By Edward Ferrin- Deputy Editor/Stranmillis Correspondent
The past few weeks have seen Kellie Armstrong MLA moving her private members bill on integrated education through the Stormont Assembly. Alliance since Oliver Napier in 1970 has been fully supportive of integration…whether that be in education, transport and government. Kellie Armstrong’s bill passed the hurdles of the Assembly with 49 MLAs (Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein, Greens, People Before Profit and Trevor Lunn) against 38 (DUP, UUP, TUV, Jim Wells and Alex Easton) with Claire Sugden abstaining.
Kellie Armstrong had waited three years to prepare and propose the legislation due to the long delay in a government being formed by the DUP and Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the 2017 assembly election. Alliance can claim credit for finally moving a landmark piece of legislation to promote integrated education, especially ahead of the crucial election due on May 5th. However, some might argue that Naomi Long’s hope that this bill would have unmasked the UUP may have not come to fruition.
The UUP leader, Doug Beattie, has been under some serious scrutiny over the past few months since a Lucid Talk opinion poll placed him as the most popular party leader in Northern Ireland among respondents. Alliance have been offered electoral advantages in the aftermath over controversial “misogynistic” tweets and various other comments he has made on social media. Alliance candidate in Beattie’s own constituency, Eoin Tennyson, berated UUP members who let Beattie continue as leader by arguing he “couldn’t support someone who espoused such views to lead the party I am a member of.” Both Naomi Long and Sorcha Eastwood took similar reaction to the story.
The Alliance Surge in 2019 has set up the party’s objective for the May election – win over the contingent of UUP voters who gave their support to Alliance for the Westminster election. The very vocal response by Alliance to the issue surrounding Doug Beattie’s twitter history shows that. Yesterday’s vote on the bill put forward by Kellie Armstrong is another example of Alliance taking opportunities to clearly set out policy differences between themselves and the UUP. That was successful in the respect that the UUP opposed the bill, while Alliance proposed and supported the bill.
However, Alliance will feel at a loss that their rivals didn’t fall into the neatly set trap otherwise known as the petition of concern put forward by the DUP. The fact is that no matter how much Alliance would have hoped otherwise, the Ulster Unionists have not handed Alliance the opportunity to campaign in the run up to the election on the UUP’s use of the “undemocratic” petition of concern. The “union of people” attitude of Beattie unionism may not be such an easy crack for Alliance, even with their policies muting the same message since 1970 and only a recent shift in UUP strategy sparking a more liberal outlook.
It will be the question of voluntary coalition that will be the thing which Alliance will prove or disprove they are ready to be a “largest” party should they win a substantial amount of votes in the election. In 2018 on Nolan Live, Jim Allister and Naomi Long debated the TUV proposal for voluntary coalition which proposes a 60% threshold for a voluntary government to be formed which is currently in use in Austria. The Alliance leader argued that it was “delusional” to think that you could change the system, instead arguing that there was no “mandatory” requirement for a party to enter government. She within five minutes disagreed with her party’s long-standing view on the need for voluntary coalition in that discussion – will she still support “mandatory” coalition after May 5th?
If Alliance is to prove that they are a party of principle and conviction that cross-community policies will normalize or democratize our government, surely they will stick to that principle and demand changes to the “mandatory” nomination system for First and deputy-First Minister. The current system in the example of Alliance coming second in the election would not make Naomi Long deputy-First Minister – it is the largest party for First Minister and the largest party of the second largest designation for deputy-First Minister of which Alliance would be neither (even if they did finish second)! Will Alliance just for the sake of extra executive seats just let another party take their place in Stormont Castle because the St. Andrew’s Agreement says so?
The Alliance Party have done extremely well under Naomi Long’s leadership, but huge challenges come with such success. Their position on voluntary coalition will be the first major hurdle which will prove whether Alliance truly believes in policies that their founding members advocated for. Or is it that the so-called “Alliance Surge” has moved the party into an era of “populist” politics and a willingness on behalf of Alliance members to put their entire electoral strategy and policy upon the personality of Naomi Long? And not the convictions which the party has held for so long?
Just like the party’s position on the constitutional position (I am not talking about whether they support staying in the UK or a united Ireland but what exactly they want from staying in the UK or entering a united Ireland), voluntary coalition has in broad form been a prized objective for Alliance…it is now time for the Alliance leadership to get off the fence and make a decision – demand that the St. Andrew’s system for FM/d-FM be scrapped and replaced (should they finish in third or above position). Or let it continue to act as a stumbling block to political progress, just for the sake of a few more votes in elections to come. A party and a leader of conviction and belief in their policies would know which is right!
If voters are to move allegiances and support Alliance, they need to know clearly what Alliance wants to change in Northern Ireland. It is easy to say you support various changes in government or society at-large, but the means of getting there and how you will achieve that is what will ultimately be judged a success or failure. Alliance may still need to refine that before their electoral peak is realized.