Assembly election: Can those who don't vote Orange or Green transform the North?

Northern Ireland election on Thursday: Parties designated ‘other’ sense a chance to move past old divisions

If he was going to end up in any political party, jokes Peter McCully, then it was inevitable it would be Alliance.

The son of two academics, he grew up discussing politics around the dinner table. “My grandfather was a supporter of the [then prime minister of Northern Ireland] Terence O’Neill and his reforms in the ’60s, so we were, I suppose, a liberal unionist family, though my mum worked in environmental science so she always voted Green.

“My dad worked in the field of history teaching and did a lot of work on contested narratives of the past and how those play out in the classroom and how they are used – how they can reinforce sectarian attitudes in society as well.

“A lot of that has seeped into me and has formed my attitudes.”

Today the 28-year-old is the Alliance Party's campaigns manager; as the candidates gather in a sports club in east Belfast for the party's manifesto launch, McCully is among the party staffers looking on from the back of the room.

The atmosphere is one of confidence. The party is seeking to add to the eight seats it won at the last Assembly election in 2017, and add enough to break into double figures; on a “really good day” it could take several more.

If Tuesday’s poll from the University of Liverpool/The Irish News is anything to go by, this could be on the cards; an upsurge in support has put Alliance level with the DUP on 18.2 per cent, second only to Sinn Féin on 26.6 per cent.

A result on this scale would be hugely significant; it would make Alliance the North’s third-largest party in the Assembly, and provide a clear indication that the oft-heralded shift away from the traditional “orange and green” allegiances is indeed happening – and that this societal shift is being reflected at the ballot box.

As the report's author, Prof Peter Shirlow, wrote: "This place, whatever you wish to call it, is changing and the forces therein will shape and define a future yet to be contemplated."

If, says Shirlow, the parties that designate themselves as 'other' can take 20 per cent of first-preference votes, 'that is as important as first minister'

This change has been documented: according to the June 2021 update to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey by Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University, the largest identity group was not British or Irish but "neither", with 42 per cent of respondents identifying as such; the study's authors noted that compared with how respondents would have answered five years ago, "the overall trend is away from both unionist and nationalist and towards neither".

If, says Shirlow, the parties that do not designate themselves as nationalist or unionist but as "other" – Alliance, the Green Party Northern Ireland and People Before Profit (PBP) – can take 20 per cent of first-preference votes on May 5th, as the polls indicate they will, "that is as important as first minister".

“It is an acknowledgement of the slow burner of change and the not needing a meteorologist to tell you which way the wind is blowing.”

Breakthrough year

Alliance's breakthrough moment came in 2019; party leader Naomi Long was elected with 18.5 per cent of the first-preference vote in that year's European elections, and the party took 11.5 per cent in the local council elections and almost 17 per cent in the Westminster vote.

Among the stand-out performers for Alliance was Eoin Tennyson in Upper Bann, who took 12.9 per cent of the vote – more than double the party's result in 2017 – and outpolled the Ulster Unionist Party candidate, Doug Beattie.

This time, with Tennyson as the candidate, Upper Bann is a key target constituency for Alliance.

Still only 23, he is virtually the same age as the Belfast Agreement and feels his generation was “promised more … We’re managing our traditions and we’ve got relative peace but actually I aspire to much more than that.”

'The people who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, that has been growing substantially over the last few years, and it's a trickle effect'

He is from a Catholic, nationalist family but his identity is “a little bit different in that I’m a member of the LGBT community, which is a bit more diverse and doesn’t really fit the orange-and-green binary.

“I saw how the political structures we had weren’t designed to deliver for me, where those mechanisms that were intended to protect minority rights can be abused to stymie progress.

“Identity politics sometimes excludes people, be it people with disabilities, LGBT people, women in some respects, new arrivals to Northern Ireland, people who just don’t fit that very binary orange-and-green label, so I wanted to get involved in politics that was inclusive and about delivering for everybody.”

“The people who are nonaligned or who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, that has been growing substantially over the last few years, and it’s a trickle effect,” says McCully.

He cites a number of factors: changing identities, Brexit and the failure to fulfil the promises to “the Good Friday generation, which I suppose I’m part of. The parties that have been in charge for the majority of that time haven’t fulfilled that promise, so people are genuinely looking for alternatives.”

The other others

This is the case made by the other “others”: People Before Profit and the Green Party Northern Ireland.

People Before Profit, which is running a record 12 candidates, hopes it can add Shaun Harkin, a councillor in Foyle who is backed by former PBP MLA Eamonn McCann, to join Gerry Carroll, who was elected in west Belfast in 2017.

Conversations out on the canvass show people are “crying out for alternatives”, says Harkin. “Now is the time to throw political convention out the window and now is the time for people to deliver their verdict on the Executive’s failure to stand by families when it mattered,” was Carroll’s pitch at the manifesto launch in Derry.

The Greens aim to add to the two seats it won last time round, and sees councillors Mal O'Hara – the party's deputy leader – in north Belfast and Brian Smyth in east Belfast as being in with the best chance; at its manifesto, launched on the Belfast barge on the river Lagan – lit green for the occasion – candidates talk of a "huge energy" out on the campaign trail.

Áine Groogan, originally from Ballinascreen in south Derry, is now Green Party councillor in south Belfast. “I’m probably from what you would call a republican/nationalist background, but from a very young age I realised that wasn’t for me,” she says.

“Traditional politics never spoke to me because it was too preoccupied with this hypothetical constitutional question and not dealing with the day to day of people’s lives.”

Their message, she says, is resonating on the doors: “I think there is a real appetite for change and we’re seeing that with the increasing vote for what is termed the ‘others’ in the Assembly.”

If, as the “others” hope, this sentiment results in an increased vote for them on Thursday, it has the potential to lead to fundamental change not just in terms of representation, but to the very mechanisms of the Assembly itself.

'Whenever it comes to key votes, anyone who's designated as "other", our vote currently doesn't count for as much as the two main voting blocs, and that's unacceptable'

Under Stormont rules, designations – unionist, nationalist or other – come into play when voting on what are known as significant or "cross-cutting" matters that require cross-community support. A strong mandate for the "others" would increase the call by Alliance and the Greens for a reform of the Assembly structures to reflect this new electoral landscape – which could in the long run make the North's political institutions more resilient and more durable.

“Whenever it comes to key votes, anyone who’s designated as ‘other’, our vote currently doesn’t count for as much as the two main voting blocs, and that’s unacceptable whenever you have a significant proportion of the population that ascribes to a different point of view,” says McCully.

“It’s fundamentally undemocratic, and we need to really change those structures, and it’s actually a message that goes down really well on the doorsteps.”

Tilting the axis

Inevitably, a substantial vote for the “others” would tilt the traditional axis of Northern politics away from the constitutional question.

“On the doors, the constitutional question, Brexit, the protocol – that doesn’t come up very often,” says Groogan. What does come across is that “Stormont was pulled down for three years, the Executive then fell again at the start of this year, and people of all colours and creeds are fed up.”

This message has been received by all the main parties, who in their campaigns have emphasised issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and the need to reform the health service – and, in the case of the DUP, the need to vote for them to keep out Sinn Féin and hence avoid a “divisive Border poll”.

Sinn Féin, for its part, though it has played down the unity question, has in its campaign mailing reminded voters of what is at stake. “After this election one of two parties will hold the position of first minister. Your vote will decide which one.”

For all the talk of change, the fact remains that, for all the ground gained by the “others”, most voters will choose either unionist or nationalist parties on May 5th.

Alliance has faced criticism for not taking a position on the constitutional question – for sitting on the fence for so long it has splinters, as one commentator put it – but the reality is that in any hypothetical Border poll, the votes of these 20 per cent of “others” will be crucial.

'There are unionists and nationalists in this room today but that's not their defining identity'

In a “50 per cent plus one” scenario, it is not the lifelong republican or the die-hard unionist who will decide if Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or becomes part of a new unitary Ireland, but this middle ground.

"Look around the room," says Elaine Crory, chairwoman of the Green Party NI. "There are unionists and nationalists in this room today but that's not their defining identity.

“I think an awful lot of people have moved beyond that in the way that they think about everyday politics.”

“Many of my good school friends come from a traditionally Protestant, unionist background,” says McCully. “Despite that, they are very questioning, in that they would openly call themselves Irish and they would be very much of the opinion, as I would be, that it depends on what the actual proposals are for a future united Ireland.

“That’s when we’ll make up our minds, rather than being ideologically in one of the camps already.”

Sectarian abuse

This is in the future. In the meantime, Alliance has been among the parties on the receiving end of sectarianism during this campaign.

In Upper Bann, Tennyson has had posters removed, abuse shouted at his team and "in Lurgan, somebody took it upon themselves to approach the team and say that it was a Protestant area and that we weren't welcome".

'Things are never going to change here overnight, but if you look at each election there are those glimmers of hope'

He brushes it off – he points out that some of the canvassers were themselves Protestant – and blames an electoral system that “incentivises parties who trade on fear, and they scare people almost into voting against what they see as the worst option rather than what they actually believe in and want.

“That’s what the Alliance Party is trying to challenge, and I guess this election is really the first time that we’ve had an opportunity break that cycle.”

“Change is incremental, things are never going to change here overnight, but if you look at each election there are those glimmers of hope,” says Groogan.

“At the last council election we doubled our number of councillors, and Alliance similarly had a huge upsurge as well … Think of the strength of the ‘other’ group in the Assembly now – that’s a massive bloc of power.”

Simply having other voices in the room, she argues, “makes a massive difference … It’s a cultural change, because people are talking about the environment now, people are on board, they’re going ‘what do we have to do?’, whereas four or five years ago it was a footnote on the bottom of a manifesto.

“Having those Green voices, having those other voices in there changes the conversation.”

On Thursday those voices will have the chance to make themselves heard. McCully is confident. “Our ideas have finally had their time.”