A defiant Jim Allister has attempted to rally his party after a deeply disappointing year in which it polled less than 24,000 votes across Northern Ireland and lost its most high profile councillor.
The party’s electoral performance was all the more difficult for it to take as TUV members watched the DUP, under a new and more popular leader, sweep back into power at Stormont in May.
As party gathered for its annual conference in Cookstown’s Royal Hotel today, there was a largely subdued atmosphere and a markedly lower turnout, with around 100 people present.
Next year will see the TUV mark its tenth birthday, but although the party has wielded influence disproportionate to its size, it has consistently failed to make a major electoral breakthrough in council, Assembly or Westminster elections.
But Mr Allister, who is the party’s sole MLA and its key asset, was still warmly welcomed by members both before and after his 40-minute speech.
And, amid some suggestions from unionist rivals that the 63-year-old QC might throw in the towel after a year of such deep disappointment, the North Antrim MLA pledged to fight on.
Significantly, Mr Allister spoke of the next council elections – which are scheduled for 2019 – and urged the party to build towards a position where its current 11 councillors are at least doubled in number.
And he pledged to the party faithful: “I will continue to shine the spotlight of exposure into the dark corners of Stormont”.
Mr Allister’s speech focussed relentlessly on the DUP-Sinn Fein Executive, savaging it for presiding over crisis in the health service while claiming that it is being successful.
Reminding his audience of how Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster had used Royal Prerogative powers to appoint former Nolan Show editor David Gordon as their “super spin doctor”, Mr Allister savagely criticised the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders.
He surmised that “their Royal Heignesses, Marlene” had sent Mr Gordon to Ulster Carpets for a larger carpet under which to sweep the Executive’s failures because there was no more room under the existing floor covering.
And, dismissing nationalist attempts to secure some special status for Northern Ireland as an “incomprehensible nonsense”, Mr Allister vowed to hold Arlene Foster to account over coming years to ensure that Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU is “as irreversible as that of the rest of the nation”.
Mr Allister also denounced the handling of the Executive’s Social Investment FUnd, which has seen the DUP and Sinn Fein award money to an organisation headed by a man alleged to be active UDA boss.
Mr Allister said that normal businesses were forced to go through “endless hoops” to get government contracts, but that was not the case “if you’re a front for a paramilitary group”.
Mr Allister went on to say that he had been told that in a large east Belfast housing estate there are “the usual pernicious paramilitary attempts at control”.
He said he had been told that “a certain gentleman calls every week for the security payment” and that on a recent visit he was wearing a suit. Mr Allister recounted that when told that he was dressed up, the individual said: “Oh aye, I’m going to a Police Liaison Committee this afternoon”.