In earlier articles I’ve written that as someone still fundamentally pro-union. To recap, I’ve felt electorally disenfranchised for quite a long time by two unionist parties that have refused to reflect my general social outlook. Apart from a vote for David Ervine in East Belfast in 1997, I voted UUP. They lost me post-Trimble. So, I’m politically homeless. Like many on either side of the community.
The Alliance Party should fill that void. But it doesn’t. Not because it is neutral on the union, but because it still hasn’t demonstrated it has convincingly moved on to a position of something other than simply not being orange or green. A natural party of government, local or regional.
In Naomi Long it has a genuine big hitter and probably the strongest of all our party leaders (low bar notwithstanding). It certainly could not have achieved a “surge” under any of their previous leaders. Also, the nature of their membership has changed significantly to a much more youthful profile. Both positive developments.
A third key point is that Alliance, along with the Greens have shown a very effective understanding of how to build candidate profile through social media. For Alliance in particular, an impressive number of activists raised their profile through Twitter to such a degree that they won council seats last year, some very comfortably and some in areas where Alliance had little or no historic base.
But that’s only a start. Recently, as the BLM momentum built, a recently elected councillor in my area started a thread with “why is it so difficult to have a mature, informed discussion about racism in NI?”.
The councillor failed to understand that a mature, informed discussion generally does involve people disagreeing over aspects of it. It was as if he couldn’t cope with disagreement in council, so he fell back on seeking Twitter approval. Or if not, that’s how it looked.
This is uncomfortably typical of too many of Alliance’s recent intake. It’s easy to make the right sounds and post the worthy soundbite, but too many seem incapable of accepting that there are other points of view, strongly and sincerely held.
Too often they seem to fall at the first hurdle because while its easy to tweet one’s virtue, it’s harder to defend it in more than 280 characters when challenged by someone who’s actually thought about the subject. To build a sustainable base they need to move on from this and to develop policies they can articulate, sell and implement.
Why this is a pivotal time is because Naomi Long has almost single handedly shaken Alliance out of inertia and irrelevance and led them to major breakthroughs. They seem to have finally secured a genuinely cross community profile outside the traditional heartlands in the east. In doing so they’ve managed to overcome a lot of negative perceptions.
To explode one such perception, I don’t view Alliance as a party of Sinn Fein lapdogs. This view is misplaced but at one point understandable. On the City Hall flag, I accept they genuinely believed in designated days in line with other UK cities. They were just naïve to think there wouldn’t be politically dangerous consequences.
Where they got it wrong was in being lured into a phoney “progressive alliance” of anti-unionist parties. This was typified by the crazy decision to allow an MLA to pose in a multi-party photo in support of an Irish Language Act. I’m not talking about their support for the act. But any Alliance presence in a photograph dominated, as this one was, by Gerry Adams was a major own goal.
It enabled Martina Anderson to make the grand public gesture of embracing Naomi at the European count. The clear intent was to portray Naomi as an ally. That could have had catastrophic consequences. But they’ve got past that, to the leader’s credit.
Now they need to make the next step and attract the votes of those who still have a strong view on the border but feel politically homeless. Do they have the credible personalities to do so in the relatively small window available?
Events during lockdown have helped them. Long has performed credibly in Justice, managing to generally avoid the spats or debacles we’ve witnessed. Also, they’ve had a boost with the performance of Chris Lyttle as Education Chair. That’s a start.
To secure a lasting gravitas they need to show they can grow beyond virtue signalling Twitter and start to show delivery in local government. To show that social media was simply a means to an end. Move beyond the grand gesture in council and develop practical, deliverable policies that resonate with and deliver for the electorate.
If they do so they can finally become what their founders intended and evolve into a mass movement that can make a genuine difference on a game changing scale.
If they do this, they can persuade more people to take a risk on them. Then they can put themselves at the vanguard of a movement making a strong, irrefutable case for a review of St Andrews and a return to a more sustainable and credible form of government in Stormont. Post Brexit we’ll need that.
Last year’s elections proved that there’s an appetite for change of this nature. Whether Alliance can step up to the plate is far from certain and there’s a lot to be achieved in a relatively short time. But if they do, I predict it will bring a lot of good people back into the system.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.