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Q. Explain the reasons for the Alliance party's lack of electoral breakthough in Northern Ireland politics.
It would be an understatement to say that the Alliance party have failed to capitalise on the evolving attitudes in Northern Ireland. Effectively, they stand where they stood twenty years ago, as the Assembly’s fifth largest party wishing to break down barriers in a divided society. In this essay, I shall explore the reasons for Alliance’s failure to make an electoral breakthrough since being founded in the 1970’s.
To commence, Northern Ireland is a polarised society with political, ethnic and religious divisions. The ‘middle ground’ in such a society is narrow and in Northern Ireland it is occupied by Alliance. Politics is dominated by the constitutional issue (the border) yet Alliance claim to be constitutionally neutral. The political landscape of Northern Ireland is not conducive to a political party that claims to be constitutionally neutral. Additionally, the party could be seen as being ‘fence sitters’ and are more prone to criticising others as opposed to articulating their own policies, causing voters to gravitate towards parties that actually take a stance.
Leading on from this point, Alliance can be accused of being political hypocrites. They aim to remove community designation even though one of their ministerial posts (Justice post 2011) was elected by a cross-community vote. Contrary to what their blatant negatives would have one believe, the Alliance party are of a high profile with their former leader Lord Alderdice being the first Speaker of the Assembly and in 2011 with David Ford being elected Justice minister, their profile increased heavily.
The Alliance party were formed as a moderate Unionist party; a role that has since 1998 been taken over by the UUP. Furthermore, it could be argued that the DUP’s decision to enter a power sharing government with Sinn Fein post 2007 has made them more appealing to moderate Unionists thus further eroding the Alliance constituency. The events of 2010-2015 further alienated many unionists, as Anna Lo, an Alliance MLA declared her support for a United Ireland, whilst Alliance members of Belfast City Council voted to have designated days for flying the Union Jack. This eventually led to the loss of East Belfast in 2015.
Alliance lack the cross-class appeal and cross provincial appeal required to be successful, with 80% of their votes coming from Greater Belfast and virtually no representation West of the Bann. They had six seats and 6.5% percent of the vote in 1998 and now have eight seats and 9.8% of the vote, never managing to break the 10% vote ceiling. The Alliance party are unrepresented in the Assembly in eleven out of eighteen constituencies in Northern Ireland. The electoral machine of the Alliance party is inferior to those of the DUP/Sinn Fein. To expand, in order to make a breakthrough, Alliance would need to tackle the current issue of low voter turnout (voter apathy). By contrast, Naomi Long managed to win East Belfast in the 2010 Westminster election, taking the seat from Peter Robinson, the then leader of the DUP and First Minister.
The Alliance party have a problematic image of being affluent, middle class and have been described by David McCann as the “Helen Lovejoy of Northern Ireland politics”. Between 2017-2018, he party suffered negative publicity from two social media blunders at the hands of their leader Naomi Long. Firstly, in 2017 he party lost two councillors who defected to the SDLP alleging the party was “ageist, elitist and racist”. Naomi Long referred to these defectors as “balloons”. Secondly, her “prejudicial” tweet during the Ulster rugby rape trial led to negative PR. The Alliance party lack the populist appeal of Sinn Fein and the DUP. They are the only Northern Ireland party that supports the introduction of water charges. On the other hand, with regards to leadership, Naomi Long is of a very high profile and is viewed upon as an accomplished debater. Alliance MLA’s also have a good profile for being community representatives, such as when Anna Lo held a special constituency surgery to highlight the role of older people in society.
The ideological liberal stance, represented on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, is incompatible with a psychologically conservative region like Northern Ireland. Furthermore, in the Assembly vote on same-sex marriage, some members of the Alliance party voted against gay marriage despite the party’s liberal views leading to allegations of a lack of party unity and hypocrisy. However, due to their ideological liberal stance and their support for diversity, they are able to reach out to all communities, LGBT, ethnic minorities etc. This has proved popular as Northern Ireland is becoming a more cosmopolitan society. Alliance also holds a strong record for dealing matters pertaining to education and human rights, as evidenced by their policy surrounding integrated education and David Ford ending detention of under eighteens in adult prisons. Their liberal agenda could benefit them in the future as younger voters may be more focused on social issues as opposed to constitutional issues.
Post 2016, Alliance found themselves in political limbo, neither in government nor having enough MLA’s to be a part of the Official Opposition. They were regarded as largely irrelevant. Additionally, it could be argued that when they were in the executive (2011-2016) they had no real power. For example, Stephen Farry was overruled by the Sinn Fein/DUP duopoly on his proposed cuts to teacher training colleges. This highlights the party’s political impotence when compared to Sinn Fein and the DUP. It could be argued that they also diminished their own influence by pulling out of the Cohesion Sharing and Integration group in the Northern Ireland executive, blaming a lack of progress for their departure.
In conclusion, the Alliance party are ideologically utopian idealists (i.e. not living in the real world). They fail to consider the fact that Northern Ireland is a divided society where the constitutional issue is more important to people than ‘bread and butter’ politics such as jobs and housing. By remaining constitutionally neutral, they are condemning themselves to a lifetime of operating on the political margins. Their ideology, past controversy and their lack of overall appeal have prevented them from achieving an electoral breakthrough.