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Alliance Party focused on Stormont reform and EU re-entry

On the surface, the theme of the Alliance Party’s conference may have been vague – ‘Alliance works’ – but underneath some of the party’s core policies are undergoing tectonic change. Joshua Murray attended the conference and reflects on the change taking place in Northern Ireland’s third party.

Taking place at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast, the Alliance Party conference faced a challenge which some parties can only dream of – there was not enough space to accommodate the vast array of delegates, supporters, exhibitors, and journalists keen to scrutinise the party which presents itself as a centrist alternative to both unionism and nationalism.

Buoyed by a wave of increased support since 2016, Alliance has seen its numbers grow at both local government and Assembly level, and in the 2019 Westminster election the party won in the North Down constituency and put up respectable second place performances in East Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, and Strangford, constituencies which will be key targets in the upcoming UK general election.

Founded in 1971, Alliance has historically been broadly perceived as a ‘light unionist’ party and has even made temporary changes in its Assembly designation to ‘unionist’ in the past. However, two dominant themes from the conference were firstly, the party’s overt respect for the Irish Government and secondly, its desire for Northern Ireland’s immediate re-entry to the European Union.

In a panel discussion segment based on the BBC’s Question Time format, which was chaired by political scientist Jon Tonge, some of the party’s MLAs praised the Irish Government’s Shared Island Initiative, a project which has seen the significant investment in infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland. Praise for the Irish Government was repeated in speeches by leader Naomi Long MLA and deputy leader Stephen Farry MP.

Alliance Question Time featuring four MLAs and chaired by John Tonge.

This praise was in contrast to remarks about the British Government, which was accused by the party’s North Belfast MLA Nuala McAllister of “acting like it does not care” about Northern Ireland.

The praise for Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin TD followed his keynote speech during the party’s pre-conference dinner, where he endorsed what has now become an Alliance flagship policy, reforming the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Again, the praise for Martin starkly contrasted with Naomi Long’s leader’s speech in which she accused Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP of being “keen to lock it up again and throw away the key” on the area of reforming the Assembly.

Assembly reform

In September 2022, the Alliance Party called for the removal of the veto wielded by the two biggest parties in forming an Executive. It proposes that in the event that a party refuses to nominate a First Minister or deputy First Minister, that this does not prevent other parties from being able to form an Executive.

Alliance argues that this practice would be consistent with D’Hondt, as there are prior examples of parties refusing roles in the Executive and ministerial roles being reallocated to other parties.

The fact that this proposal has been tacitly endorsed by the recently-departed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD and explicitly endorsed by Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD is significant and aligns with a proposal for reform produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster.

However, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP, as well as the DUP and Sinn Féin, remain either opposed to or refuse to comment on Assembly reform, meaning that unless there is vast public support for Alliance’s proposal, it is unlikely to manifest in the foreseeable future.
Electoral prospects

In elections for the House of Commons, likely to take place before the end of 2024, the Alliance Party has set its sights on four seats where it believes it can win or, at the very least, come close to winning.

These seats are: North Down, which is currently held by party deputy leader Stephen Farry MP; Belfast East, where party leader Naomi Long MLA is hoping to repeat her 2010 shock victory over the DUP; Lagan Valley, where Sorcha Eastwood MLA is hoping to gain the seat currently held by Jeffrey Donaldson MP; and the new Belfast South and Mid Down constituency, where boundary changes have been perceived as increasing Kate Nicholl MLA’s chances of unseating SDLP stalwart Claire Hanna MP.

In addition, although not formally mooted by anyone at the conference, it is entirely plausible that Alliance could emerge victorious in East Antrim, with Danny Donnelly MLA hoping to unseat the DUP’s Sammy Wilson MP.

This conference was not quite a rallying cry, but it was a moment of reflection for a party which has experienced the largest electoral growth of any party in Northern Ireland since the Brexit vote in 2016, and one which is confident that more success is to come.

Alliance is presented by many political commentators as being thwarted by the fact that it does not endorse a constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland. Eóin Tennyson MLA said that the party’s defining issue is a “united Northern Ireland”. Although this is often maligned by their political rivals, Alliance has stuck steadfastly to this position during its recent electoral highs.

However, the remarks about key Irish Government figures and support for re-entry to the European Union back up opinion polling which shows that a majority of the party’s members are reflective on the question of Irish unity and strive towards it in the long term, albeit without it becoming a defining issue for them politically, meaning that it is now inaccurate for Alliance to be defined as a ‘soft unionist’ party.

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