I often think of the Alliance party as the Helen Lovejoy of Northern Ireland politics. They are well intentioned but have suffered from a ‘do gooder’ image that they at times project out.
In my last piece on the SDLP and UUP, I was very pessimistic about the future of those parties going forward. However, with the Alliance party, I would not make the same assessment as I think they do occupy a space in Northern Ireland politics that very few others do occupy.
Yet, I would challenge the narrative that they are a truly province wide party as their electoral success illustrates that they are anything but. Since their formation in the early seventies, the party has gradually being pushed further east in terms of electoral support. They have lost huge amounts of support in Nationalist areas, while strengthening their support among moderate Unionists.
So how could you sum up the party’s electoral performance since 1998? One word; steady
Let’s take a look at the party’s support in the four Belfast constituencies (North, South, East and West Belfast).
In 1998, the party received 12,626 votes in the city, which accounted for 23.9% of the Alliance’s total vote across the province.
Aside from 2003, the party’s electoral dependence on the city has only increased. In 2007, the number of votes Alliance received from the four Belfast constituencies accounted for 27.7% (10,025) of its total vote. This rose considerably in 2011 as 34.1% (17,363) of the party’s total vote came from the city. It is worth noting that the vast majority of this support is based in East and South Belfast.
Greater Belfast area
What should be more worrying for the party is that its support does not exist to any meaningful degree outside of the greater Belfast area. When you add in the constituencies that border the city (Lagan Valley, East and South Antrim, North Down and Strangford) this comprises the overwhelming majority Alliance’s provincial vote. Since 1998, these 9 constituencies have averaged around 82% of the party’s total province wide support.
The party is nearly non-existent west of the Bann, which calls into question their ability to deliver that knockout blow to the UUP. But what is worse, the party is likely to suffer some blow back from the flag dispute in East Belfast, plus, they will have to deal with NI21 taking some of their support in the greater Belfast area.
I am, however, optimistic about the party’s future. I think they definitely have a base but I think it is more doubtful whether the party can make a strong breakthrough at the next election. Their support is far too concentrated in the east of the province which leaves them vulnerable to NI21 and those Unionists who are annoyed at the party over the flag vote last December.