDLP, with fingers crossed, hoping to swing in for that last seat behind them.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty