Belfast Telegraph

Mark Bain: ‘Old school’ unionism in search of new ways to get message across

Ruth Dudley Edwards with councillors Stewart McDonald and Brian Collins
Ruth Dudley Edwards with councillors Stewart McDonald and Brian Collins
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

In the 1970s and 80s, despite all that Northern Ireland had to put up with, humour was still something we held on to. There was little else.

There was Frank Carson, with his catchphrase: "It's the way I tell 'em." And speaking of catchphrases, Roy Walker's deadpan delivery of "say what you see" was heard on TVs in every home.

Take those famous lines and plant them into the world of politics today and one fits perfectly into the mantra of the TUV - they say what they see. Party leader Jim Allister is no shrinking violet.

It's the other line that the party - and unionism in general - needs to work on, the TUV was told at Saturday's conference at the Royal Hotel in Cookstown.

Unionists, according to guest speaker, political commentator and author Ruth Dudley Edwards (right, with councillors Stewart McDonald and Brian Collins), do not tell their stories well. And certainly not as well as republicans.

Amidst the over-riding sense of betrayal - by Stormont, by Theresa May over her Brexit stance, and even by other unionist parties - there was general agreement on that. "It's imperative we find a better way of getting the message across," said TUV councillor Stephen Cooper.

Some 150 gathered to hear Mr Allister, the public face of the TUV, address delegates.

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Belligerent, determined, focused, he, as Roy Walker would advise him, says what he sees. He is the glue that binds the party together in a united sense of discontentment that drives the party machinery - anger over the betrayal of Brexit, anger at what they see as the ineptitude of other unionist parties to stand up to agents of terror.

It's old school unionism as it was in the 1970s and 80s, holding fast to traditions and unwilling to let go, attempting to stand alone as the bastion of integrity, free from the sleaze and dishonesty they see around them.

They see others in the unionist family as failing when it comes to values. Old school or not, they will not cease fighting to have their voice heard as long as Mr Allister is around.

There's no doubt Mr Allister is the party's trump card, but you have to wonder where the party would be without him. They all hold dear to the memories of loved ones, and memories of atrocities throughout the Troubles. As long as Mr Allister leads, that grip on those memories will be firm. The TUV refuses to betray that legacy.

The party faces a challenge in the next local government elections to find a few more voices to join Mr Allister in the publicity stakes.

A failure to make inroads in May could necessitate a re-think if that core of representation fails to materialise.

Delegates were urged to find a way of telling their stories to the youth of today, with reference made to the DUP's 2016 conference at the La Mon Hotel where younger members struck up a chorus of 'Arlene's on fire' in the place where 12 people died as the result of an IRA fire bomb in 1978.

TUV press officer Sammy Morrison told delegates: "Sure they were only young, they didn't know the story. There is the problem."

Finding a way of tapping into that youth will be key, but are the youth of today as motivated by the wrongs of the past to give the party a future?

As with the best comedians, it's all about stage presence and delivery. It's something members agreed: unionists need to be better storytellers, take a leaf from Frank Carson's book and learn the way to tell 'em.

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