Alliance Party gains point to a problem within unionism

Same old, same old. That was the prediction for Northern Ireland’s 2019 local elections. We’ve still gone one more day of results to come but it’s been anything but boring so far.

From Aine Grogan’s stunning victory in Botanic to Paul McCusker’s vote tally in Oldpark, there have been some notable headlines in this election. Progressive unionist Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston lost her seat but People Before Profit’s Fiona Ferguson triumphed. The DUP went up and it elected its first openly gay candidate, Allison Bennington. Sinn Fein made significant gains in Macedon, Kilultagh and Glengormley while the UUP have had a disappointing night.

The broader picture is that the DUP and Sinn Fein dominated the election and can go home content with their performance. It’s the result for Alliance that most people will be talking about.

In Belfast, Alliance made gains in Ormistan and Titanic and increased its vote across the city. There were big wins in Lisburn and Castlereagh, enough to stop DUP control, while Alliance councillors got elected for the first time in 22 years in Derry and the first time ever in ABC. The party topped the poll in Macedon and Castlereagh South. No wonder Naomi Long was grinning like mad when the results started pouring in.

The big question is, what does it all mean? Well, it’s complicated. Local elections are different to Assembly and General elections. Some people vote according to tribe, others are loyal to individual candidates and reward parties based on local issues. This could be about Brexit and Northern Ireland’s remain voters. It could be about dissatisfaction with local politics and the lack of a local Assembly. It could be about the popularity of Naomi Long. Alliance have also fielded some great local candidates, young and enthusiastic, who’ve done a great job over the past year to raise their profile and reach out to voters.

What is notable is the fact that Alliance is getting votes from unionists. This has always been the case but it’s particularly significant in this election. Maybe, finally, the blowhards will stop calling the party ‘pan-nationalist.’

Alliance’s growth in unionist votes shouldn’t be a surprise. Middle class, liberal voters that would have traditionally backed the Ulster Unionists are disillusioned with a party that changes its mind about its heart and soul every time the wind changes. The party tried to go in a more moderate direction under Mike Nesbitt and was roundly derided. It’s started sounding DUP lite under Robin Swann.

One example of a UUP misstep in this election is the controversy surrounding election literature issued in Belfast. Leaflets were published by UUP candidates alleging that Alliance had a track record of voting with the ‘political wing of the IRA.’ Outraged at the leaflet, one of Alliance’s candidates in Ormiston, Ross McMullan, posted on Twitter that member of his family had been targeted by the IRA many years ago. Another candidate, Sian O’Neill, posted about how the allegations brought back memories of the flag protests and the violence that followed.

Political unionism’s obsession with Alliance is embarrassing. What its leaders don’t realise is that Alliance is seen as a perfectly sensible, social democratic party with liberal views. Every time it’s painted as some sort of radical, extreme left wing, republican party, people laugh. Some nationalists and republicans see Alliance as unionist lite and fence sitters. Socialists and communists in Northern Ireland see the party as centrist and conservative and would be horrified to be put in the same category as Naomi Long and Stephen Farry. There are people on the left that wish Alliance was the party its made out to be.

People don’t like being told what to do. They don’t like being taken for granted. When the drums started beating for the local election, the call went out for unionists to fall into line. Hardliners specifically warned people not to vote for Alliance.  There’s no doubt that the tactic worked, as the DUP votes shows, but it may have put some unionist voters off.

Unionism isn’t a monolith. It comes from a tradition that celebrates dissent and individual thought. Despite this, it spends most of its time looking for traitors and lundies. It’s a poor strategy because unionists don’t all think the same way. Some will have voted for Alliance this week. They’ll also have voted Green, Worker’s party and even People before Profit.

For some soft unionists, appalled by the DUP and fed up with the UUP, Alliance are the only show in town. Alliance has liberal credentials and it isn’t a vote for Sinn Fein or the SDLP. In voting for Long & co, these unionists can safely park their vote without giving credence to nationalists and republicans. The DUP doesn’t need them and they’re fine with that.

A lot of people will be calling for a new, liberal unionist party to form following the local election. I think we’re done with that. The left leaning PUP has yet to make a breakthrough. The UUP is a conservative, centre-right party with liberal leanings and it’s a walking, wounded man right now. If it can’t even take a dip a toe towards the centre of Northern Irish politics and the mild, centre left, there’s little hope.

For some disillusioned unionists, they’ll take their votes to the centre and they won’t come back. Not until the British Government calls a border poll. That’s when it’ll get interesting.