I was guest speaker at last year’s TUV conference. As I usually do in speeches to political gatherings, I set a challenge: “It’s not enough to rattle on and on about the flaws in the system, you need a very clear strategy for delivering the changes you want. What’s the strategy for the reform and rewrite that will be required? What’s your fallback position if your first-choice option isn’t possible.”
It’s the sort of challenge I throw down to every party at some point: asking them to explain their role, relevance, purpose and direction, as well as asking them to set out “a viable, available alternative to what you don’t like and how, precisely, you would deliver it”.
The TUV rose to that challenge on Saturday when Rick Cairns, their vice-chairman, said that their document, A Path To Making Stormont Work – launched a few weeks ago – was their response to my challenge. There’s a lot of good stuff in the document rather than wrecking options: suggestions for sustainable voluntary coalition, a strong opposition, genuine choices for the electorate, mechanisms for ensuring that the institutions aren’t regularly hanging on by a thread and a possible solution to the ongoing impasse between executive devolution and legislative devolution.
It isn’t about excluding Sinn Fein: “Those, after an election, who can agree on a programme for government on the key economic and social issues and who together can command the requisite majority in the Assembly, form the government – whoever they are. Those who can’t agree – whoever they are – form the Opposition, challenging and presenting an alternative at the next election. This does not deny cross-community government. Indeed, the strategic use of weighted majority voting would guarantee this.”
To be frank, a lot of this is not dissimilar to the sort of stuff the DUP trotted out from the 1991-92 Brooke/Mayhew talks until the beginning of 2004.
There’s not a huge amount in the document that most unionists/loyalists/republicans/nationalists could take exception to. As I say, it isn’t a wrecking charter: it isn’t about throwing a spanner in the works or providing a means of isolating Sinn Fein. The suggestions are sensible and, if given a fair wind, would probably make the Assembly more productive and more stable – so much so, in fact, that a presently cynical electorate might begin to reassess their negativity.
So – and here’s the 64,000 dollar question for the TUV – why has the document failed to register with the other political parties and with the public? My view would be that too many people – even those who may be broadly sympathetic to the document’s proposals – don’t believe that Jim Allister is serious about them. His attacks on both the DUP and Sinn Fein, along with his sideswipes at the UUP and SDLP, are so regular and so vicious that most people long ago reached the conclusion that he would prefer to see the Assembly destroyed than retained.
Put bluntly, most people believe that Jim is a wrecker. They may admire his forensic debating skills, his ability to get under the skin of Robinson and McGuinness, his highlighting of the flaws in the system and his willingness to point out the nakedness of the emperor. That said, they don’t believe he wants to rescue and improve the Assembly.
During his speech on Saturday he said that many people stopped him in the street and told him that they agreed with him. But then he acknowledged that there was a problem in getting those people to a polling station.
Here’s why: you cannot sell a positive on the back of a negative campaign. The DUP reinvented itself from 2000 onwards and began to use language like a “better deal” and a “fair deal”. From the early 1980s Sinn Fein began to reinvent itself as a party of “peace and progress,” dedicated to a victory built on reconciliation and progress rather than simply trying to “getting the Brits out”.
The TUV document concludes: “Clinging endlessly to the failure of mandatory coalition is not serving Northern Ireland well. The perpetual cycle of crisis and sticking plaster talks, before lurching to crisis again is destroying the body politic and public confidence in it. It is time for fresh thinking, such as these proposals contain.”
To paraphrase the original Mission Impossible: “Your mission Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to persuade increasing numbers of people that you are serious about progress and equally serious about making the Assembly work.”
Some of the delegates I spoke to on Saturday made it pretty clear that they didn’t think Sinn Fein should be in the Assembly, let alone in the Executive. I didn’t get the sense that they wanted the sort of change that would make the Assembly work in the long term: rather, they wanted the Assembly replaced with direct rule. They don’t want Sinn Fein in government. They don’t want Sinn Fein in opposition. They don’t want Sinn Fein anywhere near Stormont.
Jim Allister wants people to vote for change: “if you’re unhappy with Stormont then the TUV is the only party offering positive change.” But he doesn’t make it sound like he’s offering positive change and a lot of people still view him as a destroyer and not a builder. So, in the run-up to the election, there needs to be a less snarling from him and a lot more upbeat selling of his thought-through proposals for change. There you go, Jim, that’s this year’s challenge!