In late January 1974, a few weeks before the general election, my headmaster suggested that I might like to join the Alliance Party.
I was editor of an inter-schools magazine at the time and in an interview with the local weekly I had said that I had no particular difficulty with power sharing. I didn’t even know that he was a member of Alliance until he invited me to a meeting of some local members from Armagh – but I agreed to go.
I don’t remember all that much about the occasion, but I do remember being concerned that some of the people in the room couldn’t or wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘unionist’. At that point Alliance was not anti-unionist as such and its official position was that Northern Ireland would be better off in the United Kingdom. But as someone who had no difficulty in describing himself as a unionist (the sort of unionist who supported Brian Faulkner as it happened) I wasn’t prepared to join a party some of whose members preferred not to describe themselves as unionist.
Since then, of course, Alliance has adopted a position of neutrality on the Union, making it impossible for many ‘liberal’ unionists to join the party: although there is evidence from East Belfast in 2010 that some of those liberals voted for Naomi Long because they saw her as the best way of unseating Peter Robinson. But generally speaking, unionists – people who have no difficulty in describing themselves as such – do not vote Alliance. And that explains why, after a reasonably promising start between 1970-74, they didn’t ever make a significant breakthrough and why they remain in single figures in electoral terms.
Identity matters here. Most people, including people like me who have no problem with liberalism (although I don’t like being described as one), pluralism, power sharing or religious backgrounds, do have a view on their constitutional preference.
Very few people are really neutral or indifferent when it comes to the United Ireland versus United Kingdom debate. They don’t regard the issue as having been settled by the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, most people who have a clear preference one way or the other weren’t voting Alliance prior to 1998 and haven’t shifted to Alliance since then. Even the people who have stopped voting since 1998 because they are sick of the ongoing us-and-them debate chose to stop voting rather than vote Alliance.
The other problem for the party is that it has found it almost impossible to attract either the new generation of post-Agreement voters, let alone those people who would have no difficulty in describing themselves as ‘somewhere in the middle’ when it comes to politics. And that’s because, as I have argued before, Alliance is not, in fact, a genuine middle-of-the-road party. It has squeezed itself between the two power blocs and fools itself into believing that it has an essential role to play. It doesn’t. It is helping to prop up a bizarre and absurd system.
It is as much a part of the Executive farce as are the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and UUP. Rather than challenging the status quo – which consists of undisguised hostility, petitions of concern, mutual distrust and pantomime government – it has become part of the status quo.
David Ford spent quite some time attacking the other Executive parties during his conference speech on Saturday. He spent just as much time pointing out the weaknesses of the present system. Yet he did so from a position of fundamental weakness himself.
Because the party he leads is a member of that Executive: the same party that is routinely slapped around and slapped down by the bullying mentality of the DUP and Sinn Fein; the same party that has a pretty poor relationship with the UUP and SDLP too. The Alliance Party does not need to be a member of the Executive. It chooses to be. And in choosing to be it is allowing itself to be tarred with the same brush as all of the others.
So when Ford concluded his speech with the need for Alliance to set out a vision for changing Northern Ireland and changing our politics he was wasting his time. All he was doing was regurgitating the sort of stuff that Alliance has been saying for decades.
It was stuck in the groove stuff for a party stuck in an electoral/political rut. Nothing new. Nothing challenging. Nothing that will inspire the huge numbers of non voters to come on board either this May or next May. For all of its claim to be the something different in local politics Alliance is just part of the same-old, same-old.
That’s not to say that Naomi Long is certain to lose her seat – even though the odds are still against her. But it is to say that she doesn’t sum up the Alliance Party. She didn’t win because she was Alliance: she won because she wasn’t Peter Robinson. And if she holds on it will be because she has earned a reputation as a hard-working MP.
Meanwhile, over in South Belfast the odds have shifted in favour of the DUP. A crowded field, a weak UUP candidate, a weakened Alasdair McDonnell and the high-profile Máirtín Ó Muilleoir may yet allow Jonathan Bell to slip through to victory. Ironically, the chances of unionists retaking the seat are higher without a pact than with one. And the DUP has a considerable head start.