ALLIANCE leader David Ford has said that his party does not fear the new moderate pro-Union party being founded by former Ulster Unionist MLAs John McCallister and Basil McCrea.
In an interview with the News Letter ahead of his party’s annual conference tomorrow – which will be addressed by Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes – Mr Ford also said that he could see no circumstances in which his party would stand aside for another candidate in any Westminster or Assembly constituency.
In the interview, which took place ahead of Wednesday’s announcement by Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister that they are forming a new party, Mr Ford insisted that he did not see that move as something which will damage Alliance’s gradually increasing vote over recent years.
“I don’t see it as a significant threat,” he says, and – again before the two ex-UUP MLAs made clear that their as yet unnamed party will not have the word ‘unionist’ in its name – Mr Ford adds: “I think there is an issue that if people insist on having the word ‘unionist’ in their party title they’re taking a different line on a shared future from a party which says: There are people in our party who are unionist, there are people who are nationalist, there are people who are not particularly concerned about that issue, but we all accept that the Good Friday Agreement settled that point and the key issue now is to build a united community.
“If a new party is formed with the word unionist in it, then I don’t see it attracting people from Alliance and I’m not sure that it will even blunt the growth of Alliance.”
What if it did not have the word unionist in the title?
“It would be interesting to see if that were to ever arise.
“I can’t think of any circumstances in which there’s ever been [such a scenario] – including the Conservative and Unionist Party.”
The South Antrim MLA, who has been leader of his party for 12 years, says that Alliance “ended the last year in good heart, despite the attacks on colleagues”.
The party has clearly lost support among some of its supporters because of its stance over the Union Flag, something demonstrated in letters to newspapers, radio phone-ins and on social media.
However, Alliance has also clearly gained some different supporters. The former UUP director of communications, Davy Sims, is one of those who made public that he joined Alliance because of the violent attacks on its offices and staff.
On balance, whether Alliance will benefit from the flag row or lose ground over its stance is difficult to tell prior to an election.
When asked if the party had done any internal polling on its levels of support, Mr Ford says: “We have nothing which could be described as scientific polling on this. We do have anecdotes on the doorsteps but when you say that we’ve alienated supporters, I see very little sign that we have lost support except from a small number of people, perhaps those in East Belfast who voted tactically for Naomi Long last time, but I think much more it’s people who supported Naomi because they wanted a hard-working MP who was seen to have been a good councillor and a good MLA.”
Mr Ford said that he had personally received “a limited amount of abuse” but that he did not believe those who contacted him had been Alliance voters.
When asked how many people have joined and left Alliance since the flag vote at the start of September, Mr Ford says: “I don’t have the statistics at the moment but I am aware of one resignation from the party to do with the flags issue and certainly now it is something past the hundred [new members] ... but I have been signing new members’ letters fairly regularly.”
Mr Ford is wary of saying what would represent a good result for the party in next Thursday’s Mid Ulster Westminster by-election.
“In a sense I’m not sure that we’re looking for a result in the way that you put it there.
“We’re standing because we believe that the people in Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to vote for what we believe in.
“Now clearly if you cast your vote in East Belfast or South Antrim, it is more likely to be effective than if you vote in a parliamentary by-election in Mid Ulster, but nonetheless we believe that we have a unique view, a unique vision and we want to give people the opportunity to vote for that.”
Mr Ford says that he would “hope” to see an increase in support – from the 397 votes (one per cent of the vote) which the party took in the 2010 election in Mid Ulster – but adds: “Mid Ulster is not the constituency that I would have chosen for a by-election like this [to show an increase in Alliance support].”
Alliance has been sharply critical of unionist and nationalist unity, where parties stand down in favour of a single candidate who either supports or opposes the border.
However, some have suggested that Alliance and other “centre ground” candidates should mimic such tactics to maximise votes for centrist parties.
When asked if Alliance would ever stand down in certain constituencies in favour of another candidate, Mr Ford says that the only time under his leadership when the party stood down was in the 2004 European election when it backed independent John Gilliland.
Mr Ford says that he could see “no circumstances where in the next rounds of elections that we would contemplate standing down for anyone else”.
He adds: “One of the great virtues of the Single Transferable Vote [the system used for Assembly, council and European elections] is that you don’t have to stand aside for other people; you can encourage your supporters to think wisely about how they use their later preferences.”