…this quote from Joseph Campbell the late American mythographer, who once figuratively described a cautious careerist who “comes to that condition in late middle age: and he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, only to find that it’s against the wrong wall.”
For all its many successes in this election the Alliance party might claim that they are nowhere near the top of their ladder. And although they are a year older than the DUP, it may be too presumptuous to assert they’ve reached late middle age.
They have had another good election, their third in a row where they have exceeded expectations. Two seats in East Belfast, almost knocking the DUP off its Castlereagh perch (but for a pragmatic move from the UUP rump to reassert a Unionist majority). New councillors everywhere (in greater Belfast).
To top it all, not only does it have another major vote catcher in South Belfast who seems quite capable of taking a large number of Catholic votes, Anna Lo, but two Ministers for the price of one.
So why the melancholic twist in the ladder story?
Twenty years ago, according to Robinson and Cross, in the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor nearly 20% of all marriages were mixed. Indeed, in Holywood it was often said that you daren’t throw a stone at the Catholic church for fear of hitting a relative.
Yet in Downpatrick and below, as one well-known and well informed wag put it last Monday, a mixed marriage is more likely to indicate a union between a couple from Armagh and Down. Beyond greater Belfast, the Alliance Party has limited supplies of social capital for its cross community, a-constitutional project.
Witness for example the collapse in Harry Hamilton’s vote in Upper Bann, and the return of a liberal Unionist in Joanne Dobson running under the supposedly toxic UUP ticket.
Alliance’s influence remains fixed solely in those eastern areas where the Ulster Unionist party was once popular. They have just begun to make inroads into the SDLP, particularly in South Belfast, where Anna Lo could talk a Westminster seat with votes that once helped Alisdair McDonnell over the win line.
With Alliance in a position of relative strength, it must be time to pause and take stock of how it got here and where it wants to go next.
They have stolen a march over both its larger rivals though the professionalization of its GOTV operations. Indeed the application of a clear scientific thinking to the voting process probably saved the parliamentary party from almost certain oblivion in November 2003.
What replaced it was a clear sense of its own mortality, and that tough choices had to be made.
So back to the ladder. Although there are still gains it can make, Alliance is coming to the point where it may have hoovered up much of the support it can easily find; the low hanging fruit. Further gains will only be found it if can find some way to unlock the strong cultural resistance to its profoundly liberal project.
So my question is: does or can this ladder take the party any further? Or is this the top? And is it stuck permanently against the elegantly constructed non sectarian walls of liberal Greater Belfast?