Analysis: TUV may stay the same, but the world around it is shifting

Delegates listen to a speech during the TUV conference in the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick
Delegates listen to a speech during the TUV conference in the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick

As in life, the only constant in politics is change.

For TUV, a party which sees itself as the inheritor of the mantle of the sort of unionism espoused by Northern Ireland’s founding fathers, it is inherently resistant to change.

And certainly its message has remained remarkably consistent – the core of Jim Allister’s conference speech on Saturday could have been delivered seven years ago when the party was founded.

But circumstances around the party have radically shifted.

Whereas in 2008 the DUP was arguing that it had disarmed and effectively disbanded the IRA, the DUP now admits that neither of those things happened.

And the UUP, which until recently could be accused by the TUV of being a part of what it sees as a dysfunctional Executive, is now a party of opposition which echoes many of Mr Allister’s attacks on Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

Mike Nesbitt will no doubt urge TUV supporters to tactically support his party as the largest opposition party – a line of attack unexpected just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, Ukip has come from nowhere and stunned the TUV by polling more votes than it in May’s general election, a wretched result for the TUV.

Taken together, those changes leave TUV in a position where it cannot be confident about how it will fare in next year’s election.

On Saturday there was more emphasis on the EU, an implicit acknowledgement of the Ukip threat (although the TUV has always been strongly Eurosceptic) and some sharp criticism of the UUP leader.

But the conference largely followed the sorts of themes which it has always highlighted.

Mr Allister is almost certain to retain his seat, so the party will not implode, but the activists who cheered as Mr Allister stunned the political establishment by polling 66,197 votes in the 2009 European election would hardly have expected that seven years later the party might still have just one MLA in an Assembly of 108.

The party’s major asset is its leader. His strengths and weaknesses are now firmly embedded within the party.

Mr Allister believes that the recent revelations about the IRA should convince unionist voters that his message has been right all along.

Senior DUP figures close to Peter Robinson believe that although a section of unionism does care about the IRA revelations, the vast bulk of unionists are not as bothered about the issue as they would have been in years gone past.

That explains why the DUP struck a bargain with Sinn Fein which achieved little of substance on the issue of the IRA, but pushed Sinn Fein into a huge U-turn on welfare reform.

Effectively, all three unionist parties are gambling on the extent to which unionist voters now care about the IRA.

A modern and professional party such as the DUP is likely to have research to support its decision. Mr Allister, a conviction politician leading a small party, is likely to just have his instinct.

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