Reform UK and the TUV deserve each other, but haven’t the rest of us suffered enough? - Deirdre Heenan

A pact between Jim Allister’s TUV and the party of Farage, Habib and Tice will only add to unionism’s woes

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Jim Allister and Richard Tice
Reform UK leader Richard Tice, pictured left, and TUV leader Jim Allister have struck an electoral pact that will see the parties run agreed candidates in Northern Ireland constituencies in the next Westminster election

As though political unionism didn’t already have its troubles to seek, TUV leader Jim Allister has announced a formal partnership with Reform UK.

He and Reform party leader Richard Tice signed a formal agreement last month and say they will announce agreed candidates for NI constituencies for the next Westminster general election.

Allister said: “Like TUV, Reform UK speaks its mind, takes on the establishment and is driven by principle, not power. Our principles are neither optional nor for sale, but they are the stuff of conviction politics. We speak truth to power.”

Tice has stated that he was entering the arena of Northern Ireland politics with a heavy heart as ideally, he would be a supporter of all political unionism. However, the DUP’s decision to “endorse the Windsor Framework and falsely claim the end of the Irish Sea border left us us no option”.

Following the end of years of tedious debates about red lanes and green lanes, claim and counterclaim, a deal was struck which paved the way for the restoration of devolution at the start of February. Finally, this benighted region would no longer be at the centre of a Westminster psychodrama which distracted from the pressing issues in health, education and the economy, and the toxic Brexit debates which poisoned the political landscape could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice said every party has its share of ‘morons’
Reform UK leader Richard Tice has said every party has its share of ‘morons’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Just as it seemed safe to go out again, along comes Tice and his merry band, scrabbling around desperately seeking relevance and airtime.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice describes himself as “a brave teller of the truth” except, it seems, on immigration, health, climate change, Brexit, the Irish Sea border and anything else of significance. He is barely on nodding terms with objective reality

Recently the Mail on Sunday ran a two-page story on various ‘colourful’ Reform candidates. They included a man ordered to pay £2,000 for attacking a dog in a Dorset country lane, a fortune-teller who sold spells on OnlyFans and a Covid conspiracy theorist who likened Boris Johnson to Hitler.

The party is riddled with contradictions. It is far from a new outfit, as it was previously known as the Brexit Party. Inevitably, Nigel Farage was involved in setting it up and after a spell as leader, remains its honorary president.

Tice, the current leader, is a multi-millionaire, privately educated businessman from Surrey, and it’s unclear what exactly connects him to disgruntled unionists. According to him, Reform stands for the interests of working people against the elite. He is a former member of the Conservative party and was co-founder of the Leave EU campaign group.

He has been described by Mark Jenkinson, a Conservative party whip, as “not just a political weathervane, but also a thin-skinned bully”.

Not renowned for his contribution to political discourse, to date Tice has largely stuck to mindlessly regurgitating populist right-wing cliches.

TUV conference at the Ross Park Hotel near Ballymena
Co-deputy Leader of Reform UK, Ben Habib, pictured at the TUV conference in Ballymena last month (I Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/ Presseye/Stephen Hamilton)

The joint deputy leader of Reform is Ben Habib, a former Brexit Party MEP who has successfully used the Northern Ireland Protocol to afford him some sort of political relevance.

This included joining with Jim Allister on a failed legal challenge to the protocol, though as an MEP, Habib voted for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal which, of course, included that same protocol.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2020, Habib stated: “Instead of resisting the inevitable, NI should embrace it and make it work for its own great benefit and that of the United Kingdom.” In 2022 he claimed that the EU’s treatment of Northern Ireland was on a par with Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine: “The only difference is we bowed to the EU without a single shot being fired.”

Comparing a murderous invasion to a treaty which both parties freely entered into demonstrates an extraordinary lack of judgment and awareness. Lamenting the absence of armed conflict hardly speaks of any understanding or empathy with those who have suffered the horrors of war.

Jim Allister was dubbed by the Daily Telegraph as the “Norn Iron Nigel” after he became a thorn in the DUP’s side over the Irish Sea border. The casual contempt for stability and the fragile power-sharing arrangements is deeply disturbing.

The north cannot be wantonly used as a play thing. Tice describes himself as “a brave teller of the truth” except, it seems, on immigration, health, climate change, Brexit, the Irish Sea border and anything else of significance. He is barely on nodding terms with objective reality.

Anything goes if it attracts the lunatic right-wing fringe. His clarion call for the upcoming election campaign is that that “we need disrupters, we need people with new ideas” – oh well then, Jim Allister and the TUV must be the obvious answer... Haven’t we suffered enough?