Subdued gathering hears predictions of fresh electoral success
The Traditional Unionists mark their first decade next year — with little beyond the party’s continued existence to celebrate.
Indeed who would put money on this hardline unionist rump reaching its 21st birthday?
Especially if, as expected, leader Jim Allister stands down at some point in the next 10 years, with no obvious successor in sight.
Numbers were well down at the TUV’s annual get-together in Cookstown at the weekend.
And the esprit de corps among the party faithful appeared noticeably more flat than usual.
Not surprising given the party’s failure to expand its Assembly seats when the electoral tide was carrying other small parties — the Greens and People Before Profit — to greater success.
Mr Allister was refreshingly upfront about both the attendance and the lacklustre atmosphere.
But he is already preparing for the next challenge of the local government elections in two-and-a-half years, when he predicted the party can double its councillors from the present 11.
With Brexit — what Mr Allister referred to as the “liberation” of the UK — this could have been a great year for TUV. History, he called it.
But his story is now in danger of going in the opposite direction, with the larger Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance parties all playing the opposition role which used to be left to Jim himself, alone.
Deep freezing fog spread across the Bann Valley for most of Saturday, making driving difficult, and it was apparent the party is also having problems with its sense of direction.
There were about 120 present, compared to the average of 160 to 200 over most recent years. And it couldn’t all be put down to the weather.
The Royal Hotel, which the faithful were gathered at for the first time in two years (they travelled to Kells and Templepatrick in 2014/15) has had an extensive makeover.
But the TUV hasn’t. The party’s press officer Sammy Morrison gave the closing address, setting out the argument that there is still a need for the TUV because it will say the “politically unsayable”.
But he confessed he doesn’t particularly enjoy working at Stormont because of the “occupational hazard” of meeting Sinn Fein figures like Gerry Kelly. “Isn’t it remarkable that in 2016 Northern Ireland would be subjected to a pseudo-democratic system which sees representatives of a still-armed terrorist group at the heart of its government as of right?” he asked.
“Isn’t it more remarkable still that other parties simply don’t seem that bothered?
“Friends, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to be able to say we did something about this,” he added.
The slogan on the conference platform said TUV is about “telling it as it is”.
But the fear must be that it is increasingly seen as telling it as it was.