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‘It’s an alternative to orange and green politics we’ve had for so long’: Why some Northern Ireland youth are turning to Alliance

Climate, jobs, health, welfare and equality trump constitutional issues for young and centrist voters at Alliance party conference in Belfast

Nineteen-year-old Eoin Millar explains he would be delighted to speak to The Irish Times, but later; right now, he simply he can’t miss Andrew Muir’s speech.

At the back of the conference room, he stands looking on as Muir – Northern Ireland’s newly-appointed Minister for Agriculture and Environment – is repeatedly cheered as he speaks of the importance of saving Lough Neagh, or how tackling the climate crisis is his “top priority”.

True to his promise, Millar does catch up with The Irish Times later on Saturday at the Alliance Party annual conference in Belfast; he explains it was “really exciting” the party has that portfolio “and I don’t think there’s any better person than Andrew” to head it.

“You can see how he’s being sort of swept off his feet here, there and everywhere,” says Millar. “He has great passion, and I think there’s a lot we can get done.”


A law with politics student at Ulster University and a member of Alliance Youth, Millar joined the party two years ago, aged 17, because of the DUP’s boycott of Stormont.

“I was quite angry at the fact that for a lot of my years growing up, there was no Executive as a result of Sinn Féin, then we had government during Covid, and I actually saw a benefit and a positive Northern Ireland and one that was able to work for the people.

“Then [the then first minister] Paul Givan collapsed the Executive and I knew I was just going to complain and be angry and I felt actually, it’s all well and good complaining, but there was an election coming up and I wanted to be able to make a difference and so I joined, and I haven’t looked back.”

From a Catholic, nationalist background in west Belfast, he explains it was Alliance’s policies that attracted him to the party; he feels Alliance’s “strength” is that it does not take a position on the constitutional question.

“It’s one of those things, it would get commented on, that I sit on the fence, especially because of my background, but it’s not something I shy away from and for me the party allows people of all abilities and all talents to come together to work on pieces of policy and legislation that will benefit everyone in Northern Ireland regardless of where your constitutional aspirations lie.”

Thomas Blain agrees. A 21-year-old politics student at Ulster University, he says “voting has completely changed, especially compared to my parents’ generation, when it was we have to vote DUP to keep Sinn Féin out. That’s not how young people do politics.”

From the working-class Protestant, unionist estate of Rathcoole in north Belfast, Blain was convinced by the 2019 Westminster election that Alliance was the party for him.

Other parties chose not to stand candidates, leaving the battle for the seat between the DUP’s Nigel Dodds and John Finucane of Sinn Féin. “I felt like when everyone else was pulling out, Alliance stayed in, and I thought that was such a good stance to have,” says Blain.

“Because I’m from Rathcoole we were getting stuff in from Nigel Dodds’s campaign saying we need a unionist in, and I thought, well what have you delivered for us? You’ve been in office since 2001 and Rathcoole hasn’t got any better, we still have really high poverty and low education rates.

“I was only 17 so I couldn’t vote at the time, but I went with my granny to the polling station and she said she agreed with me and it was the first time she voted Alliance since the Good Friday Agreement.”

Others have been doing the same. Alliance had a storming election in 2022, taking it to 17 MLAs and the position of third largest party in the Assembly.

It is by far the biggest of the parties which do not identify themselves as either nationalist or unionist, according to the Stormont system of designation; these “others” are now the choice of roughly a fifth of voters in Northern Ireland.

Heroes – the track from the Lego Batman movie – echoes through the conference room as party leader Naomi Long takes to the stage; she receives a standing ovation before launching into a speech praising the party’s “new generation of young leaders” entering local government for the first time.

Listening is self-confessed “political nerd” Ellen Taylor, who joined Alliance during the Covid-19 lockdown when she was just 14.

“Musical theatre is my love but that stopped during Covid; I was looking for something else so I became part of Alliance.

“I suppose its policies align with a lot of what I agree with – integrated education, shared housing and more integration of society in general.

“It’s an alternative for Northern Ireland compared to orange and green politics that we’ve had for so long.”

Brought up an atheist, she is concerned by “how Northern Ireland is so focused on identity”.

“My dad is very political, and my mum is from Dublin. They would have voted for nationalist parties before, SDLP and Sinn Féin, and the rest of my family would all vote for Sinn Féin.

“The really refreshing thing about Alliance is that it doesn’t focus on identity; it’s about focusing on the issues that matter to young people likes jobs, the health service; that’s what people actually care about.

“They want more opportunities, they want to feel that they have a future in Northern Ireland and a lot of people don’t at the moment. I think Alliance value the voice of young people.”

First-time voter Catherine Bell – an 18-year-old history student at Queen’s University Belfast – was attracted to the party after she saw the “admirable and inspirational” work done by close friends who were elected for Alliance.

“Their time is not primarily spent focusing on the Constitution; it’s on things like welfare and equality and the things that, to people coming out of high school, are more important than identity,”

From a unionist background in mid-Ulster area, she admits to “different responses” from her parents to her voting Alliance.

“But I think the primary thing is that I educate myself and go to the party I think is doing the best work, address the things I’m going to be thinking about.

“At the [conference] dinner last night, they were speaking about hospitality and retail. I’ve worked in both and I’m a student who works part-time.

“Seeing them address various social things like that which have been overlooked for so long is huge for me.”