Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: TUV's Jim Allister a rebel with a cause preaching to converted as he has a right rattle at political enemies

By Suzanne Breen

Jim Allister may be Northern Ireland's leading political rebel but his party's annual conference still lived up to the 'traditional' aspect of its name.

TUV members gathered in Cookstown's Royal Hotel - the Palace Suite to be precise - on Saturday.

It felt more family get-together than conference with around 150 delegates seated at 10 tables pre-set for lunch. Bar a handful of younger faces, it was an overwhelmingly middle-aged affair.

The tables were dressed in traditional unionist colours - red and blue napkins nestled in glasses on white linen tablecloths. The chairs had large red or blue bows tied around them.

The bar at the side of the room held countless bottles of vodka and gin, but it was the brimming jugs of orange juice on their tables for which the TUV faithful opted.

A wall of fairy lights twinkled from behind a white gauze curtain on the podium. First up was TUV president and former Ulster Unionist MP Willie Ross. The remarkably youthful looking 82-year-old described himself as "a well-weathered old-style unionist" viewing the DUP with a cynical eye.

He wasn't surprised at Sinn Fein's "obnoxious behaviour" but held in contempt "the widespread parroting of their words by so many in the media and political circles who should know better".

In Catalonia nobody died, yet those politicians campaigning for independence were "in prison or on the run". In Northern Ireland, 3,000 people were killed "and the terrorists are lauded in government".

With Stormont's shortcomings on display in the RHI Inquiry, Mr Allister had ample ammunition for his speech.

He began by holding up a sheet of paper covered in Post-it Notes. "Government by Post-it, says it all about Stormont!" he quipped.

Referring to those who had criticised him for being too aggressive towards former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and other architects of the Good Friday Agreement, he pledged he'd always be "grumpy Jim, telling it as it is, Allister".

He was scathing of rival party figures: Arlene "not my fault" Foster; Gerry "not in the IRA" Adams; Colum "not in Fianna Fail yet" Eastwood; Naomi "I have an opinion on everything even rape trials" Long, and Karen "Won't do anything" Bradley.

While other party leaders read their carefully scripted conference speeches from autocues, Allister needed no such assistance and brought only a few notes at which he barely glanced. Intermittent cries of "True!", "Yes!" and "Good man, Jim!" rang out from the floor as the TUV leader delivered his verdict on politics. At the end, they whooped and cheered and waved football rattles in appreciation.

Among delegates was Norah Beare, a former UUP MLA who defected to the DUP with Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster in 2004, and then quit for the TUV.

"I like the good fighting spirit here," she said. "The DUP has lost its way. We need men of stamina and grit in politics who stand up for what they believe."

After the leader's speech a hearty, old-fashioned lunch - turkey, stuffing and roast potatoes, followed by fresh fruit pavlova and tea and shortbread - awaited. But before delegates tucked in, Grace was said by the father of TUV Press officer Sammy Morrison.

"Let us bow our heads and give thanks to the Lord," he began.

If there were agnostics or atheists present, they weren't letting on. Eyes closed and silence swept the room. It was about so much more than blessing the food.

"We pray Lord that thou will have mercy on this wee land, so deluded, so deceived, so overcome by our enemies," Ivan Morrison implored. Oh God we pray for a turning of the tide."

Belfast Telegraph

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