TUV conference was held today in the Royal Hotel in Cookstown. Over 100 delegates attended the event, but numbers were well down on last year’s event in Templepatrick. While the audience was undoubtedly the oldest of local parties, there were more than a few younger faces (mostly male) and a few toddlers at the back.
One youngster had a cute habit of echoing words and phrases that Jim Allister repeated for effect during his speech. The party may not yet be looking for a new leader, but some new orators are definitely being indoctrinated.
The election results in May were disappointing, but the party took great cheer from the EU Referendum result (and the recent US Presidential election result). Taking credit for long-time lobbying for the creation of an Opposition, Jim Allister encouraged the two opposition parties to make it sustainable and help lobby for a permanent change to voluntary rather than mandatory coalition.
In many ways, the oratory of TUV Jim Allister has moderated leaving the party councillors who spoke from the stage sounding more like their feisty leader of yesteryear. Perhaps Jim has realised that simply turning on the anger doesn’t win any more votes or unearth any more uncomfortable truths in the Executive. Henry Reilly was never going to be a leader in waiting, at least not a long term successor. But amongst the remaining TUV councillors it’s hard to spot a viable replacement that could carry the brand forward should Jim Allister ever desire to retire.
Party president William Ross used his welcome to speak at length about the EU referendum result and the actions of the DUP and “Sinn Féin/IRA … to give them their proper name”. He addressed the party’s councillors:
“You must feel damned lonely at times. You’re in the fire, you’re in the furnace and that’s where steel is made.”
Brexit and the EU was never far away from the minds of podium speakers. Councillor Timothy Gaston said: “The single biggest problem our country faces is the people talking it down, those who lost the referendum”. He was not alone in using evangelical language during the conference when he said: “The EU is beyond saving. The EU is beyond redemption.” Oddly for a party as small as the TUV, the Liberal Democrats were labelled as “simply irrelevant”.
Jordan Armstrong declared that the UK was “emancipated from the EU … defeated the elite and regained our sovereignty”. To those wanting to stop Brexit through court action: “Brexit is a matter for the UK Government – not your toy town parliament.”
TUV party leader Jim Allister spoke for 35 minutes, offering a critique of what a proper Brexit would entail, welcoming the election of Donald Trump, and offering an extended metaphor explaining what the Executive were sweeping under the carpet: NAMA, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, out patient waiting lists, Social Investment Fund. He had advice for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood, encouraging them to support and lobby for voluntary coalition and an end to the current mandatory coalition that would allow the DUP and Sinn Féin to rejoin the Executive even if the UUP and SDLP could out-poll them at the next Assembly election.
It seems it’s not yet time for Jexit, [Jim Exit] but happily it’s time for Brexit.
2016 will go down in history of our great nation as the year when there was a real uprising of true patriots. Of the year when the ordinary people of this nation retook control of their own destiny and decided that we as a nation would make our own laws, would obey our own courts, would control our own borders and would make our own trade deals. And it was a treat beyond imagining in the early hours of 24 June to see that vista of liberation opening up before our eyes.
1916 was a year of great sacrifice for our nation. 2016 will go down as the year of liberation of our nation.
But the challenge now is to ensure it is delivered. Delivered exactly as the people voted for. No blurring of the edges. No retreating. no attempt permitted to give us anything other than Brexit in all its forms. I hear people talk about soft Brexit, hard Brexit. I tell you what we want: we want a complete Brexit.
I also hear some talk about special status for Northern Ireland. You’d think that we’ve learnt enough in Northern Ireland about special status! Let me deal with this nonsense of special status. There can be no status that’s special that keeps Northern Ireland half in and half out of the EU. We joined as one nation, we leave as one nation.
And Arlene Foster has a bounden duty to ensure that is precisely what is delivered for Northern Ireland. And if she holds the line on that she’ll our support. If she wilts or compromises on that, she’ll have our wrath.
The test is whether or not the leaving of this part of the Kingdom is as emphatic and as clear and is irreversible as that of the rest of the nation. There can be no diluting of our terms of exit in comparison with those of the rest of the nation. None whatsoever. What would be the consequence of taking up some of these crazy notions, that Northern Ireland, for example, stays in the Single Market while the rest of the United Kingdom leaves.
That we stay in the customs union while the rest leaves. The consequence would be the border would be the Irish Sea. That’s what the consequence would be. Because with single market membership comes free movement of labour, being subject to all the regulations and stipulations and contributions to the EU. Leaving the Single Market unshackles us, leaves us free as leaving the customs union does, free to make our own trade deals across the world. It would be an incomprehensible nonsense to have part of the nation, be it Scotland, be it Northern Ireland, or anywhere else, one foot in and one foot out. It cannot and must not be allowed to happen. It would not work.
And of course, some of those who are so upset by us unshackling ourselves from the EU. The source of their real upset is that their consequence is of us unshackling ourselves from the Irish Republic. Because the Irish Republic’s membership of the EU will now distinguish them from us. And I would not be surprised if one day if it isn’t already beginning to happen, that the penny will drop with the Irish Republic as well that they’d be far better out. But that’s a matter for them. We’ve made our choice. Now that choice must be delivered, and delivered it will be.
So the test for Northern Ireland, the touchstone for deciding whether what is offered is right or wrong, is [whether] our leaving is no less emphatic and no less evident than that of the rest of the Kingdom. That’s what it must be. And nothing short of that is in the least acceptable.
Of course in 2016 it was not just in the United Kingdom that the little people had their say. In the United States of America we also saw an upset when Donald Trump was elected. Let me tell you the best thing about Donald Trump: it is that he’s not Hillary Clinton.
I must say I was delighted to see the defeat of the meddling Clintons. But for us the real lesson to be drawn from the election in the US is the very simple observation that you saw democracy allowed to be in action. You saw the people of the US allowed to change their government. If they were subject to the restraints of which democracy is subject in this part of the world, then you wouldn’t have Donald Trump as President. The outcome would have been a joint presidency of Trump and Clinton. How absurd would that be? President Dillery!
And doesn’t that underscore the absurdity of the arrangements in Northern Ireland. That this year too we had an election, but we weren’t allowed to change our government. We weren’t allowed to vote a party out of government. You see in the US and any working democracy, whether or not you are in government lies in the discretion of the people. But in NI whether or not you’re in government lies in the discretion of parties. And provided a party has enough MLAs to hang into government it is guaranteed as of right a place in government. In the US and in any democracy worth its name, whether or not you’re in government lies in the discretion of the people, not the parties. and until that fundamental is addressed we cannot and we will not have true, durable, workable democracy in this part of the world.
Talking about the absurdity of a joint presidency in the US brings me of course to the Royal Highnesses Marlene. What a world, what a dark secret world is the world of Marlene. Where endless energy is expended on covering up their secret things of darkness. Vividly demonstrated just a few months ago when they took onto themselves Royal Prerogative powers. You might have thought that in fact just six months ago we elected a Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland. In consequence you might have thought that then it must have been the Legislative Assembly that makes the laws in Northern Ireland. You might have thought that the clue is in the name. How wrong you would have been. Because when it came to the appointment of one David Gordon, yet another spin doctor (they admit to having 55 spin doctors, but now they need a super spin doctor – I suppose in one sense they need all the help they can get) but in order to make provision for the appointment of David Gordon, the law had to be changed to provide for such an appointment.
But instead of bringing the proposal to change the law to the Assembly, they decided “Who needs the Assembly? We’ll just do it ourselves. We’ll exercise Royal Prerogative power.”
Jim Allister explained the medieval introduction of prerogative powers, “bizarrely used by many” including Henry III who once decreed “that anyone who killed a faerie was subject to the death penalty” and Edward IV who declared that “it was an offence to [cut open] your boiled egg at the narrow end instead of the broad end”.
The TUV leader began an extended metaphor that continued for the rest of his conference speech.
On the Monday morning that David Gordon started his new job he was called into the inner sanctum to meet Arlene and Marty. And they were very perplexed. And they said to David, we’ve a big first job for you. What is that said the excited David. We need you to go down to Portadown. Portadown? said David. Yes. We need you to go down to Ulster Carpets. But I’m here as a spin doctor, not here to measure carpets. Ah but you see David we have a major problem. There’s no more room under our carpet to sweep away all of the dirty business. We need a bigger, grander carpet because we’ve so much to sweep under it.
How right they were. Under that carpet has to go many things. NAMA is pretty bulky, some awkward edges about it. It has to go under the carpet. Speaking of Marlene, I was thinking of course that it comes from that comedy Only Fools and Horses. Some other characters in Only Fools and Horses. There’s Del Boy: how he would have fitted into the machinations of NAMA. I wonder was his second name Frank. And then there’s Trigger, now who could that be?
But NAMA has to be swept under the carpet. And murder has to be swept under the carpet. Let’s be very, very clear. This is an Executive in the business of sweeping murder under the carpet. Kevin McGuigan was murdered by the IRA, by no one else, by the IRA. PSNI have said it. The government panel has said it. And yet today, where is the investigation? Where is the inquiry? Where are the consequences of Sinn Féin’s IRA buddies murdering Kevin McGuigan? I’ll tell you where they are: they’re under the carpet.
And of course at that time we had the government panel that told us that not only was there an IRA, but it still had its wicked army council controlling both Sinn Féin and the IRA. And where is that finding today? Under the carpet. Because everything is trumped by the process. Justice. Equity. probity. Doing what’s right. All comes second to saving the process. Little wonder they need such a big carpet.
There’s much more under the Executive’s carpet. You might think NAMA was bad, and it was, but one of the biggest financial scandals that’s going to cost us all the next 20 years is how the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment dealt with the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. A scam and a scandal which is going to cost us all £500-600 million over the next lot of years. Why? Because there was no proper ministerial control. There were no cost limitations put in place. There was no cap as there was in GB on the amount of money you could draw down. As a consequence is we’re going to be saddled with that huge debt. But who was the DETI minister asleep at the wheel? Arlene Foster, who shamefully did not exercise the ministerial control and oversight that ministers are there to exercise. And what does she say about it? It was OFGEM and the officials. Sorry, the buck stops with the minister. But that’s something else to be swept under the carpet.
And what about waiting lists in this country? In the Sinn Féin/DUP amalgam took over the health department in 2011, there were 117,000 people waiting for outpatients appointments. A shocking figure. Do you know what that figure is today? 243,000 people. More than twice. Nearly a quarter of million citizens in Northern Ireland waiting for out patient departments. Then we have the pretence and the spin that we’re getting the good government, that devolution is about giving us local, accountable, successful government. Tell that to the quarter of a million people on the waiting list. For them and for so many others in so many different spheres, devolution has done nothing to enhance their prospects. That’s something else to be swept under the carpet. You can see now why they needed such a big carpet. And there’s more.
Social Investment Fund, one of the biggest political scandals in manys a year. Martin McGuinness – and it’s worth noting in itself – this week in the Assembly said a very true thing. He said the Social Investment Fund is operating exactly as intended. How true. because it always was intended to be a slush fund for those they wanted to ingratiate themselves with. And that is why £80 million of your money is being distributed to satellite groups of those they wanted to impress and ingratiate themselves to without a single procurement filter. £80 million handed out to lead partners without even the suggestion of an open competition. I see a few people in this audience who are contractors. You know that if you want to do government work, you have to go through endless hoops on procurement. You have to compete in open competition. Not if you’re the front organisation of a paramilitary outfit it seems. Then you’re taken by the hand, … a special way of doing business whereby Marlene appoints a steering group upon which sit multiple Sinn Féin and DUP representatives and [does double fingers] “community” representatives. And then the steering group sits down and says who would we like to give the money to? And the chap over in the corner who’s not too comfortable wearing a tie. He certainly didn’t wear it during the day when he was out collecting the money from the builders. He speaks up and says: we could spend that on my organisation, we could do with that. That’s all right then, that’s just what we’ll do. You laugh? That’s exactly how it happened. The lead partners could only be appointed from those organisation represented on the steering committee.
Someone told me – and I believe it to be true – the other day that in a large housing development in the east of the city of Belfast, there is the usual pernicious paramilitary attempts at control. And a certain gentleman calls every week for the security payment. And recently he called one day wearing a suit and tie. And they’ve got so familiar with him that they said to him in the office: you’re well dress up today! Oh aye, I’m going to a Police Liaison Committee this afternoon. Maybe that night he was going to a meeting of his steering committee as well?! Yes, the Social Investment Fund is sadly operating exactly as intended. Because understand its genesis. It came into existence after Peter Robinson spectacularly lost East Belfast in 2010. When loyalist voters deserted them in their droves. And the stratagem designed to win them back was to create a slush fund to throw money at organisations that could lead them and impress them And that is where the Social Investment Fund came from. And of course it suits Sinn Féin equally well. And equally in West Belfast there is misuse and abuse when it comes to the allocation of fundings. It is about ingratiation with those in the community representing nefarious interests so that they are kept on board. And that’s sadly is where Marlene has brought us in this community.
But now in 2016 you’ve not only seen the bloodless revolution of the people in asserting Brexit. You’ve not only seen a demonstration from across the Atlantic on how democracy should work and people being allowed to change their government. But now in Stormont we’re allowed an opposition. Now they don’t want to fund it, because even the very existence of it annoys them. But at least we’ve now got to the point of there being permitted to be an official opposition. Think of it, it’s a point of note, a great milestone, that in a democracy you should be allowed an opposition.
When I first went to Stormont in 2011, very few people were talking about opposition. But this party persistently raised the issue. We were the standard bearers for the right to create an opposition. And finally, and slow, but surely the inevitable happened and they conceded the right to have an opposition.
But I have a message today for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood. And I wish them well in opposition, because there is much to oppose. All of them mightn’t have the natural DNA of opposition in their veins and in their bodies. But I hope they get there. But I have a message for them. They’ve taken the right first step, but they need to take the next logical essential step. Because no matter how well Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood do in opposition, even if they do so fantastically well that come the next Assembly Election they respectfully become the biggest two parties and defeat DUP and Sinn Féin, DUP and Sinn Féin are still going to be in their government because of the absurdity of the discretion of who’s there lying with the parties rather than the people. So Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood need to face and grab hold of the reality that if they are ever to turn the legitimate and necessary dream of the people being able to turn an opposition into a government then they need to abandon their support for the very system that prevents that. For so long as they prop up odious mandatory coalition then they guarantee that even if they win they cannot govern as they should. As the very people they have defeated will as of right be in their government. Believe you me, Sinn Féin and the DUP love power, any power, and they’ll be clinging on to their government posts. So Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood need to cross that rubicon and they need to get to the point of realising that the logic and the sense of their position – in order to give it a chance to succeed – requires them to embrace voluntary coalition and abandon their support for mandatory coalition. Unless they do that, then they are largely wasting their time as they are not creating the circumstances in which the opposition could govern. And is that not the essence and the very raison d’être of having an opposition. That come an election the people can decide, yeah we’re with you, we’ve had enough of them and we’re voting in different parties. So it’s pretty elemental, but it’s an essential next step.
As for TUV. We will continue to do what we do best. I will continue to shine the spotlight of exposure into the dark corners of Stormont. I will continue to the thorn in the flesh of Sinn Féin/DUP misrule. And I’ll rub the salt in as well when I get a chance and I hope the salt may never lose its savour. And as we look forward to the next electoral challenge – it comes in just two and a half years time in the council elections – this party will be in the business of building its support base from the bottom up and doubling or better our number of councillors. And those we have I want to pay tribute to them for the lonely constant battle that they see through in our councils. Well done to you one and all.
The TUV has been the catalyst for change in this province. We were those who led from the front on opposition. We are still those leading from the front in respect of ending mandatory coalition. And we will go on being that effective catalyst for change. And it 2016 tells us anything, it tells us that change happens. Never forget it. In this year of all years, all those who wrote off Brexit and said it was the lunatic fringe, those of failing and falling support, they could never succeed. Those who said Donald Trump could never succeed. Hillary Clinton was a sure thing. She was the only one who knew anything about government. The people would never be so foolish to embrace anyone else. Well they had the smile truly wiped off their faces within London and within Washington.
So do not lose faith, do not lose hope. Change happens. It happens by persistently clinging to doing what is right, not what’s easy. Any dead fish can go with the tide. But it doing what’s right. The TUV’s in business to do what is right and right we will do.
After lunch, Gordon Lucy addressed the TUV conference on the Somme and delegates stood for a moment’s silence. Then Councillor Ruth Wilson spoke about the “controversial” subject of equality. It was “the trojan horse of the republican strategy to reach out to people in the name of equality” and the cause of the RUC name change, banned Orange parades, the removal of the Union Flag and more.
The delegates applauded her message of support for the McArthur family (who own Ashers Bakery Company and said that the “prosecution and persecution of the McArthur Family [was] particularly outrageous given that your tax money paid for the prosecution by the Equality Commission”. She was “proud to be from a party that voted to slash the budget of the Equality Commission”.
She welcomed that Jim Allister would vote in the Assembly against the proposals to pardon men convicted of same-sex offence laws before homosexuality was decriminalised. There was “no suggestion that people convicted of other sexual offences that are now decriminalised” would be treated the same.
She spoke of being a member of the Metropolitan Tabernacle church and praised Pastor McConnell’s “brave stand for freedom of speech and religions expression”. On Nicola Sturgeon’s readiness to look at the issue of funding abortions for Northern Ireland women, Councillor Ruth Wilson said: “Don’t you think she should mind her own business?”
Party press officer Samuel Morrison closed the conference with a speech emphasising why the TUV was still needed.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.