Alliance Party leader David Ford opened a new political can of worms when he attacked the sectarian politics of the province at his party's general assembly this weekend. This is an old theme with the party, which was founded in order to end sectarian politics. Although the bulk of Ford's criticism was directed at the ruling duopoly of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, it was the other two Big Four parties, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that reacted most fiercely to the criticism. Why is this?
Alliance was founded by reform unionists and liberal Catholics in April 1970 to provide a pro-union reform party that opposed discrimination and the "border politics" that dominated the province. Four months later the SDLP was founded and saw the rival Alliance Party as a luxury that the province could not afford because it deprived the SDLP of votes and seats. Alliance for most of its existence has been limited to only the lowest of the three tiers of government--local councils as the assembly was not in session and the party lacked sufficient votes to win a seat at the Westminster parliament. But since 2007 this has changed with an Assembly in existence for an entire term and Naomi Long elected as the MP for Belfast East in 2010. The latter deprived DUP leader Peter Robinson of his longtime seat and prevented the UUP from winning it.
But the DUP and Sinn Fein between them control most of Northern Ireland's parliamentary seats. The UUP lost its last seat in 2010 when its sole remaining MP defected from the party over its alliance with the Conservative Party. Alliance is threatening to strip the UUP of many of its liberal supporters and members and has two seats in the Executive to the UUP's one. This is because when the justice ministry was created in 2010 to devolve policing powers to the province, both the DUP and Sinn Fein saw Alliance leader David Ford as the natural choice as a neutral minister. And Alliance's percentage of the vote and seats in the Assembly won it another seat by right on the Executive. In order to appease the UUP and the SDLP the Big Two agreed to abolish the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL). This was the other ministry held by Alliance. As a result a majority of Alliance members favor having Ford give up the justice ministry.
In the summer of 2001 Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close, an Alliance MLA from Lagan Valley, told this blogger that sectarian political boundaries would begin to break down once the Assembly had held a full term under the Good Friday Agreement. This has not happened noticeably. This is because in Northern Ireland voters have basic identities as unionists, nationalists, or other and vote within those communities. For the average unionist voter his choice of parties is among the DUP, the UUP and the Traditional Unionist Voice, a splinter group from the DUP. For nationalists the choice is between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Alliance gets its votes mainly from those who define themselves as neither nationalists nor unionists--usually members of mixed marriages and their offspring or middle class non-church attenders. But the population of the other group may be slowly increasing over time as more nationalists and unionists get accustomed to using their lower-preference votes (under the PR-STV franchise system used in Northern Ireland each voter casts multiple ranked votes but only one is counted) for Alliance. This normally occurs in majority unionist constituencies in the Greater Belfast area.
It is not so much that Alliance has grown dramatically, but rather that the UUP has shrunk so much that renders the former as a mortal threat to the latter. And the SDLP needs all the votes it can get to hold on to its position against Sinn Fein.