Mood upbeat as Alliance meets in Belfast for first party conference in two years

Key question is not whether Alliance will gain seats in May’s elections, but how many

With a consistent showing in the polls and three strong performances the last time Northern Ireland voted in 2019, all indications are that the Alliance Party can expect to pick up seats in the Assembly election in May.

The party took 9 per cent of first preference votes in the last Assembly election in 2017, and won eight seats; this time, the last four quarterly polls by Belfast-based polling company LucidTalk have Alliance on 13-16 per cent. The conference’s slogan: “Together We Can.”

"They could take another seat in South Belfast, in South Down, a seat in North Belfast is a possibility for them as well," says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.

“This again would indicate the march of Alliance in what you might call Belfast’s most sectarian cockpit, historically, that could be the centre ground breaking through there,” he says.

“The party has recruited well, they’ve got lots of new, young members so they look a vibrant party, and they’ve got a lot of young candidates from different backgrounds.”

He highlights Sorcha Eastwood, who came second to the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley in the Westminster election in 2019, and Patrick Brown, who was about 500 votes short of taking the final seat in South Down in 2017.

In Belfast, Alliance's Kate Nicholl is the current Lord Mayor, and the party has held the balance of power in the city council for a number of years.

“They’re sharp, they’re feisty, and they look like they’re the up-and-coming generation,” says Tonge. “I imagine they’ll get up into double figures in terms of Assembly seats but not enough probably to change the rules of the game, which is what Alliance wants.”

For the party, 2019 was a watershed year; it had its best ever result in that year’s European elections, with 18.5 per cent of the first preference vote; while it came in at 11.5 per cent in the local council elections and almost 17 per cent in the Westminster vote.

Since then it has added "well over 300 new members" out of a total membership of 1,500, says party leader Naomi Long; what brought them to Alliance, she says, was both "feeling disillusioned with what other parties have to offer" and a desire for a "party that is focused on solutions and not just finding problems".

The new members “wanted to be part of a movement that is about something other than the constitutional question and that doesn’t place the constitutional question as the main defining feature of our politics.

“If you look at the surveys over many, many years, the number of people who don’t define themselves mainly around the constitutional question is growing all the time, and I think our growth reflects that.”

The question is not whether Alliance will gain seats, but how many; at stake is not just the party’s electoral fortune but, potentially, a realignment of the North’s political landscape and the way in which it is governed.

“If we see our number [of Assembly seats] increased, I would consider that to be a good election. I guess a stellar election is where we see them significantly increased,” Long says.

"But if we have a large Alliance team – and I believe the larger the Alliance team is, the better for Northern Ireland – we also have an opportunity to change how things are done at Stormont; to start to change the structures."

A strong Alliance showing in the election, she says, “will obviously increase the pressure for that reform to happen, and that reform to me has to include making sure that no single party can hold the institutions to ransom.

“Three years of a five-year mandate we spent in suspension because Sinn Féin weren’t in government, and we have spent the last number of weeks with a zombie Executive because the DUP walked away from the first minister’s post, and that has to stop.”

It would also add strength to her party’s campaign for a move away from the requirement for political parties to designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or, like Alliance, “other”, which comes into play at Stormont when voting on key matters requiring cross-community consent.

“Were Alliance to be in a position where we were actually challenging, for example, to be the third largest party, or the second, or even the first, then it would transform the conversation because we would have to start to think in real terms, how can you exclude such a significant chunk of the population from being key participants in particularly sensitive votes?”

In the polarised political landscape of the North – given, but not confined to, the Brexit fallout, unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol and the DUP’s collapse of the Executive – the indications are that this will be a similarly polarised election; in this context, how will Alliance fare amid the traditional pull of orange and green?

“Even in a polarised election in 2017 Alliance did very well compared to our historic performance,” says Long. “Our performance has been against that backdrop because that is always the backdrop with every Northern Ireland election.”

Instead she highlights other issues including Covid recovery, the increasing cost of living, waiting lists, education and jobs . “All of these things react much more highly in terms of people’s concerns than things like Brexit and the protocol.”

This is backed up by the polls; on the charge sometimes levelled at it by the SDLP that Alliance cannot refuse to take a position on the constitutional question, she says: “It’s not because we’re refusing to, it’s because it isn’t the thing that matters most to us and to our members.

“And to those who say it’s damaging to the party, we only need to look at our results to see that actually it’s reflective of the growing number of people in the community who no longer see being a unionist or nationalist as the primary means by which they identify themselves politically.”

As always in politics, the proof will be in the results day pudding. “Though they’ll always be criticised for sitting in the fence and getting splinters in their backside on the constitutional question,” says Tonge, “in some ways they’ve been nicely positioned given the change in Northern Irish society.

Alliance has reason to be confident; the impact of that change will be felt in this election, and in those to come.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

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