The Alliance Party has come under attack over its attitude to flags but believes that it has come through the crisis stronger. Its critical rhetoric, though, may damage relations with other parties. Peter Cheney sums up its annual conference.
“These last three months have certainly been a tough time for Alliance but I am sure we are the stronger for it,” David Ford told the Alliance Party conference, in his keynote address. “We have come through the fire, literally, and we have not been found wanting.”
The party’s conferences had been traditionally held in the Dunadry Hotel, outside Antrim, but this was Alliance’s second year in the larger La Mon Hotel. Around 350 members and observers attended. The party gained around 100 members in December during the flag protests.
Ford raised spirits by quoting John F Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy but was sharply critical of all the other main parties, including the others on the middle ground.
“The five-party working group on a shared future,” he commented, “seemed destined to produce a report which was merely the lowest common denominator between unionism and nationalism. In the end, it didn’t even achieve that.” Alliance had proposed an open forum on a shared future, involving voluntary and community groups, but the DUP and Sinn Féin had rejected this as “handing over” the process to “outsiders.”
Sinn Féin and the SDLP approached the flags issue “without any regard for those who cherish a unionist identity” by seeking the total removal of the union flag: “The timing, and the framing of the debate as a zero-sum, ‘we win and you lose’ argument was of their choosing.” The attitude behind renaming a Newry playground after a hunger striker was that “only nationalist children” would play there.
Ford’s speech went down well with the audience but did not acknowledge the SDLP had publicly supported the Alliance Party or that its representatives had also been threatened.
Unionists accepted designated days outside Belfast but the leaflet campaign was, in Ford’s view, a “deliberate, pre-meditated campaign to whip up tensions” and ultimately all “about votes.” He made clear that Alliance did not oppose people flying a flag from their own house, rebutting an allegation by the DUP, but drew the line at public property e.g. lamp posts.
He also quoted the Belfast Telegraph poll on integrated education in which 79 per cent of those responding said that they would support a request to transform their child’s school i.e. to change its status to integrated. The poll’s sample size was reliable (1,167 responses) but there may be some response bias as that question only allowed a choice between opposing and supporting integration.
Over the last year, the party counted prison reform, cutting legal aid and opening up the debate on integrated teacher training among its achievements.
Naomi Long was more conciliatory, calling for “inclusive conversation” with other parties. “Our choice, put bluntly, is between a shared future and a scared future,” she said. “We are not interested in the politics of fear.”
Instead, she preferred to focus on “hope and aspiration,” which she viewed as the foundation on which the Alliance Party was built. “Alliance is the party that will continue to lead the way,” she added, “in articulating a clear vision of a shared and inclusive future for everyone, the opportunities that realising that potential will bring and in building the bridge to take us there.”
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said that he was “strongly committed to up-skilling the current and future workforce” and “bringing people closer to the labour market,” particularly young people.
He remarked: “When I assumed office, little was being done to assist NEETs, expectations of new policies and programmes were low, and there was no dedicated budget.” Farry had since published a strategy and secured a
£25 million budget over three years.
Farry also highlighted his review of apprenticeships and youth training and his intention to develop a system “which will be recognised across Europe as a gold standard.”
Alliance’s pitch is ‘for everyone’ but its support is concentrated in particular areas within the province. At the last Assembly election, 79.2 per cent of its voters were in Belfast and the surrounding constituencies.
The party attracted widespread sympathy following the attacks on its representatives, and having two seats in government and an MP significantly raises its profile. It is, though, still the fifth largest party, gaining 7.7 per cent of the vote in the last Assembly election.
Alliance contends that it can represent everyone, whether they vote for the party or not, and that this sets it apart from unionism and nationalism. However, reflecting on the conference, political commentator Alex Kane questioned whether any party can be “for everyone” and how Alliance can make progress when it tends to be highly critical of its counterparts in the Executive.
‘For Everyone’ sets ambitious targets
By publishing its own blueprint for cohesion, sharing and integration (For Everyone), Alliance has a standard against which the Executive’s final strategy can be compared. The document covers five themes: economics, education, use of space, culture, and the legacy of the past.
All government departments would “actively encourage de-segregation” and all major policies would be proofed for their impact on a shared future. Alliance repeats its target of at least 20 per cent of children being educated in integrated schools by 2020; the current share is 6.4 per cent. It also acknowledges that a range of other models are available, including shared campuses and shared faith schools.
In a new aim, it seeks to remove at least one in five interface barriers by 2023. In housing, all evidence of “threat, intimidation and exclusive claims to territorial monopoly” should be removed by 2025. Designated days are proposed for all public and civic buildings. It also affirms zero tolerance for paramilitary symbols as “there is no place in a normal society to celebrate a culture of violence and intimidation.”