Jim Allister has appealed for the DUP to lead a pan-unionist demand for an end to mandatory coalition government at Stormont, saying that the TUV would give a “ready response” to such a move.
Addressing his party’s annual conference in Cookstown on Saturday, Mr Allister accused the DUP of being desperate to get back into government with Sinn Fein in part to save their salaries.
He criticised the DUP for not taking “the glaring opportunity” last year when Stormont collapsed “to demand change to that unworkable Belfast Agreement structure of mandatory coalition” but instead having entered talks with Sinn Fein “to resuscitate that which can never work”.
Evoking past instances of unionist unity, he said: “Could we not have brought all unionists together on the ground that mandatory coalition has failed; we can disagree about whether it was right to try it in the first place or whether it was wrong, but could we not all face the reality that it’s been shredded in failure and agree in a cohesive manner: let’s therefore proceed in how we move forward from this failure, rather than back into that failure?
“That was the opportunity and I hoped the DUP would take it. And I do say this to them today: if you were yet ready to do that, I believe you would get a ready response from many other unionists, TUV included, because we do want to get a system that works but we’re not prepared to put upon us that which has failed and will fail and fail again.”
He argued that mandatory coalition had “set the scene for the ransom politics that we’ve lived through for the past 18 months, because if you create a system which says you can only have a government if, for example, you have Sinn Fein in it, then of course you’re going to create what we have – the politics of ransom, where those with that veto are going to say, and they have ‘Well then, there’ll be no government unless you sign up to our list of demands; we hold you to ransom until you do’.
“That is the inherent core absurdity of the Belfast Agreement. And in that construction, of course, it contains its own destruction.”
Mr Allister said that he did not regret the absence of a Stormont Executive over the last year, saying that he was “delighted by a year of respite from Sinn Fein in government”. He went on to say: “Direct rule is not perfect – far from it. But it is better than Sinn Fein rule. And it’s better than no rule – and that’s what we’ve got.”
He urged Secretary of State Karen Bradley to “get on with it”, saying that “the sovereign government of the United Kingdom is obligated to give government to all its people and that includes Northern Ireland”.
But later, News Letter columnist Alex Kane warned the party during a panel discussion that direct rule had never been good for unionism.
Much of the conference focused on the Belfast Agreement, whose 20th birthday was marked last week at a series of high-profile events.
Mr Allister denounced the deal for putting in place a process which he said “made a mockery of the justice system”.
“In the releasing of prisoners, it made that acknowledgment that the IRA was demanding that their prisoners were political prisoners.
“Because, by agreeing that they shouldn’t serve out their sentences, they were accepting the propaganda and the contention that they weren’t really criminals; they were freedom fighters.
“And it does something else ... it has set the template for the rewriting of history because if you concede that those who butchered and bombed and engaged in genocide on the Fermanagh border and elsewhere weren’t really criminals, they were political prisoners and they’re entitled to be released, then of course you’re setting the scene for the rewriting of history that we’ve been witnessing and living through ever since.
“And that cancer can be sourced right back to that pernicious decision in the Belfast Agreement to release vicious, vile murderers. And that of course has gone on to haunt each and every innocent victim in this country.”
By Sam McBride
After its leader, one of the TUV’s most obvious assets is the clarity and consistency of its message.
And, as with its leader – without whose abilities the party would surely not exist but who also repels a section of the electorate – that asset has paradoxically also been a weakness.
Jim Allister’s central propositions – that mandatory coalition cannot work; that Sinn Fein is not interested in making Northern Ireland work and that only radical reform of the 1998 agreement can provide government on a sure footing – have not changed since the founding of the party more than a decade ago.
The fact that the message has not changed would seem to point to the sincerity of Mr Allister’s personal belief in his prescription for Stormont’s ills. A more pragmatic politician would have changed course once it became clear that the electorate was not responding to the message.
But although the political vacuum of the last year is likely to stiffen the resolve of core TUV voters, there is little evidence that the party’s message is resonating more in the current situation.
The simplicity and consistency of the message has also the potential to sound faded, as though the party has not adapted to changing times. However, if the Stormont impasse continues for years, unionist voters could come to blame the DUP and be more receptive to alternative proposals.
If that was the case, the TUV message is a simple one which for traditional unionists may become more appealing.
But for more sceptical unionists, Mr Allister needs to be able to persuade them that his ideas are a realistic alternative which would make Northern Ireland better, rather than further destabilise a precarious political situation in which nationalism is increasingly confident and, as with Arlene Foster’s ‘crocodile’ remark, can draw strength from unionist actions which are done without thought to how they will be received by nationalists.