Alliance once aspired to bring people together but the party’s new identity politics is fuelling division, not integration

Naomi Long, seen last year launching the party Stormont election campaign, and the younger generation who follow her have embraced the con trick of defining perfectly contestable issues in the language of rights.    'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Naomi Long, seen last year launching the party Stormont election campaign, and the younger generation who follow her have embraced the con trick of defining perfectly contestable issues in the language of rights. 'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Last week, Northern Ireland surpassed Belgium’s record of 589 days without government.

To mark the occasion, some concerned citizens organised a series of demonstrations, using the hashtag #WeDeserveBetter. These days, you can’t have a campaign without a hashtag.

'Language rights is just clever code for imposing further burdens on the state,' says Owen Polley. Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw last year, centre, joins other parties in calling for an Irish language act. ''Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

'Language rights is just clever code for imposing further burdens on the state,' says Owen Polley. Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw last year, centre, joins other parties in calling for an Irish language act. ''Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

You’d think that this type of well-meaning, civic society initiative would appeal particularly to Alliance types, and gain enthusiastic support from all of that party’s top brass. But, if you think that, you’ve probably not been paying attention to the modern Alliance Party.

You see, #WeDeserveBetter wanted speakers at their events to put pressure on the parties to return to work at Stormont, rather than using the platform to advocate causes like same-sex marriage and abortion reform. For that reason, they were reluctant to allow single issue campaigners from groups like Love Equality and Alliance for Choice to speak at their rallies. After all, these overwrought discussions have themselves become part of Sinn Fein’s excuse for refusing to operate power-sharing.

The organisers’ position was enough to attract the hostility of some of the more rabid, self-righteous Twitter warriors. A member of Alliance’s Party Executive, and former Westminster and Stormont candidate Sorcha Eastwood tweeted, “what is most concerning about #WeDeserveBetter is that there are people who still consider equal marriage, reproductive and language rights as ‘divisive’... rights aren’t divisive. If you think they are you’re part of the problem”.

In other words, if you prefer to stick to the topic of restoring a functioning government that can take critical decisions about hospitals and schools, rather than dwelling on emotive social issues, you are, according to one of the most prominent of Alliance’s new generation of politicians, “part of the problem” with Northern Ireland.

It’s a statement dripping with self-satisfied condescension and if it demonstrates a problem, it is a problem with Ms. Eastwood’s party.

In a newspaper interview earlier this year, former leader Lord Alderdice explained how he thinks Alliance has changed since Naomi Long became its leader.

The party previously acted, “very consciously as a bridge (between unionists and nationalists) seeing their main role as trying to help each side to listen to each other and understand each other and build a society that would work for all... Now what Alliance mainly represent is a third element in society — they describe themselves as progressive... they’re not as devoted to the proposition that they are there to bring the two sides together”.

When pushed, Lord Alderdice declined to frame this analysis as criticism, but he thought that, as a result, our society now contained “three cohorts” that are not comfortable with one another rather than the traditional two. The obvious conclusion is that while Alliance previously aspired to bring people together, now the party is a divisive influence in our community.

Even if the party wished to exert a calming, stabilising influence on Northern Ireland, the carping, didactic tone of perpetual outrage adopted by its leader has the opposite effect.

Long and the younger generation who follow her so avidly have embraced the noxious doctrines of modern identity politics and the con trick of defining perfectly contestable issues in the language of rights.

These are the tactics of illiberal liberalism that have poisoned political debate across the western world, drawing an ugly response in the shape of right-wing populism. They’re also particularly repugnant to unionists because they’re a familiar part of Sinn Fein’s toolbox and that party deploys them cynically to promote its separatist agenda.

A majority in the stalled Assembly favours same-sex marriage and unionism has incurred serious damage because the DUP continues to use the petition of concern to block legislation.

There are very strong arguments in its favour, but it is an entitlement granted by the state and not a right; a position confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. Likewise, there is a strong case for kinder, more humane laws on termination of pregnancies, but defining abortion as a human right is simply a way of silencing people who oppose reform.

As for ‘language rights’, it takes a special type of naivety to swallow that republican nostrum uncritically. Nobody is deprived of the right to speak Irish, and, indeed, the language enjoys considerable entitlements, with tiny Irish medium schools supported by public money, for instance.

‘Language rights’ is just clever code for imposing further burdens on the state. Activists can quite legitimately make those arguments, but they have nothing to do with rights.

The thread that runs through this form of debate is its tendency to present certain groups of people as victimised, oppressed and intrinsically moral, while other groups are caricatured as innately exploitative and irredeemable.

To take one particularly disturbing example, after the rugby rape trial, Alliance’s former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, endorsed a call to teach boys in school that their masculinity is ‘toxic’.

In Northern Ireland, these attitudes have allowed issues like same-sex marriage to get so overheated that much more practical concerns, like schools and hospitals, are relegated to secondary importance.

Citizens who aren’t sufficiently onboard with that groupthink are now liable to be harangued for having the temerity to tell politicians to get back to work.

This form of politics poses as liberal, but it is actually nasty and intolerant.

In Northern Ireland, where we are still struggling to overcome our own divisions and integrate society, this new ‘progressive’ divisiveness is the very last thing we need.