Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, December 21, 2012

What are Alliance's Future Prospects?

Mick Fealty over at Slugger O'Toole had an interesting post about the middle ground of Ulster politics. As he defines it this consists of the two moderate sectarian parties, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the SDLP, and the non-sectarian Alliance Party. In the summer of 1998 when I was researching my first book, Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa (Greenwood, 2000) I found a dearth of published information on Alliance. I did manage to find an unpublished Masters Thesis on Alliance written in the early 1990s for a politics degree in France as well as the back issues of Alliance's in-house newsletter in the politics collection of the Linen Hall library in Belfast. This book included a chapter on Alliance that then became the core of my next book, Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts (Greenwood, 2002).

I learned that Alliance had actually begun life as a non-parliamentary pressure/ginger group, the New Ulster Movement, in Belfast in early 1969. After about a year it decided to form a party that was both liberal and non-sectarian. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was launched in April 1970 months before the SDLP. It had its best recruiting periods in its first three years in 1970-73 as The Troubles were becoming a republican insurgency against the state. Alliance reached its peak in a local election in 1977 at just under 15 percent of the total--higher than for the DUP. Then it began to slowly slide back until 1981 when it lost almost all of its vote west of the Bann River. It again had an above-average  recruiting period in the mid-1990s as the province was moving out of The Troubles following the first IRA ceasefire. But by 1997 the vote was shrinking back down to its previous high of 6.5 percent. This continued to deteriorate until it hit just over five percent.

I interviewed a number of Alliance figures including its first leader, Oliver Napier, and then Assembly Speaker John Alderdice and his brother, Lord Mayor David Alderdice, who was kind enough to give me a tour of City Hall before the interview. Noting that the party after the 1981 hunger strike had been limited largely to Greater Belfast--to constituencies with a unionist majority, I suggested to several members that the party declare itself to be a unionist party (it was on record as being pro-union) but emphasis its differences with the other unionist parties i.e. its two Catholic party leaders, high percentage of women office holders, innovative policies, etc. They replied that the party would lose many more votes than it would gain by doing this as its members regarded themselves as belonging to the Other tradition: participants in or issue of mixed marriages or simply non-religious.

In the summer of 2001 I returned to Northern Ireland for research on the peace process. Seamus Close, an Alliance MLA at the time told me that once Northern Ireland had experienced a full Assembly after peace the tribal barriers would begin to break down and many more people would vote for Alliance. Northern Ireland completed a full Assembly of power-sharing in 2011 yet there was no mass rush to Alliance other than in East Belfast. The election of Naomi Long to Peter Robinson's old Westminster seat can probably be chalked up more to her superior work in the Assembly and the fallout from Irisgate that year then from a major shift. The flag "protests" also do not portend a major lose of tribalism. Instead it would seem that Alliance has had moderate gains due to the breakdown of the UUP as more of its constituency is leaving for both the DUP and Alliance following the former having taken over Ulster Unionist policies. 

Why is such a realignment unlikely to occur? Several reasons come to mind. First, when the Good Friday Agreement was written it explicitly penalized non-sectarian parties like Alliance and the Women's Coalition by rendering their votes meaningless in any matter in which both nationalist and unionist consent was required. Alliance wanted to change the law so that non-sectarian parties could have their votes counted with either the unionists or the nationalists depending on the need. But this would weaken the Big Four sectarian parties and so they refused to support this. Second, and more important, Northern Ireland is a deeply-divided society with deep sectarian ethno-religious identities. People are loath to surrender these identities, which are like national identities elsewhere. Third, Alliance while politically innovative in policy terms is naive in electoral marketing terms. Had Alliance been savvy it would have picked fights with the Women's Coalition over various issues so that both parties could have gotten more free publicity in the media and flourished. The Northern Ireland media regards any election in the province as primarily an intra-unionist and intra-nationalist contest to establish which parties are the strongest in the two camps. This is essentially the "horse race" model of political reporting that prevails in English-speaking Western countries with first-past-the-post voting systems. In such a climate Alliance is ignored. Instead both parties remained polite and the Women's Coalition went out of business and Alliance continued to stagnate.

Since David Ford became Justice Minister the party has attracted more media attention. Alliance's best chance to grow is by drawing a sharp contrast between it and the Ulster Unionists on one hand and the SDLP on the other. Alliance can also attack the Ulster Unionists for their participation in the flag protests and the SDLP for naming a children's playground in Newry after a hunger striker who was involved in the Kingsmill Massacre of 1976. Such actions will probably win the party few votes in the loyalist and republican ghettos of Belfast and Armagh, but they will continue to win support for it among middle-class, educated, thoughtful people east of the Bann. And that is the party's core constituency, which is plentiful in South Belfast, parts of East Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim, North Down and Strangford. In other words in the "South England" portions of Northern Ireland. But the non-sectarian future for the province will continue to reside just "over the rainbow" in the party leadership's imaginations.

1 comment:

  1. If any party like Alliance, who waver on the constituion, ever gain significant power then they, far from being "non-sectarian", will simply stoke up sectarianism by hindering the only pragmatic solution to peace: integration within the United Kingdom.