Looking back at Alliance’s conference … who were looking forward

The basic mood of Saturday’s Alliance conference was upbeat. Very upbeat.

Elected representatives, ordinary members and recent joiners alike were proud of their accomplishments in 2010, framing them as positive achievements rather than having beaten other parties or candidates. I didn’t hear a single person gloating about Peter Robinson’s loss in East Belfast or his wider family issues this time last year.

About three hundred members turned up for conference. It’s perhaps a sign of the party’s confidence that they’re talking about abandoning their traditional cramped conference home in Dunadry next year to seek a larger hall in a hotel closer to Belfast.

In Saturday’s Newsletter [haven’t found an online link to the article yet], David Ford outlined his vision of three smaller parties sitting alongside the big two. In May, if SDLP support (or STV success) dips and the UUP donate votes to the DUP as well as to Alliance, then his vision won’t be too far fetched. However, predicting which direction the current house of cards will collapse is a constituency by constituency guessing game … and the number of independents running may frustrate Alliance’s plans. But becoming more comparable with the UUP and SDLP would strengthen their media coverage and public profile. Talking in the clip above about the upcoming elections, David Ford said:

I think there’s no prospect of us just remaining flat. I’m not saying we’re going to win a majority of Assembly seats this year, but I certainly believe we’re going to have a significant increase in the seven seats we hold … I certainly think we’re in for a good election.

The party had invited Enda Kenny to the conference a number of months ago. A sensible approach the rebalance the fact that Alliance continually have to peel off the “unionist” label that others stick to them. David Ford explained:

We have always tried to have good friendly working relations with all the Southern parties. I think the fact that Enda chose to come is an indication that he sees Alliance as being significant as well, and he was keen to come despite everything that has been happening in Dublin the last few days. So I took that as a very good sign as I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if about Thursday evening or Friday morning he cancelled. But he clearly felt he made a commitment to come to us and was worth coming. And I certainly think the meeting welcomed his contribution and he got a very significant applause for his speech.

(We’ll have to assume the spelling of “David Forde” in Enda Kenny’s draft speech was just a typo rather than an unfamiliarity with the leader of the party who had invited him to speak!)

Unlike other conferences earlier in the season, I didn’t hear any mention of Alliance’s view of the review that might usher in a more oppositional rather than current consociationalism style of government. While even the DUP would support the idea “when the time is right”, Alliance would lose out, forfeiting their control of the Justice ministry which gives them a higher profile with minimal risk.

Towards the end of the afternoon I caught up with Naomi Long. She’s realistic about her role in Westminster, the opportunities it presents and the downsides of the being distant from the Assembly and her constituency. But she says it’s not about her profile, and that she has a good team in East Belfast.

Naomi says that having a distinctive “voice in terms of Northern Ireland politics” means that other MPs – including those on the Northern Ireland Select Committee – will listen to her opinion rather than just hearing “the Northern Ireland story told by the same voices over and over again”. She adds that Alliance cares about issues wider than just Northern Ireland, and those are easier to deal with in a Westminster context.

She’s continuing to challenge the decision to keep political party donations private for another two years, questioning whether security is a real consideration. [Maybe not for unionists, but business supporters of Sinn Fein might fear dissident attack if their names were on a public register.]

Sadly I forgot to ask Naomi if she regretted but having managed to save Glentoran!

There’s a youthfulness about the Alliance party that rivals the SDLP. Not just eager twenty-somethings with energy to burn, but also younger families (with children present) and a lot more women than the UUP or DUP can muster at conference.

The party genuinely seem to believe that they’re making a difference in NI politics. But they continue to face a battle to spread that message to the wider electorate.

When defending their sometimes limited party profile, many Alliance people will talk about “people on the ground” coming into contact with the constituency offices and thus knowing and appreciating what the party does. Yet I’d question the proportion of voters who ever contact a party for help with their bins, planning issues, benefits applications etc in any four year period. Is it not a tiny proportion who connect with any party?

With lots of council and Assembly candidates popping up to the podium to talk about their particular policy areas, Andrew Muir and Judith Cochrane stood out. Both confident speakers and still on the young side of middle-aged. New alliance. Talking to North Down councillor Andrew Muir during the break for lunch, he seamlessly included the latest Alliance-isms “leading change” into his answer to one of my questions! On message, promoting diversity, and even wearing a yellow tie.

Organisationally, Alliance seem to be stretched. (So do the UUP.) Lots of committed and talented folk fulfilling multiple roles. Exhibitors suggest a lack of attention to detail. Some speeches overlapped unnecessarily. The rumoured Alliance website relaunch (expect a lot more yellow than the current site) didn’t happen at conference, though the splash screen is there on the Alliance home page.

While the wheels may currently be falling off the UUP wagon, the engine in Alliance’s eco-car sounds like it’s starting to pink. While enthusiasm levels are high, this May’s double election could be a strain.

Geoff has some snaps from the conference and some early reflections over on Open Unionism.

Two other pieces of conference news.

It seems that Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis – previously scheduled for Belfast in February – has been postponed until after the February/March Irish elections and possibly even after the May elections in Northern Ireland. The change of date is so far unconfirmed by Sinn Fein.

Sunday afternoon also saw éirígí hold their Ard Fheis in Cultúrlann on the Falls Road. According to the press release, their “membership voted in favour of contesting upcoming local elections in the Six Counties. Candidates will definitely stand in Belfast, with names to be announced in the very near future.”

A big thanks to all the parties this season who have hosted bloggers at their conferences. And hats off to the SDLP who have been the only party so far to supply quite enough power leads to satisfy the laptops that were assembled at the back of their hall.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.