In Britain, the big story of the 2019 European elections was the breakthrough of a group that formed just weeks before the poll – Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. But in Northern Ireland, there was another shock success – for a party that has been around for half a century without making a major electoral impact.
Since it was founded in 1970, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has usually been in fifth place behind the main unionist and nationalist parties. But in the 2019 European elections, it ended up, after the final round of counting, with the highest number of votes overall. This surprise result came just three weeks after it secured 11.5% of the vote in the local government elections – almost double its share five years ago and its largest since 1977.
It’s being called the “Alliance surge”. Everyone is talking about a party which, for decades, was widely, if unfairly, regarded as too boring to talk about.
What is going on?
Alliance’s success is down to a combination of factors: events, leadership, and ideas.
The events are the unique circumstances surrounding the European poll. It appears that some Sinn Féin voters put Alliance as their first preference in the belief that Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson would be elected anyway, and that Alliance was the most likely Remain party to take the third of Northern Ireland’s European Parliament seats (the DUP’s pro-Brexit Diane Dodds being virtually guaranteed the other one). Alliance also mobilised its own constituency, gained support from pro-Remain unionists abandoning the equivocating Ulster Unionist Party, and received thousands of lower preference votes from the SDLP and Greens.
Then there’s the candidate who took that European seat, Naomi Long. The “Ginger Ninja” (a description she herself embraced in a previous campaign) has been leader of the party since 2016. Predecessors have been statesmanlike but cerebral. Northern Irish politicians can be dour, evasive, or crassly hostile. Long has the ability to translate Alliance’s policies into compelling common sense. Her tone of perpetual exasperation has clearly captured the mood of a public which has much to be exasperated about: no power-sharing government between unionism and nationalists; not much reconciliation since the Troubles; and Brexit, which a majority do not want.
What Alliance actually stands for is also crucial. First and foremost is reconciliation. It’s the largest and oldest party to draw support from both Catholics and Protestants. It also has a progressive social and environmental agenda, an important selling point for many young voters. And on the border question, it’s pragmatic. For Alliance (and this is incredible to many unionists and nationalists), the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is secondary to how social and political life is arranged for the good of citizens in the region.
Alliance, along with the SDLP and other moderates, were decades ahead of their time in calling for a Good Friday Agreement-type solution to the violent conflict. Yet an electoral breakthrough for the self-styled “radical centre” never came. For cynics, this suggested that the non-aligned “third tradition” of which Alliance spoke was mythical – a fantasy of the conflict-insulated middle class.
What appears to have happened now is that Alliance’s vision has finally been amplified by an attractive leadership, and a specific electoral opportunity has arisen for this vision to be endorsed by the public in a manner that actually converts into seats won.
In the past, Alliance has been derided for supposedly being on the fence about Northern Ireland’s national question. But Brexit has given the party the chance to take a crystal clear stand on the major issue of the day. Indeed, there are likely few other parties in Europe so ideologically suited to making a case for the European Union. Alliance’s belief in sharing and diversity, suspicion of nationalism, and longstanding support for immigration, all translate seamlessly into a principled pro-EU argument.
There are several implications of the Alliance surge. It strengthens the anti-Brexit, pro-backstop voice of Northern Ireland. It raises major questions for the two main unionist parties which have become cold houses for voters who care about rights, reconciliation and the impact of Brexit. It further challenges the “two communities” architecture of the (suspended) Northern Ireland institutions – which Alliance has long-criticised as divisive.
And it proves, along with the growth of the Greens, that there is a section of society which does not fit into the unionist and nationalist blocs, and which wants to be heard. If there is a referendum on Irish unity in the coming years, it may well be the followers of Long’s Alliance Party who decide the outcome. After 50 years, the future really could be in their hands.