The Alliance Party returns to La Mon Hotel on Saturday for its annual conference.
Back at the beginning of December, Alliance’s role in the Belfast City Hall flag decision – and the subsequent intimidation of elected representatives and damage to property – perversely looked like overall it might boost the party’s support.
However as the protests dragged on over Christmas and into January and February, Alliance are less and less associated with the story; instead unionist fora, unionist unity and actions/inaction of the PSNI are the focus.
Conference will be one of the first opportunities for the hundred or so new Alliance members to spend time listening to the party leadership and hanging out with other members.
Alliance’s Party Political Broadcast has noticeably abandoned their red-haired heroine mini-Naomi animations and instead features three Belfast MLAs in a professionally produced video.
The conference is due to run until mid-afternoon. The morning agenda includes a panel of elected representatives speaking about different aspects of Alliance’s shared future strategy (branded under For Everyone): Chris Lyttle, Judith Cochrane (housing), Trevor Lunn (integrated education), Maire Hendron (flags/shared space).
Stewart Dickson will chair a session where members and councillors explain why they joined the party and talk about what they want to see in a shared future.
In the run-up to David Ford’s televised leader’s speech [BBC Two NI from noon to 1pm] Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes will bring fraternal greetings as well as speeches form Stephen Farry (15 minutes on employment and learning), Naomi Long (30 minutes).
If it follows the pattern of previous conferences, expect to hear David Ford correcting other party’s perceptions of Alliance, being strongly supportive of embattled party colleagues – Belfast councillors, East Belfast representatives, Stewart Dickson and others targeted in the flag protests – as well as the normal effusive words about Naomi. I’d expect to hear soundbites strongly criticising the DUP and UUP’s actions in Belfast, as well as his critique of the UUP’s difficulties and the new McCrea/McCallister pro-Union vehicle.
Watch out for how David Ford phrases his level of support for PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, the PSNI tactics to manage the flag protests and the subsequent arrests and criminal justice response. He’ll also have the opportunity to talk about prisons (and the recent failed alternatives to strip searching trial).
Three fringe events over lunch look at social enterprise, human trafficking and employability.
A speech from a special visitor will ensure members don’t drift away after lunch. A guest panel talking about the economy will close the conference.
No sign of Mid Ulster candidate Eric Bullick on the agenda.
Will it be a confident conference? Or will it be dogged with doubts over how Alliance can gain momentum and be seen to own shared future thinking in a crowded political battleground.