What role for Alliance in an increasingly polarised, two-party community with Sinn Fein on course to be the kingmakers in the next Dail poll, and the DUP perfectly positioned to be equal kingmakers at Westminster?
Okay, liberals, ecumenists and secularists will point to the fact that Alliance held all its eight seats in a reduced Assembly. But the hard fact is that Alliance may have peaked as leader Naomi Long failed to re-capture the East Belfast Commons seat by a clear margin.
So where does Alliance go from the Westminster poll? In Britain, the anti-Tory feeling saw the Liberal Democrats increase their Commons tally. Alliance can boast all it wants that it is the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland, but the fact remains – Alliance is a separate party, not the Lib Dems.
Alliance must formally become the actual Lib Dems otherwise it will remain as it is now – a parochial party, and it must take advantage of growing support for socialism across the islands and relaunch itself as a clearly secular/ecumenist centre Left party.
Alliance may point to the fact that rebranding itself as a UK national party did not help the Tories win seats in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Conservatives are a mere shadow of the 1990s movement which came within 4,000 votes of unseating the supposedly totally safe Sir James Kilfedder in North Down.
NI Tory boss Dr Lawrence Kennedy slashed the 14,000 majority of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party leader in a General Election in the only constituency it had a reasonable chance of winning.
As for the British Labour Party, it has struggled for years to try and gain mainland recognition to formally contest elections in Northern Ireland. Alliance already has a significant profile with MLAs and councillors east of the River Bann, which is more than Labour can claim.
An initial step is for Naomi and Alliance to form a united and joint secular/ecumenical front with the Green Party and even People Before Profit. Could this be strategically achieved under the banner of the Liberal Democratic Alliance (LDA)?
Given the current ecumenical Presbyterian influence within the Alliance Party, there is the very strong possibility the relaunched LDA could attract significant numbers of liberal unionists when the Ulster Unionist Party eventually splits, with traditional UUP members joining the DUP and the liberal secularists drifting into Alliance.
To give the new-look LDA real meaning, it needs to win seats west of the River Bann; a region dominated by Sinn Fein and Right-wing Unionism. West of the Bann, Alliance is nothing but a ‘wine and cheese fringe social club’. If the LDA is serious about wanting to move into this potentially lucrative electoral territory, it must embark on another merger – with Fine Gael.
West of the Bann has turned dark green and the LDA must go with the flow. While Fine Gael has always been seen as a centre Right movement, especially with its history based in the fascist Blueshirt movement of the 1930s Ireland, a FG/LDA coalition could be electorally beneficial in combatting the poll rise of Sinn Fein and the decision of the rival Fianna Fail to not only organise in Northern Ireland, but also contest elections by 2020.
The present Alliance may be regarded with much suspicion in nationalist circles as a ‘small u’ Unionist Party. Ironically, in many unionist strongholds, Alliance – because of its involvement in the Union flag saga – is viewed as a ‘small r’ republican party.
Alliance must take account of the traditional ecumenical views of many Southern Irish Protestants, especially those in the pro-same sex marriage wing of the Church of Ireland. With Brexit rapidly approaching and Northern Ireland largely voting ‘Remain’ during last year’s European Union referendum, there is the real possibility many liberal Protestants would be happy to be under the banner of an all-island structure back in the EU.
The so-called ‘Big Three’ denominations within Irish Protestantism – Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist – all have liberal wings and all are organised on an all-Ireland basis.
Politically, while the LDA would not attract support among Ireland’s fundamentalist denominations, such as the Free Presbyterians (formed by the late Rev Ian Paisley in 1951), Reformed Presbyterians (also known as the Covenanters), Baptists, Plymouth and Exclusive Brethren, the new liberal party could draw support from smaller more ecumenical denominations, such as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians (known as the Unitarians).
A political shotgun marriage of secularist Catholics (people from the Catholic tradition or upbringing who no longer pledge allegiance to Rome by practising their religion) and liberal, ecumenical Protestants could well form a significant cross-border power block – provided they had a realistic united vehicle to express those interests – so step forward the rebranded LDA.
At one time, the new liberal movement of NI21 – formed by ex-UUP MLAs John McCallister and Basil McCrea – had the potential to become the secular saviour, until it imploded amid scandal and allegations.
The LDA would clearly lead the campaign to have same sex marriage recognised in Northern Ireland, as well as push the integrated education sector, abortion rights and a staunchly pro-EU and increased immigration policies.
As with Unionism, there are too many centre Left parties in that area of the political spectrum, so the very least Naomi Long must do is use her party to form a centrist coalition.
Centrists should remember what happened during the 2003 Assembly poll when the Greens, Alliance and the now defunct Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition cut each other’s throats electorally costing the Centre at least half a dozen seats in that particular 108-seat Assembly.
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