Northern Ireland

Alex Kane: TUV link-up with Reform is all about looking like a contender

Jim Allister and Richard Tice
Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) of Reform UK leader Richard Tice and the leader of the TUV party Jim Allister during the TUV conference in Co Antrim on Saturday after the two parties struck an electoral partnership that will see them run agreed candidates in Northern Ireland.

A party struggling for relevance—particularly a small regional one—needs something eye catching in the run up to an election.

The UUP tried in 2009, when it agreed the UCUNF (Ulster Conservative and Unionist—New Force) project with David Cameron: yet in the 2010 general election the Conservatives didn’t win an overall majority and the UUP didn’t, for the first time, win a seat in Northern Ireland.

The TUV Memorandum of Understanding with Reform UK is a different kettle of fish.

Reform has only one MP—Lee Anderson, who defected from the Conservatives just over a week ago—and, barring a miracle, is unlikely to add many to that tally.

The ‘first past the post’ system does no favours for smaller parties. Ironically, given the TUV’s stance on the issue, Anderson voted for the Windsor Framework in March 2023.

For the TUV the deal with Reform is all about looking like a contender.

Saturday’s conference was the last one before the general election, so an electoral understanding with a party which looks like it’s on the up will have pleased the party members who will be knocking the doors in a few months.

It also means more publicity, campaign funding and some big names out on the campaign trail: one of whom might be Nigel Farage.

But problems remain for the TUV. It is still thin on the alternatives to what the DUP and UUP did in rebooting the assembly.

The Memorandum leads with a commitment on ‘full restoration of Art 6 of the Act(s) of Union…and rejection of the Irish Sea Border and the subjection of Northern Ireland to EU law and the ECJ.’

But there’s nothing in terms of how that would be achieved; or how any new strategy would be more successful than all the other legal and political attempts to overturn the Protocol and Framework since 2020.

Also, I’m not persuaded that a majority of unionists really do favour the ‘completion of a full Brexit,’ knowing that such a course would, almost certainly, lead to the collapse of devolution here and a lengthy period of instability.

And given the results of a series of polls on the issue across GB, there’s not much evidence that a majority of voters there want the completion of a full Brexit, either.

The TUV knows, too, that its intention to contest as many seats as possible could result in DUP losses in seats like East Belfast, Strangford, South Antrim or even East Antrim. Interestingly, councillor David Clarke, who defected from the DUP to TUV a few days ago, believes the TUV should stand in quite a few (it stood in ten in 2010): “The DUP won’t like that. But if it loses seats in the Westminster election, then it will have only itself to blame.”

There are those in the TUV who believe that the coming election is the best—maybe last way—to force the DUP out of the Assembly.

They reckon that a few seat losses to either it, or even Alliance, would so scare DUP MLAs and councillors that it might embolden key players to turn on Donaldson and replace him with someone more in tune with Jim Allister’s thinking.

On the other hand, the TUV/Reform election pact might actually encourage the DUP and UUP—for the sake of devolution, political stability and the union—to move closer together with a formal election pact of their own; thus, paving the way for a massive electoral battle between pro-deal/pro-devolution unionism and anti-deal/anti-devolution unionism. To paraphrase Bette Davis, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy campaign.”