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'We have real opportunities lying ahead': Hopes are high in the Alliance Party ahead of a UK general election

The party has enjoyed significant success by running on an anti-Brexit platform.

Naomi Long has been praised for boosting the profile of the Alliance Party.
Naomi Long has been praised for boosting the profile of the Alliance Party.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

THE ALLIANCE PARTY seems to be on the up in Northern Ireland. After success in the local and European elections, the party will be hoping for a return to Westminster in any upcoming general election. 

“The party has gone through something of a rise recently,” Dr Henry Jarrett, an expert in Northern Irish politics at the University of Exeter, told TheJournal.ie

With no government in the North and the prospect of direct rule looming in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the pro-remain party has enjoyed something of a boost in the polls. 

Origins

Only in Northern Ireland could the Alliance Party be seen as ‘radical’, as one academic has described it. 

Liberal, anti-sectarian and with a heavy dose of scepticism towards indulging the tribalism of the North’s politics, it’s been winning over a steady, if not spectacular, portion of voters since the 1970s. 

As one of its founding documents stated, the party’s “primary objective is to heal the bitter divisions in our community”. So far, so inoffensive – and even perhaps a perfect antidote to the traditional divisions of the North’s politics. 

Unfortunately for the party, voters have not often rewarded it for its neutrality. Even today, when a younger generation of voters are starting to leave behind the old nationalist and unionist identities, Alliance still remains something of an electoral anomaly – sometimes successful, but more often not. 

“Why isn’t Alliance’s support higher?” Jarret asks. ”I don’t think we’ve seen a significant move away from ethnic support in Northern Ireland.”

After the Good Friday Agreement, the party did successfully carve out a niche as a fulcrum between the two strands of nationalism and unionism, claiming the justice ministry as its own while trying to forge out a base of political support that stretched beyond the posher parts of Belfast. 

Yet peace in Northern Ireland, delivered by the agreement, partly hamstrung the Alliance Party by turning its anti-sectarian values into something alien to the newly formatted assembly. 

When it came to asking which side are you on, “other” could be an unnecessarily awkward answer when the new political landscape was designed to appeal to the poles of nationalism and unionism.

This is the diagnosis Dr David Mitchell, an expert in conflict studies in Trinity College Dublin, puts forward. 

“Alliance has always been seen as middle class, and confined to the Belfast suburbs. Their brand of politics – liberal, and agnostic on the constitutional question – just hasn’t appealed to that many people in Northern Ireland,” he tells TheJournal.ie. 

Change

Northern Ireland’s decades of polarisation and obstinance has recently become something of a handy shorthand for commentators looking for new ways to talk about how Brexit has transformed UK politics. 

But Northern Irish politics has also been changed by Brexit – and it’s the Alliance Party that’s arguably benefited most. 

Vocally anti-Brexit and led by the charismatic Naomi Long, the party pulled off a number of remarkable victories in the local and European elections to raise hopes that voters are looking for a pro-remain voice that isn’t Sinn Féin. 

martin-mcguinness-resigns-as-ni-deputy-first-minister The Alliance Party has been trying to attract voters from both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. Source: Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA Images

While the SDLP has also tried to carve out an electoral space as another pro-remain party, Alliance has been well-placed to hoover up votes from Ulster Unionist Party supporters unhappy with the party’s somewhat confused pro-Brexit position. 

Naomi Long’s success in taking the third European elections seat in the North seemed to confirm this. “If you are a pro-EU unionist, Alliance is your best and possibly only option and I think this has helped the party,” Mitchell says.  

Can this continue?

If you’re an Alliance Party member, all this success might come as a heady thrill after years of sitting at the edge of Northern Ireland politics.

Listening to Long, it can sometimes sound like Northern Ireland is on the precipice of re-alignment. 

“The people who voted for me came together from right across the community, regardless of unionism, regardless of nationalism, regardless of all those labels,” she said following her victory. 

But there are still fears the good times for Long’s party may not last and the prospect of a general election in the coming months could bring them crashing back down. 

“Every election is different,” says Mitchell. One particular problem for the Alliance is that in a general election it will have the first-past-the-post electoral system, which punishes smaller parties, to contend with. 

And while the party is just about in contention for a seat in Belfast South or Belfast East (which Long won in 2010), success is far from certain. 

However, regardless of what happens in Belfast, it’s west of the River Bann where proof of a real Alliance revolution will be found.

In May, the party’s Stephen Donnelly, who came fifth in the 2017 general election in West Tyrone, bagged a seat on the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council as part of a surge in the Alliance vote across the North that saw it jump from 32 to 53 councillors. 

The west has traditionally been less than friendly to Alliance and Donnelly hails his victory as part of a wider shift in the party. 

“I think part of the problem has been we didn’t have recognisable, locally rooted faces representing the party,” he says. He credits Long with reinvigorating the party and “giving us a sense of direction that a lot of people believed in”. 

“The election demonstrated that we have real opportunities lying ahead of ourselves,” Donnelly thinks. 

If the Alliance can grasp these opportunities in the coming months, he might just be right. 

Next week TheJournal.ie will be looking at the prospects of the Ulster Unionist Party ahead of a UK general election. 

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