Physical and verbal attacks on the Alliance party are proof it is a growing electoral threat poised to smash the old mould of Northern Ireland politics, leader David Ford has insisted.
Issuing a rallying call to party faithful at its annual conference in Belfast, Mr Ford said it was time to stop ducking the big issues that still divide the region and instead deliver real change.
Predicting success in forthcoming elections, Stormont’s Justice minister rejected the traditional stereotype of the cross-community party as political moderates.
“We aren’t the moderates in Northern Ireland politics - we’re the radicals,” he said told delegates at the La Mon hotel.
“We don’t fit the unionist versus nationalist mould of Northern Ireland politics - we were made to smash it and there’s only one way we will do it - by convincing more and more people to step forward and vote Alliance.”
Mr Ford accused both unionist and nationalist parties of pandering to the extremes in a bid to shore up votes at the expense of taking the steps needed to address outstanding issues such as flags, parades, segregated education and housing and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Alliance representatives were heavily targeted by loyalists in the wake of their decision to vote with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to limit the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall just over a year ago, with party offices attacked and death threats issued to members.
While in the political arena, unionist rivals have attempted to vilify the party for its stance on the flag issue and others, accusing it of waging an anti-British agenda.
The exchanges have been most intense in east Belfast where the DUP is locked in a bitter campaign with Alliance to regain the Westminster seat First Minister Peter Robinson lost to Alliance party deputy leader Naomi Long in 2010.
The most recent spat erupted when Alliance European election candidate Anna Lo voiced a personal preference for a united Ireland and described partition as “artificial” - comments that were widely criticised by unionists.
In his conference speech, Mr Ford rejected the claims of critics that Alliance was a party in trouble.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Alliance is the campaign and electoral vehicle to make change happen,” he said.
“We have a growing electoral strength, and growing influence. That is evident in the increasing attacks on us by others, because they recognise we are growing and threatening the old certainties
“Something is happening. I’ve seen it in the bundles of letters that Headquarters give me to sign as we welcome new members to the party; I’ve heard it at selection meetings, where new candidates are explaining that they’ve got to the point where they’re not content just to sit at home, shouting at the television news, whether out of anger at the behaviour of other political parties, or in support of Alliance; we’ve seen it in the last three opinion polls, which show Alliance on the rise; and we’re hearing it on the doorsteps as we conduct community surveys and work for our constituents.
“That something is a growing respect for Alliance as a party that offers a real alternative to the sterile argument that passes for politics in Northern Ireland; that is different to the mirror-image politics of the unionist and nationalist parties.
“And we will use that growing strength and influence to lead change, to press for big steps forward. That’s what this party is about.”
In a speech littered with references to Ms Lo and what he claimed were her achievements as a politician, Mr Ford also said: “Some in this society are motivated by hope of a united Ireland, some by the continuation of the United Kingdom. What unites us all in Alliance is an unequivocal commitment to building a united community.
“So when people ask you on the doorsteps what Alliance is about, tell them this. Alliance is the only party whose primary objective, whose driving force, whose very reason for its existence is a determination to build a shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “It’s time now to move beyond the impasses and stand-offs, the small steps forward followed by two steps back.
“It’s time now to use politics to deliver change and end stagnation. It’s time now for a politics for everyone. It’s time now for a society for everyone. It’s time now for a shared future for everyone.”