Political party conferences and the run up to them prior to an election always seek to promote the party’s candidates. This year’s Alliance conference and its lead up has, however, gone less than wholly according to plan. Anna Lo’s revelation that she would support a united Ireland in the longer term has been a major story as have her comments likening the situation here to one of colonialism.
There are of course explanations for these comments especially Lo’s support for a united Ireland: Alliance is agnostic on the union and both this and party leader David Ford’s personal unionism have been explained by him in the News Letter today. However, therein lie two problems. Firstly having people in a political party with diametrically opposed views on the constitutional future of the state is bizarre especially when the constitutional future of the state is the most central issue at election time. It would be sort of analogous to an SNP member being part of the Better Together campaign or a member of Plaid Cymru opposing Welsh devolution. Those analogies are a bit unfair because Alliance has no position on the union and as such it can all be explained. That leads to the second problem: if you are explaining, you are losing.
Jeffrey Donaldson has suggested that these comments from Lo are a deliberate attempt to garner nationalist votes. Sam McBride in the News Letter, however, dismisses that ascribing her comments to her honesty (he was too polite to say political naivety or stupidity) which seems more likely unless one wishes to construct a truly Machiavellian scenario whereby Lo hopes to attract so much grief from her remarks that she thereby gains a sympathy vote. That is too far fetched to be credible.
What this may demonstrate, however, is that Lo is not that great a politician on the constitutional issues. Only a few days prior to her pro united Ireland revelations she sponsored the suggestion that all the new councils fly the Union Flag on designated days. To many this looks utterly hypocritical in view of her later comments. It can be explained but again if you are explaining, you are losing. A more difficult charge of hypocrisy to shake off, however, is accepting the honour of Membership of the British Empire (as trumpeted on her website) and describing Northern Ireland as a colonial situation: here, there is no explaining, just losing.
Lo has made her name very successfully in the most politically liberal of the middle class seats in Northern Ireland. Unlike other seats within the Pale (such as North Down) South Belfast is both liberal and only small majority Protestant / unionist: a sufficiently small majority to elect an SDLP MP at the last two Westminster elections. In such a seat Lo can successfully ply her political trade as a highly effective local representative and cover issues of wider importance such as racist attacks on immigrants. She has managed this most successfully (and valuably to the whole of Northern Ireland society) but in so doing her position on the constitution and other orange / green issues has not been that important. A few other politicians have also had a successful assembly career on non sectarian issues such as Dr. Kieran Deeney in West Tyrone but they are few and far between.
A whole of NI election, however, is one where it becomes impossible for the constitutional issue not to become centre stage and as such Lo’s comments are likely to be problematic.
Alliance began life as a unionist party with a small ‘u’ but has gradually become union neutral. The simple fact remains, however, that it gains the vast majority of its support from unionist areas. Some of that vote will undoubtedly be nationalists trying to get a minimally unionist candidate elected (the folly of wasting a vote for a nationalist even at a council election in certain parts of NI is not lost on voters). However, despite these votes most Alliance politicians rely for their positions on some unionists giving them their first preferences and others their transfers. As such the progressive nationalist-wards drift of Alliance is potentially dangerous to them. It appears more prevalent in Alliance members than voters. Usually at election time Alliance canvasses as unionist-lite and indeed it is that type of strategy which gained Naomi Long her East Belfast Westminster seat. These attempts are now, however, beginning to break down. The flag decision may have been part of party policy but it clearly antagonised large numbers of people especially in East Belfast and not just working class unionists. Even if it had only antagonised working class unionists it is important to remember that working class parts of East Belfast such as Dee Street were solidly for Alliance at the last Westminster election.
Other parts of the traditional Alliance electorate are also likely to be antagonised both by this and other decisions. A significant part of Alliance’s support is from relatively liberal evangelical Christians with whom support for abortion and homosexual marriage will not play well. As an example Bloomfield Presbyterian Church (practically the East Belfast Alliance Party at prayer) had petitions against homosexual marriage. Not all such voters will desert Alliance over such an issue but each issue will hive off a few voters and Long’s majority is very small.
Alliance since their triumph at the last Westminster election are in danger of playing fast and loose with their political constituency. This is most apparent in East Belfast with the flag decision but is likely to have an impact elsewhere. One wonders if Naomi Long being away in Westminster has resulted in the influence of a politician with a natural understanding of soft unionist voters being reduced. Too many of Alliance’s leaders lack her fundamental intrinsic understanding of soft unionist, (in her case liberal evangelical) middle class unionism or her ability to reach out to working class voters. The alternative ultra Machiavellian option that the likes of Ford and Lo are trying to destroy Long: the best politician by far in Alliance is a fun one but presupposes a level of cunning in Ford which is inconceivable.
Alliance may calculate that they will gain new soft nationalist voters but I am doubtful as the SDLP has social workers, doctors and lawyers pretty well sewn up. They may also calculate that their core soft unionist and new vote will stay loyal. Again that is a dangerous position. Jim Molyneaux declared that in Northern Ireland politicians must not get so far ahead of the electorate they are leading that no one is following: a recipe for inaction but equally a valid warning. Tony Blair famously had an epiphany when he saw a man washing his Mondeo and realised that Labour could not get such people’s support where they were politically. If one wanders around East Belfast one could think the same about Lo’s comments.
Alliance may well weather this storm: their councillors are often well entrenched. However, quite a number of the older councillors are not standing again and this nationalist-wards drift may catch up with them all of a sudden in a similar way to the meteorite which struck the UUP at the end of the Trimble-osaurs era. That level of disaster is unlikely but Lo has personally managed to prove wrong Alex Kane (the best analyst of broader unionism) who proclaimed her their best ever Euro candidate. Lo herself will also no doubt survive (she is one of the least dependent on unionists Alliance candidates – itself an illustration of her problems connecting with wider Alliance voters) but she needs to be careful. When exposed to the media spotlight previously apparently brilliant politicians have been shown up as serial disasters. East Belfast last time and Trevor Ringland’s meteoric fall from perfect Westminster candidate to regional political joke should provide a sobering lesson: one from which Alliance was the major beneficiary.
As a final thought since I have introduced the improbable concept of the Machiavellian mastermind David Ford. Maybe the flags decision was to defeat Long (Ford’s biggest rival) and now Ford has helped ensure Lo got herself into hot water to destroy her as well. Ford as a latter day Francis Urquhart is a concept too amusing not to be shared.
More realistically as I said at the start Alliance’s positions can all be explained: if you are explaining, you are losing.