The recent comments by Independent MLA Claire Sugden where she suggested that those who lived through the troubles should perhaps step aside for a new generation of political leaders, Sugden named younger representatives from across the spectrum, Megan Fearon, Claire Hanna, Steven Agnew, Chris Lyttle, Sandra Overend, Gary Middleton and herself. This is an interesting viewpoint and one I have expressed myself over the years – those who have endured the worst that NI has to offer can (understandably) have a skewed view of what the future holds.
Stormont is not a young place, many have passed comment on the future being shaped by grey men in grey suits – this is where Sugden showed a great level of respect for the diversified nature of the NI political scene, she referenced 7 “younger” leaders – 4 female, 3 male – 2 nationalist, 3 unionist, 2 other – a broad spectrum.
This brings me to the Alliance Party – a party held by many to be the great espousers of Shared FutureTM, but a party firmly at the upper end of the age spectrum. With the current inter-party wars raging on the hill, the time is rife for the Alliance Party to up their game. DUP vs UUP, DUP & UUP v SF, SDLP v SDLP, TUV v Everyone Else – arguably now more than ever the Alliance Party have an opportunity to rise above the rest and show their pedigree as responsible leaders for the province. But who among them will be leading for long?
Of the 8 current Alliance MLAs, Judith Cochrane, Kieran McCarthy and Anna Lo have stated that they will not be seeking re-election. Of the 5 remaining MLAs, only Chris Lyttle is under 40 – and if Trevor Lunn wins re-election at the next time of asking and serves a full 5 year term, he would be older then than the current father of the house is now. At the expected time of the next election, 40% of sitting Alliance candidates will be above retirement age.
In fact if we discount those 3 Alliance MLAs who are stepping aside, 60% of their MLAs are over 64 (compared to DUP 16%, SDLP 14%, SF 14%, UUP 23%) only UKIP have a higher figure with their sole MLA, David McNarry being 67 years old. Of the oldest 20 assembly members, Alliance make up 15%, when the party actually only make up 7.4% of the chamber in general.
If Alliance want to seize the initiative and engage with the disenfranchised younger element of society that should make up a significant part of their base support, perhaps discussions need to be had on what a good candidate looks like to those, such as myself, who are sick of seeing the same entrenched, battle weary grey men in grey suits flinging old accusations and old rhetoric at each other across the benches.
An opportunity sits in front of the Alliance Party, they can try to invigorate the Northern Irish political scene with fresh voices, fresh views and fresh ideas. Of the 10 MLAs co-opted into the assembly in the last year, 50% of them have been under the age of 35 – a refreshing approach from most parties, the Alliance Party have not had to co-opt any members during this assembly so their approach is untested, one hopes though that when it comes time to put serious weight behind candidates in the next election, an eye to the future is firmly to the fore – I for one feel there are more than enough MLAs eligible for winter fuel subsidies.