The Alliance Party: The peak and the troughs ahead

Last month’s elections to the European Parliament seemed to carry more significance than usual across the UK and Ireland. In Britain, Brexit divisions were to the fore, with some treating the exercise as an unofficial second referendum. In the north of Ireland, the electorate’s first two choices were to re-elect an Irish republican (Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson) and a hardline unionist (the Democratic Unionist Party’s Diane Dodds), before transferred votes generated the final, headline-grabbing result. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland’s leader Naomi Long was off to Brussels, the first MEP that party has ever sent to the parliament.

The result was unsurprising, particularly following the party’s recent success in local elections. It was still a victory couched in symbolism. The third seat had not gone to a nationalist or a unionist, but to a “none of the above” candidate; Long’s win, along with the re-election of Martina Anderson, meant that the region had chosen to send two strongly pro-remain voices to Brussels. Alliance’s victory had come at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party, a further milestone in that party’s decline and a sign that some unionists have found a home in another party.

A few explanations have been offered for Alliance’s 2019 success. The prevailing interpretation is that the elections were the blossoming of the long untapped middle ground, a section of the population for whom membership of the United Kingdom or a united Ireland is not a top priority. Another is that the Alliance Party’s self-described progressive politics may have garnered some votes, particularly from more socially liberal young people. Another possible factor is Remain voters making their voices heard, mirroring results in parts of England and a large majority of Scotland. Outside broader political processes, there is also the cross-community appeal of leader Naomi Long. The party’s gains at the ballot box are impressive, but if they are a result of the peculiar circumstances of political life at this point in time, it is worth asking if they are sturdy enough to weather the constitutional thunder that Brexit promises to bring in the next few years.

How Alliance made it here

The Alliance Party was founded in 1970 as an outgrowth of the New Ulster Movement, a group of liberal unionists who wished to transform the north of Ireland into a more equitable state while supporting continued membership of the United Kingdom. As described by CAIN, the party was long the preserve of the middle class, both Catholic and Protestant. In the years since its founding the party appears to have shed unionism, replacing it with a position of neutrality on the constitutional question, while also making inroads into the working-class vote.

One of the party’s finest moments was linked to the latter development. In 2010, Naomi Long first showed her knack for David-and-Goliath battles by deposing DUP leader Peter Robinson as MP for East Belfast. Like her victory in last week’s European elections, the result was not a surprise but still carried a monumental air. It came on the back of a Robinson family scandal, replete with the kind of salaciousness that curdles respectability into ridicule. The people of East Belfast wanted to reprimand their perennial MP, and Long was the vehicle to do so. The result suggested that the electorate was willing to punish transgressions, but the combination of a cross-class unionist voting bloc and a drop in the Alliance vote saw DUP candidate Gavin Robinson take the seat in 2015. In 2017, even with the dropping of the electoral pact, the DUP comfortably defeated Alliance and cemented its position in the east of the city.

This is not to suggest that Alliance are simply the protest choice. They have certainly benefited from the disgruntled vote in the past, but they have also developed their base to the extent that their vote in the 2019 local election was almost double that of their 2014 return. This cannot be dismissed lightly, and it suggests that Long’s Euro win has stronger foundations than her election as an MP at the beginning of the decade.

Neither nationalist nor unionist

The most salient explanation for Alliance’s success lies in the north of Ireland’s changing political composition. Political scientist Dr Christopher Raymond links the upward trajectory in the number of non-nationalist/unionist voters, and an increase in non-religious citizens, with the growth of Alliance’s fortunes.

It is quite simple, even if it would take a book to fully explain: a growth in voters unconcerned by constitutional matters means more votes for a party that treats the national question as a distraction. The same cannot be said for the matter of religion, whose role as a driving factor in the north’s divided society has often been overblown. The local elections saw the overtly secular People Before Profit (PBP) enjoy its own growth, but despite its refusal to identify as anything other than socialist, it has performed best in areas traditionally characterised as nationalist. PBP is solid in its commitment to secular policies (its unabashedly pro-choice stance is almost anomalous in the north’s political scene), but it also calls for a border poll on Irish unity, making it beyond the pale for the kind of soft unionist whose great Rubicon crossing would be voting for a “non-aligned” party. Rather than religion, then, the national question continues to be a determinant factor in voting patterns, this being a positive way to gain votes from those who either like the constitutional status quo or don’t count changing it as their top priority.

One school of thought attributes Alliance’s success to their appeal across multiple sectors of northern society, including the middle class, disaffected working class voters, and soft unionists who see no quarrel with voting for a party that appears to take no sides on the national question. Alliance are happy enough to “get on with the job” of dealing with problems in areas like education, health and transport without taking sides on the north’s constitution future. In this area, they are undoubtedly a status quo party and for many liberal or “soft” unionists this makes them a safe vote.

This appeal has been helped by the demise of the once all-powerful UUP, who have suffered the same fate as the SDLP on the nationalist side. Both parties were prime movers in the signing of the Belfast Agreement and setting up of the power-sharing Stormont assembly. Once that work was completed, however, both parties were outflanked early in the post-Agreement era (beginning in 2003), the SDLP by Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists by the DUP. For the UUP, this caused an identity crisis that has seen them alternate between moderate and hardline positions. Incidents like then-leader Tom Elliott calling Sinn Fein “scum” in 2011 gave the impression of a party chasing the DUP’s coattails. Under Mike Nesbitt, the party took on a more conciliatory tone, even forming an electoral pact with the SDLP as part of an effort to present an opposition at Stormont. This did not arrest their declining electoral fortunes. Under new leader Robin Swann, the party entered the 2017 UK General Election in an electoral pact with the DUP, while the recent local elections saw two UUP candidates issue a leaflet linking the Alliance Party to the “political wing of the Provisional IRA”, a sign that some in the party long for the more firebrand style of their DUP counterparts. In the event, the leaflet was roundly condemned, and the party haemorrhaged more votes. Its lack of direction is understandable; the DUP is a natural home for those of a hardline persuasion, while the moderate unionist vote is siphoned by Alliance. Losing their European Parliament seat is another mark on a graph line that has been plummeting for the past fifteen years.

The final count, with Sinn Fein, the DUP and Alliance taking a seat each, is probably the most accurate picture of where the northern electorate currently stands. Elections to the Stormont Assembly are conducted under different conditions to the local and European models, and it is likely that Alliance will struggle to translate their latest gains into more MLAs.

Additionally, since the goal of the power-sharing institutions is to ensure parity between nationalist and unionist representatives, a party adhering to neither tradition is disadvantaged within its chambers. Even should their ad-hoc voting coalition hold together for long enough to give the party a stable vote, an overhaul of Assembly procedures will be necessary for Alliance to assert its power. The party places great emphasis on parliamentary reform, like the abolishing of compulsory coalition and replacement of the petition of concern. The difficulty lies in the continuing dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein, parties with a vested interest in maintaining the system as it exists. It should be noted that this is not just a result of these parties serving their own interests. One of the primary ideological influences on the Good Friday Agreement was consociationalism, dedicated to the creation of a political system that could operate within deeply divided communities. The designation of parties as nationalist or unionist, the compulsory coalition and the petition of concern were designed to serve this end. Tangible proof was needed to show that electoralism was a fruitful path for republicans, while the DUP’s role was to act as a channel for rejectionist elements within unionism to become involved in a scene defined by the Belfast Agreement that they regarded as a sop to nationalism. Even if it is agreed that enough time has passed to depart from the Agreement’s foundations, the time required for Alliance to gather the required support (even with the help of other smaller, sympathetic parties) still looks to be long in the distance.

Progressive politics

It is common to hear Alliance described as the “progressive” option, but this is strictly within the context of the north of Ireland, where any party that doesn’t conform to nationalist or unionist positions is considered an aberration. In a standard western democracy, Alliance would be considered moderate liberals. Their programme is not particularly radical, and the party’s pairing with the UK Liberal Democrats shows that it sits firmly in the centre.

Ideologically, Alliance lie on the social democratic wing of modern liberalism, as opposed to the more classical liberal influences of the Lib Dems’ Orange Book faction. Their economic programme is predicated on the idea that the north’s growth has been stymied by societal division, with the party citing an independent report stating that “division costs Northern Ireland £1.5bn each year” as well as the argument that “it is difficult to attract investors to a divided region.” The remedy is to begin building a “shared future” by encouraging de-segregation in education, the building of health, community and leisure facilities, and the inauguration of a youth education programme designed to stop the growth of sectarian attitudes in future generations. Alongside this process, Alliance call for measures to encourage small business growth (including the cutting of regulations), the ability for the Assembly to set its own tax rates (including, but not limited to, a lower corporation tax), support for high-potential areas like agriculture and tourism, and a Green New Deal to provide employment for thousands in new, high-tech industries. In Alliance’s cyclical model, the shared society encourages economic growth and prosperity dismantles division.

One can’t help but feel that the low corporation tax may be the greatest incentive for future investors. Companies calculate investments based upon which location is likely to generate a return, and any place that offers low taxes is likely to be more attractive to a corporation whether they have a social conscience or not. With its emphasis on encouraging companies to invest by lowering corporation tax (while also calling for the closing of tax avoidance loopholes), the Alliance showcase the kind of capitalism-with-manners approach to economic matters that is a hallmark of that fuzzy line between liberalism and “Third Way” social democrats.

While this has served them well in gaining the votes of the more financially secure middle classes, it is not likely to generate any real enthusiasm among the working class. The party’s paternalistic social democratic policies hold some short-term benefits for the poorer in the offering of a safety net. But this does little more than offer a bandage for the suffering imposed by the actions of an outside government, which, in the present time, are manifested in the Conservative Party’s austerity measures. The Tories’ attempts to roll out “Personal Independence Payments” and “universal credit” reforms have subjected residents of areas that are already counted as among the poorest under UK jurisdiction to even more mental and financial hardship. The Alliance Party are not alone amongst the northern parties whose response to this has been, at best, anaemic. The five established parties have done little to contest the proposed welfare reforms; in their once rock-solid nationalist working-class constituencies, Sinn Fein has begun to bleed votes to candidates whose opposition to austerity measures is their raison d’être, like those running for People Before Profit. Alliance’s response has been to offer opposition on a procedural, rather than unconditional basis.

Alliance’s “progressive politics” lie almost entirely within its commitment to neutrality on the national question, and its desire to end any manifestations of sectarianism whether societal or structural. This desire is admirable and widely shared around the north. Beyond that, Alliance will have difficulty breaking through to the working class vote it will need to continue growing. The party has garnered some support from this quarter, but in areas like north and west Belfast, both its policies and messaging will need to be completely overhauled if it wishes to make any further inroads. Support for corporation tax and tepid opposition to austerity are traits shared by most parties in the north, and there is little to excite support for another party that offers the same.

The Remain surge and the Brexit storm

When Theresa May called a snap General Election for June 2017, she could not have been aware of the quagmire into which her premiership was about to tumble. Her bet, supported by reams of polling data, was that the country would reject Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, swing behind her Conservatives and give her a parliamentary majority large enough to govern at will. The UK’s negotiating team would be emboldened by the endorsement of the British people, a mandate that would be difficult for the EU side to dismiss easily. When the actual results were announced, May’s reign as prime minister was immediately moved into the “borrowed time” bracket. Corbyn led the Labour Party in a remarkable resurgence, winning back seats and reducing the Tories to a minority government. Casting around for any support they could muster, the Tories entered into an agreement with the hardline, fundamentalist DUP.

Since then, border in Ireland has proved one of the biggest stoppage points during negotiations between the UK and the European Union. Without going through the minutiae, the problem is that a total withdrawal of the Britain from the EU would necessitate a “hard” border on the island of Ireland, something that would damage trade between the two Irish polities, and according to some, cause a resurgence in violence.

In British politics, the biggest headline was the clear polarisation between remain and leave voters. The results suggest that Brexit has assumed greater prominence than any other economic or social considerations in the UK. This meant that a large percentage of voters abandoned the Tories for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, a remarkable result given that that party was formed around six weeks before the election with few concrete policies beyond a hard Brexit with British trade rendered “under WTO rules.” There was a similar, though comparatively smaller, surge for pro-remain parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens, inflicting damage to the Labour Party who had been carefully following a Brexit strategy that sought to engage both sides of the remain/leave divide.

Alliance may have benefited from a similar surge in the remain-voting north of Ireland. The party have argued strongly for a second referendum, and although they are not the only party to take this position, the call is at odds with the two unionist parties with whom they are in competition. The DUP has consistently argued strongly for Brexit, while the UUP argued for remain during the referendum before deciding to accept the Leave result. Polling has shown a significant minority of unionists backed Remain, while a smaller but still significant number (around a quarter) support a second referendum. A combination of these votes, along with those of moderate nationalists and people with no strong opinions on the national question who value membership of the EU, undoubtedly contributed to Alliance’s success.

The problem Alliance will have to reckon with is the unpredictability of the Brexit process. More than anything, the past few years has shown the disconnect of Britain from the north of Ireland. The DUP may hold the balance of power, but this is due to May’s botched election and the metrics of the Westminster parliament rather than their consul being highly sought. Had the 2017 General Election resulted in a greater share of seats for the Tories, the DUP would have been cast in the wilderness as much as the four other major parties whose opinions mean naught in Whitehall. Bluntly put, the north has been little more than a hindrance to the British government, and the impact a small party like Alliance is likely to make on the process is negligible. At this point it is worth wondering if sending Naomi Long to the European Parliament will amount to anything more than a protest in practice if not in sentiment. Following May’s resignation, the Tory leadership election and the eventual winner’s Brexit plan will be the most significant marker for the north’s future relationship with Europe.

The new leader’s approach to Brexit could be the cause of even greater shockwaves than the resignation of a Prime Minister. Should a hard Brexiteer take power (and with Boris Johnson topping the leadership race this looks increasingly likely) and cause Britain to leave the EU with no deal, there are likely to be cataclysmic effects on the UK’s constitutional unity. Already, plans are being made for another Scottish Independence referendum. Given that the last vote was conducted under the idea that Scotland would not be automatically granted EU membership in the event of an independence declaration, the circumstances have now been turned on their heads. Should Scotland gain independence, unionism in the north of Ireland will suffer a psychological blow. While it is not fair to say that all unionists share a strong allegiance with Scotland (some base their unionism on economic cost-measuring, for example) there is a cultural current within the tradition that would be left asunder should Scotland opt out of the UK.

More pertinently, a no deal Brexit would strengthen demands for a border poll in Ireland. One oft-cited poll shows that support in the north of Ireland for re-unification rises to a majority in the event of no deal. One poll is obviously not a strong predictor of the future, but there is no doubt that for some undecideds, the UK comes second to the EU. For a small number of unionists whose fealty is based upon economic well-being, the financial chaos the north will suffer from crashing out of the EU could be enough persuasion to switch to a yes vote in a border poll.

These are just two possible obstacles lying ahead for Alliance. Should the UK leave on bad terms, where will they stand? Would they support remain-supporting Scotland in its quest for re-admittance to the EU fold? Choosing neutrality on this topic would be the obvious temptation, but this would also show less commitment to the Remain cause than the party has demonstrated thus far. If the north of Ireland is forced to go along with a new British PM’s decision to pursue a no-deal Brexit, Alliance would be faced with a hard choice: retain a neutral position on the national question and resign the north to a future outside the EU, continue an impotent campaign to grant a special status to Northern Ireland, or take the plunge and call for a border poll. At some point, it will have to take a position on these matters, and whatever choice it makes will upset the shaky, multipolar electoral base the party has managed to bring together. A position of neutrality may be progressive in certain circumstances, but the years ahead will not leave much room for measured reticence.

Writer from Ireland, with an interest in politics, culture and the arts.

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