Last week there were two events that highlighted what unionists care about or, more accurately, what they fear. First, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a loyalist paramilitary party linked to the Ulster Volunteer Front (UVF), Billy Hutchinson, gave an interview in which he said that he did not regret the two murders for which he was convicted and served time in prison because they helped prevent a united Ireland. The murders were of two Catholic teenagers, picked out at random and killed for being Catholic. Both the UVF and its smaller satellite Red Hand Commandos and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) had a strategy of killing random Catholics as reprisals for republican terrorist and guerrilla actions on the theory that this would put pressure on ordinary Catholics to not cooperate with republican paramilitaries. Here is some nationalist reaction to the interview.
A few days later Anna Lo, the Alliance member of the Assembly for South Belfast and its candidate in the upcoming European Parliament elections, gave an interview in which she said she was in favor of a united Ireland and that she saw Northern Ireland as an "artificial colonial entity." Guess which of these two interviews was more upsetting to unionists?
A member of a victims' organization, a key unionist constituency, contradicted Hutchinson and said that the murders were "neither for God nor Ulster" (a reference to the UDF's motto and coat of arms). But there was much more heated reaction by both unionists and nationalists to Lo's interview. Unionists were offended by the colony remark and members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) feared that Lo was attempting to poach soft nationalist supporters of the party. For many years both nationalists and unionists had regarded Alliance, which has always been agnostic on the border, as a "soft" unionist party. The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the ruling unionist party sharing power with Sinn Fein at Stormont, Peter Robinson, accused Lo of fishing for nationalist votes. But Robinson might be biased against Lo as her colleague Naomi Long took away the parliamentary seat that Robinson had occupied for 30 years in the 2010 general election. A few days later at Alliance's annual general conference party leader David Ford said that he preferred to see Northern Ireland remain part of the UK.
In the fall of 2012 the DUP retaliated for Long's victory by publishing an anonymous flyer calling for protests against Alliance for voting along with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on about 17 designated days a year rather than 365 days a year. This practice was actually in line with practice in Britain, endorsed by a body dealing with British symbols and in line with the province's equality legislation. But many unionists, particularly loyalists--veterans of the paramilitary organizations and supporters of the PUP, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a DUP splinter party, and the DUP, objected violently and spent months protesting the change in flag policy with the result that Belfast merchants lost tens of thousands of Euros in trade.
Alliance has seen its fortunes go up and down in the decades since its founding in April 1970: from a high of 14 percent of the vote in a local government election in 1977 to a low of five to six percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But Alliance's fortunes have soared in the last five years. First, David Ford was chosen as justice minister when justice functions were devolved to Northern Ireland from London in April 2010. The following month Naomi Long replaced Robinson as MP for East Belfast in the British general election. In the next Assembly election Alliance did well enough to win a government ministry in its own right and unionists were upset that Alliance now had two ministries more than the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
But the question is: are the party's fortunes about to dramatically change soon? In the 1970s Alliance had councilors throughout Northern Ireland both in unionist and nationalist areas. In 1980 and again in 1981 republican prisoners in the Maze Prison outside Belfast went on hunger strike. In May 1981 the sitting independent MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died and a by-election was held. IRA leader in the Maze Bobby Sands was one of the hunger strikers and was put forward as Sinn Fein's candidate. He won the seat by died on hunger strike soon afterwards and his election agent then won the seat for Sinn Fein in a second by-election. By 1982 Sinn Fein had been transformed from the public relations wing of the IRA into a paramilitary party running candidates in elections across the province. It was winning about 40 percent of the nationalist vote before its rise was halted by the Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave Dublin a formal consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland. As soon as Sinn Fein began contesting elections Alliance's nationalist voters began shifting their votes to the SDLP to make up for those SDLP voters who defected to Sinn Fein. Soon Alliance's territory shrunk to a "donut ring" around Great Belfast: South Antrim, East Antrim, Carrickfergus, North Down, Strangford, South Belfast and East Belfast.
With the flag protests Alliance territory could also shrink in Belfast. Naomi Long was elected in special circumstances--Peter Robinson was caught up in a sex scandal (of which he was an innocent victim) involving his wife Iris, also a DUP politician, who was having an affair with a much younger man and using her influence to win him a business loan. Peter Robinson was forced to temporarily step down as party leader until he was cleared of any wrongdoing and his wife was forced to give up her political career and resign all her offices. Robinson then concentrated his activity on his role as first minister at Stormont. Many unionists who "loaned" their votes to Alliance in East Belfast in 2010 may call back the loan and vote for the DUP. DUP candidate Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter). Lo's remarks are likely to anger unionists across Alliance's traditional territory and may cause liberal unionists to shift their votes to the new NI21 party or to the ailing Ulster Unionist Party. Alliance claims to have set recruitment records in the last year by people sympathetic to the party's being targeted by loyalist protesters for threats and attacks. Anna Lo's fate in the European election should be a good indicator of the party's fortunes in next year's Assembly election.