Alliance Party Conference preview #allconf

It’s the Alliance Party Conference on Saturday. Their agenda has still not been announced as it is being franticly reshuffled after the late confirmation that Fine Gael’s leader Enda Kenny is able to attend.

This time last year, the likelihood that policing and justice would be devolved was much talked about at conference. Behind the scenes, Alliance’s Executive had already discussed how they might approach the new ministry and the potential for David Ford to grab the post.

Alliance’s leader was prescient (and not believed) when in his speech he said

I believe that Naomi’s political career is not going to end on the opposition benches at Stormont and that there are significant opportunities ahead. I know that both DUP and UUP members are frightened of her in the context of the coming elections and they have every reason to be.

He went on to talk about her East Belfast constituency:

East Belfast is now wide open: it is now a classic two horse race between a faltering DUP and a resurgent Alliance. Look at the Assembly election. Naomi was just behind the DUP leader, with the UUP leader a distant third and nationalists trailing further behind. This could well be our best opportunity since Oliver Napier came within 1,000 votes of beating Peter Robinson in 1979 and I know we have an excellent team capable of pulling it off this time.

He added:

This year, there is a real chance of change, at least in East Belfast, but maybe elsewhere too. Just imagine the effect that the election of an Alliance MP or two would have.

Alliance’s dream came true. But will it have a happy ending? The time for imagination is over and this May the voters get a chance to mark Alliance’s report card.

Twelve months after last January’s conference, David Ford has managed to negotiate the twists and turns of justice devolution and has taken a seat around the NI Executive table. Naomi Long pulled off a coup in May’s Westminster election, beating the DUP leader in the East Belfast poll.

However, since May 2010, what has Alliance achieved?

By nature of handing over her Assembly seat to Chris Lyttle, bowing out of Belfast City Hall politics and handing that position to Laura McNamee, and spending time in Westminster, the party’s deputy leader Naomi Long has receded from the media spotlight and become a more distant figure. And if anything, Peter Robinson’s annus horribilus has given him the chance to reinvent his persona and come back stronger … and the partial saviour of Glentoran football club (bit of a local vote winner).

While all elections are turning points, May 2011 is a crucial fulcrum for Alliance.

Can they recreate the hype and feel-good momentum of Naomi’s victory along with the respectability of being at the heart of the Executive (the early release of prisoners hasn’t yet become a lasting embarrassment for Ford) and turn it into an increase in the share of the vote and an increase in the number of local councillors.

While the high-profile defections of Bradshaw and Hamilton keep Alliance in the news, will it buy them any votes? Alliance are relatively unlikely to get more MLAs elected, but if the party doesn’t hold the existing block in the Assembly and increase the number of council seats then it will be seen to have been squeezed and Naomi’s election as MP will be deemed a one-off.

In some ways, Alliance seems terribly settled with little visible squabbling or infighting. Going into the Executive didn’t cause problems for party supporters. Issues around post primary selection still rumble on, but Alliance know where they stand. Double jobbing remains ok for the party (in terms of non-ministerial MLAs and councillors) so that doesn’t need to be resolved.

But it’s gone quite quiet. The political narrative at the Assembly isn’t written in yellow letters at the moment.

At this year’s conference, I’m expecting to hear ideas about the economy: billions wasted on supporting duplicate services for a segregated society, Green New Deal, calls for local government reform to be resurrected and rubbishing Irish budgets – how else Enda Kenny will be integrated into the day is anyone’s guess!

Though a cynic might suggest that having Fine Gael in the building will increase media attention (even at the level of reporters saying “we spoke to the FG leader who was attending the Alliance party conference”) and appeal to voters who normally vote nationalist and don’t often hear Alliance talking about the one big issue the party remains neutral on.

I’m also expecting to find that mobile coverage at the Dunadry Hotel hasn’t improved, and that the conference room will be uncomfortably warm and cramped during Naomi Long’s speech at 11.30am and David Ford’s speech at noon.

Oh, and if you’re attending the conference and don’t arrive on time, my recollection from last year is that you’ll have to abandon your car on a roadside verge outside the hotel.

Update 2.40pm – the agenda has now been published

10.00am Welcome from Party President

10.15am Introductions to 2011 Election Candidates including five-minute mini-policy speeches from some of the 2011 election candidates

10.30am Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny’s key note speech

10.45am More introductions to some 2011 Election Candidates

11.45am Deputy Leader’s Speech

12.00pm Party Leader’s Speech

12.30pm Lunch

1.30pm Law Centre (NI): Access to Justice after Devolution where Les Allamby, Director of Law Centre (NI), will give an overview of what the centre sees as the key access to justice issues today (eg, the fundamental legal aid review, tribunal reform and Alternative Dispute Resolution). Chaired by Stephen Farry MLA

1.30pm Irish Peace Centres fringe event. Panel participants include Breidge Gadd, Noreen Campbell, Anna Lo, Naomi Long and Chris Lyttle. Chaired by Peter Sheridan (CEO Irish Peace Centres and Cooperation Ireland)

2.45pm (Sponsored by the Federation of Small Business) “Managing our Finances and Growing the Economy in the Age of Cuts” is a panel-led audience discussion with Siobhan McAleer (founder of the Mortgage Shop); Angela McGowan (Chief Economist – Northern Bank); John Woods (Former Director Friends of the Earth); & Seamus McAleavey (Chief Executive – Nicva). Chaired by Stephen Farry

3.45pm Award of Prizes

4.00pm Motion 1: Transport. Conference expresses alarm at the poor state of the transport infrastructure in NI and the imbalance in funding between roads and public transport. Conference therefore:

  • supports the re-direction of funding towards public transport as the most viable solution to deal with congestion in our towns and cities, to help reduce our carbon footprint and to minimise our dependency on imported fossil fuels;
  • believes that access to affordable transport should be available to all our communities, including those located in rural areas.

4.20pm Motion 2: Shared Future
Conference recognises the critical importance of a shared future towards achieving economic prosperity and addressing social deprivation. Conference further recognises that managing a divided society has a detrimental impact on our public sector finances and limits our ability to invest in the measures that create growth and stability within our economy. Conference therefore:

  • demands that the Executive puts in place a robust strategy to promote a shared society;
  • calls for a substantial re-draft of the Draft Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration to reflect a true commitment to the development of a shared society across Government.

4.45pm Conference Close