David Ford turned against all four larger parties at his conference as he sought to hold its ground in government. Peter Cheney summarises Alliance’s current status.
For a leader of a moderate liberal party, David Ford’s conference speech at the La Mon Hotel was sharp and combative, reflecting Alliance’s growth but also the threats to its position in power.
Gaining East Belfast, two Executive seats and 14 extra councillors were major achievements. Eight MLAs were returned last May and two other candidates narrowly missed out in North Down and East Antrim. That explains the generally upbeat mood among the 300 delegates.
The party is highly concentrated in greater Belfast (79.3 per cent of the Assembly vote) but has also gained council seats in Ballymena, Coleraine, Down and Craigavon.
Risks include Naomi Long’s relatively small majority (1,533), the loss of Stephen Farry’s ministry and the potential for the DUP and Sinn Féin to remove Ford as Justice Minister.
Party members are therefore frustrated but leaving the Executive is seen as the last option. A key party council meeting has not yet happened, as a timetable for DEL’s abolition and guarantees over the Justice Minister’s tenure have not yet been announced.
Although mostly combative, Ford’s speech also praised co-founder Oliver Napier, former deputy leader Addie Morrow and Corrymeela Community founder Ray Davey, who had all passed away in the time since the party’s last conference.
Alliance would not “walk away from our principles or water down our determination” on a shared future. In a direct challenge to the DUP and Sinn Féin, he asserted that Alliance would only back a final cohesion, sharing and integration strategy that meant:
• more children being educated together;
• more people living in shared housing;
• more interface structures coming down; and
• a “robust” process for tackling divisive flags and emblems.
Fear and pity are words not usually used by moderate parties against their opponents, and the SDLP in particular has criticised Ford’s judgement. All four parties, he noted, were “talking the talk” about sharing yet, to use a commercial analogy, he clearly believes that Alliance owns the copyright.
Despite “fine rhetoric,” the DUP-Sinn Féin carve-up was shown by Robinson’s threat to resign over a cap badge, defending segregated teacher training and schooling, cuts in community relations funding, and the Social Investment Fund: a so-called “slush fund for their friends and supporters.”
Centre-ground politics is still split by Alliance’s decision to take the justice ministry, and the resulting resentment from the UUP and SDLP. “Casting about for relevance as their support drains away” was a particularly cutting criticism of those parties from Ford.
Alliance regards its rivals as extremely weak but the UUP and SDLP are maintaining that their decline has levelled off. The two parties together commanded a 27.4 per cent share (Alliance had 7.7 per cent) at the Assembly election.
In government, Ford took pride in Stephen Farry’s tuition fees decision, the new focus on rehabilitation in prison reform, refusing to extend interface barriers, and progress on opening up gates in North Belfast. He also set new electoral ambitions: electing more Alliance councillors at the next local poll (expected in 2014), retaining its Westminster seat and becoming one of the four main parties.
Those gains could result in a more shared future but will also set the moderate parties against each other, as they continue to fight for votes. And, to add perspective, a majority of voters last year (56.3 per cent) did choose the DUP and Sinn Féin over all other alternatives.