The extraordinary rise in support for Alliance in Northern Ireland represents a strong vote to restore Stormont. There is no paradox with this having occurred in local and European elections, held on separate dates this month.
Alliance's growth reflects frustration with political paralysis in general, of which the collapse of devolution is the most potent example, surpassing even Brexit as an everyday concern. All parties reported demands on the doorsteps to return to Stormont during the council campaign. Alliance leader Naomi Long says her European victory was in large part driven by a public wish to see devolution restored. Sinn Féin and the DUP appear to be taking this on board.
Where a paradox arises is that Stormont is designed to marginalise Alliance and cannot accommodate the party at its new level of support.
Of all the bodies Long has been elected to – Belfast City Council, Westminster and the European Parliament – Stormont is the only one where Alliance's votes are officially second-class. Always a dubious state of affairs, this is now so absurd it poses a conundrum in resurrecting Stormont – the very problem Alliance's supporters want to solve.
Under the law enacting the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Assembly members must designate as unionist or nationalist, or be classed as “other”.
Each party acquires the designation shared by half or more of its members.
Unionists and nationalists have extra weight in the Assembly’s important veto mechanism, with each side able to block anything on their own.
“Others” are powerless by comparison – they would have to control half the chamber to attempt a similar role.
Only unionist or nationalist parties can lead the executive, via the posts of first and deputy first minister. It might seem implausible that Alliance could become the largest or second-largest party but it has just attracted a significantly larger vote share than the UUP or the SDLP, which would have been inconceivable when devolution was established 20 years ago.
At the very least, excluding the party from executive leadership looks problematic in principle.
Northern Ireland has entered an era of three pluralities: unionist, nationalist and other
Alliance was tiny at the time of the Belfast Agreement, as it had been for decades. The category of other was created for it and a few even smaller parties to permit a purely ornamental centre ground.
In 2001, Alliance subverted this system by designating its members as unionists for one day, to help veto a DUP move against powersharing. In doing so it demonstrated the scope for evolution beyond Stormont’s sectarian confines. This “crossing the floor” manoeuvre so alarmed the DUP and Sinn Féin that in the 2006 St Andrews agreement, which restored devolution after its last collapse, they rewrote the law so Assembly members could no longer change designation between elections, unless they changed parties.
Once in charge, however, the DUP and Sinn Féin found Alliance’s outsider status useful. When both top parties could not agree how to share the newly-created post of justice minister in 2010, they gave it to Alliance through an ad hoc arrangement.
That was the first time an undesignated party entered the executive. It was only in 2011 that Alliance did well enough at the polls to be entitled to a ministry by right.
Arcane as these details sound, they have built up over the past two decades into a complete institutional culture of how the centre ground is handled.
This culture would struggle to cope with Alliance returning to Stormont as the third- or fourth-largest party, which now seems as likely as Stormont being restored. Alliance’s electoral strength plus the justice arrangement could leave it controlling a third of all departments.
Restoration is deadlocked over several issues, in particular same-sex marriage and an Irish language Act, for which there is already an Assembly majority. Only the veto mechanism, deployed by unionists to exclude Alliance, stands in the way.
Sinn Féin and the DUP both want to preserve the veto for their own purposes. How sustainable would that be if Alliance doubled its Assembly representation, given it has just doubled its council and European votes?
In theory, none of this would break the rules. In practice, it would make designation – a foundation of devolution – look redundant and perverse.
Alliance’s breakthrough could yet be a passing phenomenon but it has the feel of a natural shift. Northern Ireland has entered an era of three pluralities: unionist, nationalist and other. Two unionist and two nationalist parties are a legacy of conflict – with peace, one each can suffice. A European election, in which Northern Ireland is a single three-seat constituency, has accelerated the party-political implications by delivering Sinn Féin, DUP and Alliance wins.
Another Assembly election would be more complicated. However, Alliance’s growth has pushed it over the psychological threshold of eclipsing the SDLP and especially the UUP.
Current Stormont talks risk building in failure if they presume the restoration of a four-party, two-tribes system, plus extraneous other.
Logic and events now point to a very different future.