I know that David Ford and other serious Alliance politicians read slugger. Hence I do this blog with a bit of trepidation as I may be annihilated by real politicians but it was an interesting intellectual exercise so here goes: The recent discussions about the Alliance Party taking or not taking the Policing and Justice ministry and the anger directed at them by Maurice Hayes has set me thinking about possible ways forward for the Alliance Party. I suspect whatever happens their future is secure but I am unsure whether they can realistically expect significant political growth despite the fact that much of their analysis about the executive strikes a very significant chord with many in Northern Ireland.It is worth a quick look at the history of the Alliance Party on wikipedia (I am sure the likes of Comrade Stalin would provide a much more exhaustive account). Initially Alliance polled about 10% of the vote but in the ensuing years much of that support ebbed away; the 2003 Stormont elections providing a nadir of 3.9% and the 2007 elections a fairly typical 5.2%. One interesting thing which I confess to having forgotten is that despite the tendency of the Alliance vote to centralise around the Greater Belfast Pale: they once gained votes and even seats in the grim areas beyond civilisation. Now in such areas people look quizzically when mention is made of Alliance before walking away muttering about odd folk in Belfast.
Alliance are of course somewhat trapped in their current position by both their support base and their political ideology. Their support base is almost as defined as that of the unionist and nationalist parties. It is essentially a liberal within the Pale electorate frequently (possibly unfairly) perceived to be middle class professionals. It has sometimes been assumed that their supporters are predominantly unionists with a small u and possibly mainly Protestant along with a few Castle Catholics. That is also probably unfair, however, and in places such as Carrickfergus council Alliance probably offer the only realistic prospect nationalists have of electing candidates who are anything other than unionists. Such a scenario may also pertain within parts of other councils such Bangor or even (outside the Pale) areas of Coleraine.
Alliances non sectarian ideological position no matter how lauded by everyone at middle class dinner parties within the Pale (we do not do dinner parties in the Dreary Steeples) has always had the problem that even many of the middle class denizens of the Pale are actually in political terms primarily interested in the constitutional position. As such Alliances actual electoral appeal has often had a problem during the troubles. The agreements etc. of course have also had little benefit for Alliance as the constitutional issue has remained centre stage. The dHondt system with the two communities designations has also been extremely detrimental to Alliances position. Alliance has also not helped itself at times: During the initial negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement; Alliance, so much the power sharing party, probably found it difficult to overly denounce the compromise finally cobbled together. In fairness they may have done some denouncing but I cannot remember. If a politico like myself cannot remember, that might imply that others in NI would forget such nuances of the Alliance position.
The decision to redesignate itself temporarily as a unionist party also probably did Alliance harm. It may well have been a principled decision to keep power sharing going but it left Alliance open (unfairly in my view) to nationalist charges of being a unionist party and to the wrath of unionists who had become fed up with Trimbles leadership (to be fair it is unreasonable to castigate Alliance for failing to see the unionist loss of confidence in Trimble; the UUP completely missed it). In addition the shenanigans over Alderdice becoming speaker played badly with at least some Alliance supporting types no matter how honourable and not his fault that was.
Under Alderdice there was a tendency (to my eyes) for Alliance to denounce sectarianism for its immorality and to seem to accuse unionists and nationalists of being sectarian for voting for their respective parties. This apparently rather preachy and possibly self righteous style was very likely to be counter productive especially when the agreement had openly catered for and almost celebrated two opposing communities. Since Alderdice has gone there has seemed to be something of a change of emphasis. David Ford seems to be responsible for this shift in emphasis. Now we are warned of the expense to Northern Ireland of sectarianism and no matter the rights and wrongs of such claims they are likely to be better received than preaching, no matter how well intentioned. It also chimes well with the complaints that the assembly is not working properly and is failing to make decisions. Without wishing to play the man the contrast between Fords style and that of The Lord Alderdice is marked; the websites I have linked to above say a great deal.
The current apparent refusal of Alliance to take Policing and Justice is also probably clever politics. Although it may deprive an Alliance spokesperson of a very high profile position it continues the Assembly is not working and we are the opposition narrative which they are currently running with. It also avoids trapping Alliance into a position as the thrall of the DUP and SF. Incidentally if Alliance were to go for the ministry I would have thought that Naomi Long would be their best choice (of which more in a moment).
Significant challenges do, however, remain in front of Alliance. They do face a threat from the Green Party which also espouses politics which cut across the usual divisions in Northern Ireland. However, personally I suspect the Greens will be fairly fortunate to hold their MLA next time round. Certainly Alliance have already seen off the challenge from the Northern Ireland Womens Coalition. Other challenges face them that they are still frequently perceived as a small u unionist party. The current attacks by Ford on SF no matter how accurate will tend to enhance rather than diminish that perception. Ford might be wise to launch increasing attacks on the unionist parties or give such a task to another MLA and again Longs recent denunciation of Iris Robinson was probably a good idea on that score. In addition supporting a few more overtly nationalist things, maybe the Maze stadium or more support for the Irish language might be helpful. If I were Ford I might exile an MLA to the Gaeltacht this summer to learn Irish if none of them can currently speak it properly.
The extent to which Alliance can garner further votes is also unclear. The increasing number of non NI immigrants is an excellent target population for them but in addition they need to gain more unionist and nationalist votes. If the SDLP continues to decline they may make further inroads there but I suspect they have gained about as much as they can and most of any further slippage in the SDLP vote would go to SF. On the other hand a revival of SDLP support might come mainly at SF but also at Alliances expense. On the other side, however, the future may be rosier: If the UUP continue to thrash around in circles, Alliance can probably gobble up a few more UUP votes. Even the potential tie up with the Tories might help Alliance as some trendy lefty UUP types (if there are any) might jump ship.
In addition sooner or later Alliance, if they wish to progress, are going to have to make other radical decisions. Soon they are going to have to have the nerve to run two candidates in a single assembly constituency: I would have thought the obvious place to stand would be East Belfast. Long has a high profile in that constituency, was well over the quota last time and would be the obvious place for transfer of SF and SDLP votes. As such I would give her a running mate although that does involve the small risk of a West Tyrone. Very similar logic dictates that they should also run two candidates in North Down and hope to sink the Greens (all is fair in love, war and politics).
The next issue which Alliance must address is to move outside the comfort zone and make significant inroads into the areas outside the Pale. Although their votes here have tended to be derisory in recent years, as I noted earlier that has not always been the case. If Omagh hospital does close, Kieran Deeny will lose his raison detre but Alliance should try to get him to stand for them. He will almost certainly lose his seat but they need high profile candidates out there in the Dreary Steeples.
Of course one of the biggest problems which Alliance face is that the system is stacked against them. Our own rather odd dual democracy leaves them in a political No Mans Land. Clearly Alliance could expect to gain a much greater profile, importance and quite possibly votes with a change to voluntary coalition. However, therein lies a classic Catch 22: it is the unionist parties which favour an end to mandatory coalition and as such for Alliance to push for that may alarmingly increase the size of that small u unionist in nationalist perceptions of them.
All the above problems and challenges are difficult ones for Alliance to surmount. In the short term I suspect there is a limit to what can be achieved though that would need to include continuing their self appointed opposition role, increasing attacks on the unionist parties and at the next election run two candidates in East Belfast and North Down as a minimum. Again running two candidates in unionist seats, yet it being pointless in nationalist seats is another depiction of the problems they face as the small u unionist party. In the long term they have to hope for a renegotiation of the agreement. In that of course they veer nearer to not a small u unionist party but to a big U sandwiched between a T and a V: not that I expect to see many of my views mirrored by Alliance commentors.