Rise of Alliance reveals surprising facets of North’s shifting politics

Party’s supporters are not necessarily neutral on constitutional question

As the dust settles on the recent Assembly election, efforts now turn to understanding the implications of what has been described by some commentators as a historic result. This interpretation centres primarily on Sinn Féin having become the biggest party, returning with 27 seats in contrast to the DUP’s 25, entitling it to nominate for the position of first minister should a new Executive be formed amid deadlock over the protocol.

The election was also significant because of the continued electoral growth of the Alliance Party, which has surged from the eight seats it won in 2017 to an impressive 17 – building on the successes it enjoyed in the local, European and general elections of 2019. As the third-largest party in any new Assembly, Alliance has now become a major force in the North's political landscape but, in so doing, has raised an important question: what does it say about the direction of political travel in contemporary Northern Ireland?

Alliance tends to be described as holding the centre-ground between the North’s traditional political blocs of “orange and green”, and its recent successes are often equated with the rise of a third section of the electorate that identifies as “Neither” nationalist nor unionist and consequently expresses detachment from what had historically been deemed the four big parties: the DUP, UUP, Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Indeed, data show that almost 38 per cent of those who identify as "Neither" claimed to support the Alliance Party

The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey has charted the steady if fluctuating growth of this "Neither" community from 33 per cent of respondents in 1998 (first year of the survey) to 42 per cent in the most recent data of 2020; figures that would suggest ripe pickings for a party such as Alliance to exploit. Indeed, data from NILT show that almost 38 per cent of those who identify as "Neither" claimed to support the Alliance Party, a significant way ahead of both the SDLP and the Greens, who were both on 11 per cent of respondents.

Across the divide

The centre-ground status is further shown by the ability of the party to appeal to voters from across the religious divide; of those who identified as Alliance Party supporters, 20 per cent were Catholic, 32 per cent were Protestant and 46 per cent selected “No religion”. This can be extrapolated a little further to get a sense of the community background of the “No religion” respondents. When asked what religion they were brought up in, 35 per cent said Catholic and 52 per cent Protestant, with 12 per cent from a non-religious background.

The Alliance Party is viewed as socially liberal and has campaigned for marriage equality and women’s rights. It has been a strong advocate for integrated education since its foundation and, more recently, has argued for Stormont reforms to end the nationalist/unionist designation system to be replaced by a weighted majority model.

Crucially, when seeking to understand what the rise of Alliance tells us about the political culture of contemporary Northern Ireland, voting for the party does not mean supporters necessarily become neutral on the constitutional question. Indeed, some interesting patterns can be identified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 44 per cent of Alliance supporters in the NILT survey support remaining in the UK with devolved government at Stormont as the best long-term policy. Only 8 per cent of their supporters support the long-term policy of remaining in the UK with direct rule, while a much more significant 27 per cent believe Irish unity to be the way forward.

In the past it might have been assumed that this support for Irish unification would come largely from those who had been brought up within the Catholic community. In fact, those with a Catholic upbringing were split when it came to their preferred long-term policy: 33 per cent supported the option of remaining in the UK with devolved powers; 35 per cent favoured Irish unity; 13 per cent stated they didn’t know and a further 13 per cent claimed to prefer some form of independent state.

Protestant breakdown

Among those Alliance supporters brought up as Protestants, 50 per cent supported remaining in the UK with devolved government with 10 per cent supporting direct rule. Interestingly the data highlights that a significant 24 per cent of those from a Protestant background now support Irish unity as the longer-term policy. Indeed, 41 per cent of the cohort believe a united Ireland is either very or quite likely within the next 20 years with a further 19.5 per cent thinking there is an even chance of it happening.

A massive 78 per cent of these respondents believe Brexit has made a united Ireland more likely while 47 per cent say the UK’s decision to leave the EU has made them feel more in favour of Irish unity. By way of context, 77 per cent of all Alliance respondents believe Brexit has made Irish unity more likely with 51 per cent stating they have become more in favour of the policy as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU.

The narrative of Alliance as a centre party rings true, but such a label does not do justice to the complex political perspectives within

One further note of interest from the NILT data centres on attitudes towards national identity within the party. This is very evenly split across the respondents, particularly among the categories that reflect multiple conceptualisations of identity, with 27 per cent saying they are “equally Irish and British”.

The narrative of Alliance as a centre party in the political landscape of Northern Ireland unquestionably rings true , but such a label does not do justice to the complex political perspectives within. If data from the NILT survey is truly reflective of the party’s constituency base, it would suggest that Alliance has become an important outlet for those frustrated with the North’s traditional parties who continue to present society in simple binary terms. As such, Alliance may now be playing an important role in a Northern society that, although still unquestionably divided on historical issues, is becoming more tolerant of “the other” and accepting of our diverse and often complex political identities.