Everything is not awesome for Alliance as they go to conference and prepare for May’s elections; though @keithbelfast puts up a spirited defence …

Alliance’s party conference takes place in La Mon Hotel on Saturday. Expect to hear speeches from their Euro candidate Anna Lo, the Minister for Employment & Learning Stephen Farry (whose department failed to go away you know), as well as deputy leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long.

With the party conference so close to the May elections – though still outside the broadcasting “closed season” – expect to hear from budding council candidates wanting to make their mark on print and TV coverage. Education will be on the agenda too.

There’s been much joking online that party leader and Justice Minister David Ford should enter the hall to deliver his speech with the theme tune from The LEGO Movie playing in the background.

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

He won’t.

3D modelling AllianceI doubt Alliance are looking forward to May’s elections. Unless someone – or some event – suddenly inspires apathetic voters to come out and cast their ballots and upset the mix, the Euro election result already feels like a foregone conclusion. [I’ll eat a paper hat if the three current MEPs aren’t returned to Brussels.]

While NI21 are also jockeying for position in the centre of the political playground, their long overdue internal decision on a Euro candidate – never mind public announcement – is doing nothing to bolster their minimal presence on the political radar. Their brand of “fresh politics” is still fresh out of memorable policies (other than fewer tatty flags). Their two MLAs live on the oxygen of interventions within the chamber, and John’s well-crafted speeches that are heard but too few people.

Yet while NI21’s electoral success may prove miserable in May, they’ll certainly borrow some Alliance voters and preferences in the process.

As Alex Kane suggests in his latest News Letter column:

… in Anna Lo they have probably the best Euro candidate they’ve ever had. They have no mission of winning the seat—and they know it. Their task is simply to maximize the trickle-down vote from Euro to council candidates and, more importantly, to stop NI21 in their tracks.

Looking towards the council elections, Alliance’s opportunities for expansion seem low, with the politics of extremism to the fore in the wake of the flags dispute, the breakdown of Haass and the On The Runs debacle.

Like all parties, there is a churn of candidates. Though Alliance seem to be losing some of their younger and middle-aged candidates who are giving up and not seeking a new term on the new councils rather than retiring at the end of a protracted career in local government. Given the grief and pressure some have been under it’s hard to blame them for taking an early bath and getting their lives back.

For a brief window in December 2012, senior figures in the party were not alone in believing that the flag protests and disruption would leave a positive legacy on Alliance. Voter sympathy was high with politicians under threat, and offices being targeted. Liberal-minded people joined the party. (Though they joined in relatively small numbers, and not all of them got involved in local associations and will be out leafleting.)

In a thugs versus gentle people narrative, Alliance looked like early leaders. But the flags protests rumbled on and on and on, and while some unionist leaders were privately nonplussed with the Alliance-coloured leaflets distributed in the run-up to the Belfast City Council vote they never admitted it in public and the political result was a slow stalemate.

In the end, while all parties had some reservations with the compromises necessary to sign up to the final Haass/O’Sullivan draft, fingers were pointed at Alliance for being the most vocally discordant at the final session. Perhaps compromise was always going to be most difficult for Alliance given their long-standing and long-understood policies on the issues being discussed?

The Unionist Forum is dead, leaving unionist parties able to independently flex their short term policy muscles and offer voters knee jerk declarations on flags and rhetoric that bolsters their belief in the centrality of victims and statements that deprecate their willingness to stand alongside Sinn Fein.

At least David Ford can rejoice that he is largely untainted by On The Runs, in the blessed position of being unaware and uninvolved. It’ll take voters’ minds away from the political power play over the Justice Minister’s quite reasonable attempt changing the minimum experience required by a future PSNI Chief Constable.

Fundamentally, this year the hopes and agreements secretly brokered along the way towards the final Haass/O’Sullivan draft have faded. So too has the potential for a tangible political demonstration of cohesion and sharing that Alliance might have hoped to point to for May’s election.

There’s no point Alliance being too defensive on Saturday, playing the tenacity card, or seeking to explain away why they are misunderstood.

But I’m beaten when it comes to suggesting how David Ford and other representatives will pluck success from the depressed jaws of defeat mediocrity. It’ll be an up-hill struggle to excite voters and get extra first preferences in May.

Being ‘good’ councillors may help retain seats, but is it enough to make gains whenever the more prominent MLAs are so easily and publicly dismissed and marginalised by the larger parties? Their amendments often seem toxic. Their contributions not valued or not listened too by larger parties.

(The nuclear option of actually resigning from the Justice Ministry when the next instance of Executive party bullying occurs could be the only step left to rekindle awareness of what Alliance stand for and force the other parties to learn to play fair without Alliance around the table.)

I’m surprised by how depressing a narrative has built up – in my head, at least – about Alliance. So I asked one of the post-flags joiners Keith Anderson (@keithbelfast) why he was optimistic about Alliance and he came back a short while later with a 300 word defence of the party. (Note that he’s speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the party!)

There’s an annoying and belligerent consistency to the Alliance Party which I admire. Although it could be fairly described as liberal, and maybe unfairly as middle-class, a subtlety in the make-up of its membership exists. What I’ve seen in the past year and a half is a patch-work quilt of people from both ends of our political spectrum, both sides of our religious landscape, from all corners of our community, and everywhere in-between.

The common thread which unites the party is evident in the strong principles, applied in the pursuit for lasting peace and more importantly, real inclusion. Not that fake inclusion where we pretend to share the likes of schools, though only resources and only at certain times. But sharing the important things that actually make a difference like learning, friendship and ideas.

What happened at City Hall in early December 2012 was the result of brave people acting on Alliance principles. What has happened since then has been a very vocal, heated and sometimes violent airing of our province’s struggles with symbolism and identity.

The principle of a shared future has long been discussed, almost to the point where the term “shared future” has nearly lost all meaning. And maybe that’s something the party needs to look at. The principles will never change. The goal is still there; an inclusive and shared future for everyone in this province, regardless of what the future holds. Maybe we just need to find a better, new way of fighting for it.

From my point of view, Alliance is at the forefront of actively working not only to gain a “shared future”, but also to make sure we don’t lose what we’ve already achieved.

So, erm, to answer your question – I can’t think of any other NI party which has consistently stuck to its guns, in the face of such pressure. I think this is something everyone involved in (and who votes for) the party should be proud of.

I await with interest to discover the tone and topics of the speeches and the mood of the delegates on Saturday.

And a quick reminder the Alliance conference isn’t the only political event in the east of the city on Saturday 22. Labour NI have organised a What Women Want policy conference in The Pavilion at Stormont. And not to be outdone, the DUP have a similar session on Friday 21 in the Park Avenue Hotel!