Take Alliance seriously.They represent what most people want, the politics of compromise

Even to their own supporters the main parties are hardly coming out of the flag disorder looking impressive. When the chips are down the smiling cross community stuff isn’t quite cutting the mustard where it matters most. Nice people pocket the gains – they might even group around a new Northern Ireland, Peter still has a point even if he puts it provocatively.  But he and Martin still have to settle with their respective enemies within. The easier bit of power sharing is how to divvy up the money from the UK exchequer fairly.  (Greater integration would make it go a whole lot further but that’s another story). Ideally power sharing must do more to anticipate political gut trouble and give the lie to critics who claim that true power sharing between opposites is finally impossible. Rather than put up with a legalistic and bureaucatic equality agenda imposed on them by the GFA, they need to forge a more flexible political reality out of it. Taking over parades  regulation would become  the acid test. Are the DUP and Sinn Fein  up to the  existential challenge?  We see all too clearly  how strong is the challenge from the extremes. What is needed now  is a political  focus for the much bigger centre ground  which up to now opts out of politics as a hopless cause.

We can clearly see the problem of the militant tail wagging the political dog. Mainstream unionism is on the defensive in increasingly marginal areas. While the DUP has all but vanquished the UUs, it represents a unionism less monolithic than nationalism seems to have become. Primitive loyalism is well aware of a certain lack of confidence within their own side – nervous people always pay more attention to their opponents than to their own – and seek to exploit it in order to survive. City Hall politics shows nationalism on the offensive thanks to the demographic squeeze. The SDLP is now fractionally stronger than the UUs but currently presents less of a challenge to Sinn Fein than loyalism without a single Assembly seat creates for the DUP. City Hall voting confirms that there is no similar split within nationalism, at least for now. The SDLP seems  reduced to a mini- me party over everything but the history.

For the Westminster election of 2015, loyalism may be fragmented and confused but it can still summon up a political punch.  The Assembly elections  will be more complex but in the winnner- take- all Westminster contests, Nigel could lose North Belfast if the loyalists turn on him big time and split his tight vote. Wasn’t it epically careless of Peter to lose East Belfast and wasn’t it loyalism that made the difference in putting Naomi in? How can the DUP get Naomi out and win it back next time without appeasing them?  Or can middle class support for Naomi outweigh loyalist hostility after the City Hall vote?

Loyalism retains the capacity to destabilise boosted by the calendar of traditions and the challenge of an equality agenda in which they are allowed to present themselves virtually unchallenged as new victims. The Queen, the handshake the G8 summit are all big stuff over their heads. The symbolism they want is their parades and their flag.  Might it be possible to give them a little more of them than nationalists might ideally want to concede, conditional on good behaviour, even when mindful of 50 plus years of the unionist supremacy? That was a different world and long ago.

What are the lessons? A new era of barely suppressed sectarian struggle?  There may alternatives.

First, can’t the parties all become  cannier about anticipating trouble? On the flags issue it was clear that consultations and equality impact assessments were going to produce a new point of decision over the flag. 365 days a year is objectively excessive if you regard such things as important, as all the parties do. Nationalists may have been up for a fight but they could hardly have expected total victory. Couldn’t they all have constructed an early warning system to head off the train wreck? Privately to discuss more designated days, or the too late proposal of the DUP, moved as the protestors were literally banging at the gates, to fly the flag permanently from the cenotaph?  It’s all too easy for cynics to say that Sinn Fein wanted a confrontation to expose cracks in the supposed unionist monolith. If  that was their firm position,  private failure to reach a compromise would have exposed  it beyond doubt.

The other alternative is not up to the parties but the people. It is to take the Alliance party more seriously. Uncomfortable and frightening though it has been for them, they have literally come through the fire. In the City Hall votes, the easy thing for Alliance would have been to have supported the unionists yet again.

Alliance’s potential  has already been shown in Stormont with the election of David Ford as minister of justice. In the Westminster election of 2010 the special Swish Family Robinson circumstances and Naomi ‘s strong local roots brought their reward and put Alliance in.

There is a pressing need to create a small centre ground to act as a magnet for compromise . Alliance began as the party of the marginal areas but with the right candidate and circumstances, experience shows it can break through further.  If the main parties still fear their historic cores, let them begin to fear Alliance.

If you really are serious about tackling sectarianism, the time has come to put the squeeze on the two big parties and vote Alliance. What else is there? The DUP might even secretly welcome the development  at least outside East Belfast, as a counterweight  to unruly loyalism.


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  • PaulT

    “As I understand it, flying of the Union flag from council / government / other appropriate public buildings on “designated days” has been official Alliance Party policy for ten years or more, so their proposal and vote was following now long-standing Alliance Party policy.”

    Gav, any guesses on how APNI would have voted if SF/SDLP had not climbed down from their position of both or no flags.

    APNI had already stated they would not support the nationalist position, to abstain would have meant a nationalist victory so I’m guessing the APNI would have voted to fly the flag 365 days

    which goes back to the myth of APNI compromise, it’s the same as DUP and UUP ‘compromise’ ie as long as it’s what we want than we’ll agree to it.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Reader – fair comments. I don’t think it’s going to be sufficient for Alliance to expect nationalist votes as an automatic consequence of how the cards happened to fall in City Hall last week, and frankly I don’t believe anyone is naive enough to believe that this will happen, although I think for some nationalists the party became just a shade more transfer friendly. The party needs to do more.

    Bangordub, yes, I feel that nobody voting – or joining – Alliance should have to lock up their identity in a box – within reason of course, and I think someone like Basil falls inside that rather than outside.

    Lionel, I need time to read your comments properly but you are correct to bring out the part about the park being named after the hunger striker. Is that really what SDLP’s vision for the Irish nation is ? Lots of SDLP politicians and party workers were assaulted and/or burnt out during the trouble surrounding the hunger strikes. I think there are nationalists who will be unhappy at that, and they’ll be unhappy at this business of getting cosy with the dissidents. They’re the sort of nationalists Alliance needs to persuade can safely vote for the party without compromising their nationalism.

    BTW I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking there’s some sort of huge debate or conversation going on within Alliance now, I’m just contributing personal opinions as a party member. Frankly everyone is too busy dealing with what has happened over the past week and the immediate outfall from that to get into politics at the moment.

  • PaulT

    Also, I believe the designated flying days originated during the GFA regarding fly flying at Stormont and was what the Equality Commission recommended for Belfast, so it’s likely the APNI would have ignored the Commissions findings and voted unionist.

    It’s almost laughable that they support designated days without actually knowing what they were supporting, as it was only discovered later that the list of days was a decade out of date and Camilla and Kate weren’t on the list while the now deceased Queen Mum and Anne were. You couldn’t make it up really

  • otto

    “If a socially liberal, moderate unionist party magicked into existence”

    Is it really possible for that party to exist? Won’t moderation in our context (acceptance and accommodation of unionist and nationalist affiliation for the sake of a happier, more fun society) always look a bit like Alliance?

    It’s very easy to be a nationalist purist west of the Bann or an out and out Loyalist if you never leave your estate in Belfast’s suburbs. Anyone living in Antrim & Down who has regular working or social contact with people from across society has to face up to a bit of reality.

    Maybe Catholics in the east are (as Fitz seems to suggest) voting Alliance only for as long as they need to. Maybe as soon as there’s a quotas worth of Catholics in an eastern constituency they’ll migrate en bloc to the SDLP or SF. That’s a fairly desolate view but who knows, it might be correct. It might also be that Catholics in the east have a bit more appreciation of what this society will need to sort out before peaceful political reunification of this island is feasible.

    Either way it’s pretty obvious that the SDLP that wins a seat in North Down is going to have to look a lot more like Alliance than some fundamentalists might prefer.

    I was at a Fleadh in Bangor last night. It was held in the church that the late Tony Hill attended. I couldn’t help wondering after reading some of the comments here whether if Tony was still with us and North Down had a 20% Catholic population the congregants of St Comgall’s would be more like to vote for Tony or a Catholic Fitz approved SDLP challenger. I’d like to think Tony.

    Then again maybe I’m cheating by posing a contest between two Catholics.

  • Brian Walker

    Two points addressed to me, forgive me if I don’t name you, they’re so far back.

    What might be the “minor concessions” offered to loyalists? First concessions would only arise as part of overdue negotiations. The range of negotiations would have to be agreed first. Might they extend to parades and other identity issues which are also about power? “Nothing is agreed until all is agreed” or step by step? In the end, a little more flag waving and a little more flexibility over parades conditional on good behaviour? In exchange, unionist parties agree to power sharing and/ or mayoral rotation in unionist majority councils? I’d like to see the parties take a lead on setting up a new framework of conciliation and agreement rather than leave all these issues to piecemeal solution or exploitation.

    Second question: should Alliance be neutral in a border poll? The art of constructive politics embraces not having to answer questions prematurely. Whatever the census says the timing and circumstances of any border poll are completely unknown.

    A nationalist voting majority in the Assembly would of course change the context and would be the necessary preliminary for a much wider process involving the two governments and peoples.

    Next, should there be one referendum on the desire for Unity or continuing Union and if a vote in favour of the former, a second referendum on the outcome of negotiations to achieve it ?

    Do we presume a federal Ireland or not?

    What it would be fair for Alliance to say now and stick to it is that it stands for putting a new Northern Ireland first. They should also favour discussing unity scenarios without anyone’s commitment to the processes involved. The book has yet to be opened on this and it will be massively complex. Some of the constitutional framework is suggestive but is sketchy and needs to be developed . I hope we have some ideas aired soon, rather than bottom line, sudden death scenarios which are totally unrealistic.

    Alliance would recommend only what is in the interests of stability at the time but this would not imply a continuing de facto unionist veto. If there appears to be a firm majority in favour of UI with community ansd individual rights guaranteed etc… etc.. they would support moving towards it, perhaps with a degree of greater jointery first.

    The Irish Constitution would require a referendum
    which might be a complicating factor. But we might surmise that if the North was in favour and not in flames, they would support the eventual implementation of unity.

    Cautious, gradual and more than a bit vague, I agree. But if it comes to the point, I wouldn’t expect a sudden death event like taking the flag down – one day you see it, the other day it’s gone.

  • iluvni

    Well, that was a stunning debate in Stormont, wasnt it?

    1 intervention allowed, a First Minister saying that questions weren’t appropriate, a Speaker who was determined to shut down anyone that might prove difficult and they couldnt even fill the hour and a half allocated before they trundled off for lunch.

  • Mc Slaggart


    What “overdue negotiations”?

    I honestly can not think of anything that has not be negotiated.

    Their is no “big” issue in Nationalist towns in the “west” with the parading issue. Why has the terms been negotiated in Londonderry not acceptable to OO/Loyalists in Belfast? Hell even sf and DUP agreed on how to move forward with the parading issue it was the OO who stopped it.

    As for Flags, Nationalists don’t even take their one out on ST Patrick’s day in order not to offend Unionists. Do you think that Unionists should agree to allow nationalists to march on ST Patrick’s day with their flag?

  • Mc Slaggart

    “one referendum on the desire for Unity or continuing Union and if a vote in favour of the former, a second referendum on the outcome of negotiations to achieve it ”

    I don’t think you will get your second referendum as its not in the GFA.

  • PaulT

    border polls etc blab blab….

    The flag issue was and is part of something else, be a unionist, be a nationalist be anything you want. Main point is, it’s been agreed that NI is a shared space yet the APNI and DUP and UUP insist on it being a ‘shared space…but…’ and the but is that it’s a British shared space, which means that it’s not.

    Same goes for people not being able to understand IRA memorials or GAA clubs or playgrounds named in memory of volunteers. Its because unionists in Ireland insist on English history and English rule only. The only comparison to nationalist memorials given is throwing out names like the Shankill Butchers for comparison. Refusing to recognise that people like Queen Victoria, Cromwell and King Billy while being damn fine fellows in English history (well Cromwell on and off) are considered butchers in Ireland and hence any memorial to them is offensive. They may be ancient history, but for recent examples try to find a nationalist who feels the RUC were deserving of the George Cross or the UDR of a statue.

    The central square in Glasgow is a fine example of a shared space, over the centuries Glasgow Council erected statues and monuments to deserving Scots to balance the statues that Westminister insisted upon erecting.

  • Brian Walker


    On the negotiations there’s plenty left to chew on besides parades.It depends how committed the parties are to smoothing over a range of rubbing points, as I’ve described.

    Re unity scenarios, the GFA and the enabling NI Acts are solutions for their time, not basic laws, although the treaty obligations with ROI amount to a degree of entrenchment. I take the provision for a border poll to be the minimum interim agreement on an approach to Irish unity.There would be many details to settle , the most obvious being the question of whether it would be a unitary or federal state, The existence of Stormont power sharing suggests federation but with what powers?.

    Then there are the questions of the future of the NHS, welfare payments, the block grant replacement, NI public debt, trade laws and currency, public broadcasting etc etc, What role would the UK wish to play as guarantor of rights as negotiations proceeded?

    It’s unlikely that all these issues woud be settled quickly. If a nationalist majority in Stormont was clamouring for a border poll, the idea of holding a referendum in principle first might make sense.

    Then while the people would have voted on the principle of unity should they not have a right to pass verdict on the proposed shape of unity? A No vote wouldn’t slam the door on the whole thing but would require an improved offer.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “there’s plenty left to chew on besides parades”

    You should clarify as I cannot think of any. Unionists don’t want to negotiations on issues such as flags they want their own way. For example do you think Unionists would ever accept the Irish flag flying on ST Patrick’s day as it does in the rest of the UK and most of the world?

    As for your issues in the second referendum that will be for the south to vote on.

  • Clanky

    Brian – [i]”Take Alliance seriously.They represent what most people want, the politics of compromise” [/i]

    Apologies if the point has already been made, but I’m stuffed if I’m going to read two hundred odd comments to check!

    This is exactly why the DUP have decided to stir up Unionist outrage and direct it against APNI rather than against SF / SDLP who were the orchestrators of the whole thing rather than the facilitators of a compromise.

    The DUP (and the same applies in reverse to SF) know that despite Peter’s evangalism they are unlikely to ever secure catholic votes in large numbers, but they are desperate to secure the votes of moderate unionists and they know that they can’t become more moderate themselves without risking the loss of their hard core support so the only option left to them is the politics of fear which has served them so well in the past. Make the Alliance Party into the party which is selling dear old Ulster’s birthright and they might just convince some of those wishy washy voters that the only way forward is to vote for Peter and his loonies screaming no surrender from a besieged city hall.

  • 241934 john brennan

    The SDLP delivered the present political system – also the constitutional settlement, i.e. Irish unity, but only by peaceful means and majority consent.
    John Hume also mapped the route to reconciliation – learn to trust each other by combining to work our common ground together. By ‘common ground’ he meant concentrating on bread and butter politics between constitutional referendums. This political strategy won majority support north and south – and remains the only commonsense, political way forward. Here the opposite to consensus tends to manifest itself in ugly, flag waving disagreements, which , in political terms, benefit only DUP and SF.
    So why has SDLP presently taken up the tail-end Charlie position in support of Sinn Fein’s more divisive political shenanigans?

  • keano10

    Coming back to the initial crux of this thread, it seems to have been based on the assertion that the City Hall Flag decision provoked a Tsunami of hostility amongst the general Unionist population.

    However it is my contention that both Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson (deliberately or otherwise) misrepresented the levels of perceived Unionist anger at this decision. Lets take the turnouts for the various protests against the flag decision:

    Belfast 2,000 (at tops) attended City Hall
    Carrickfergus 1,500
    Ballymena 150
    Enniskillen 150
    Bangor 100
    Glengormley 80
    Derry 20 (PSNI figure)

    This equates to maybe less than 5,000 Unionists in total who were remotely annoyed enough to actually take to the streets to protest the decision. Including just 150 in the Unionist hub that is Ballymena.

    There needs to be a re-evaluation of the perceived anger that was alleged to have been present and more importantly a look at how the Unionist leadrship has failed to both reflect and lead it’s people with any sense of conviction or clarity.

  • Brian Walker

    mcslaggart, I’ve already identified the quid pro quo identifed unionist refusal to share power in areas where they have a majority. I’m not talking about a longer shopping list of unionist grievances

  • Brian Walker

    clanky.,. sounds like a good reaosn foir supporting Alliance – but judge them on their merits, not on your interpretation of them as unionist fall guys.

    keano 10. Yes the scale of the protest matters but so does the spread which was worrying. I agree it’s important not to exaggerate. But the trouble and the newish development of a series of threats and attacks on Alliance was a good peg on which to hang my proposal to take them seriously and discuss possible scenarios of that were to happen

  • Reader

    Mc Slaggart: Do you think that Unionists should agree to allow nationalists to march on ST Patrick’s day with their flag?
    Like this one in Armagh this year?
    You can have Tricolours in a St Patrick’s day parade, but not also call it a cross-community parade. Fair enough?

  • Mc Slaggart

    “I’ve already identified the quid pro quo identifed unionist refusal to share power in areas where they have a majority.”

    That is not a matter of “quid pro quo” but justice. If Unionists are so small that they cannot share power that is their problem not a nationalist one.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “You can have Tricolours in a St Patrick’s day parade, but not also call it a cross-community parade. Fair enough?”

    Nope, Brian was saying “there’s plenty left to chew on besides parades” and I think this is a simple issue. Unionists only have to accept that which occurs in the rest of the UK.