A minor party came out of nowhere, overturned the dominant parties and swept through the election-which-should-not-have-happened. Not the Brexit Party (though they did that too): the Alliance Party.
In the politics of Great Britain is little with which to compare the Alliance Party. They may be closer to the Liberal Democrats than anyone else, simply because they oppose everyone in a ‘radical centre’. They are practically unknown to the media in ‘East Britain’ but in Ulster they have been about, making little waves, since 1970, and now they have broken into the European Parliament (if briefly, we hope).
The essence of Ulster’s politics is communal: Protestant / Roman Catholic, and ne’er the twain shall meet in the ballot box. The idea was originally nationalist / unionist, but as most Roman Catholics, according to the polls, support the union these days, it is harder to place. The Alliance Party has always stood between the two camps, calling out to both sides, and polling in single figures. However that understanding seems to be breaking down. The European Parliamentary election came, and up pops the Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, as a new-minted MEP. It has broken the understanding: until now, there have always been two unionist MEPs and one nationalist. Now there is one of each, and Naomi.
Alliance came second in the poll (for any given definition of “second” in the peculiar preference system that operates), pushing Sinn Féin into third. They did well a couple of weeks before too, in the local elections. What this means has begun to worry those who rely on the easy certainties of communal politics.
Does the Alliance Party now represent a “new normal”?
Unionist exists essentially to protect the unity of the United Kingdom, and must remain dominant as long as there is a nationalist threat to it. However, if that were to evaporate, then at present the Alliance Party are the only ones running normal politics, and this has to be to their advantage now. The province is still socially divided but more accepting of the peaceful cohabitation of both cultures as part of one culture – that is very visible on the ground nowadays. If as it seems the majority in both communities is for the union, then Roman Catholics continuing to vote for Sinn Féin while opposing their fundamental plank is bizarre, but as they may be repelled from voting for an explicitly Protestant party, perhaps the Alliance party represents a new way. Yes, most of Alliance’s elected politicians are Protestant – Naomi Long is a Presbyterian, if with unusually liberal ideas – but they are not Protestantism triumphant, and they have both communities in their ranks of members and councillors.
This is not though normal politics as the secular side of the kingdom understands it as it is only one party with one set of ideas in the market: Alliance are still one narrow vision of politics just like their sister party, the Liberal Democrats, and liberals in a traditionally conservative province should struggle.
Voters are faced with decisions breaking the predictable mould of Ulster politics: does the Alliance Party represent a “new normal”, and if so, how can the other parties provide a response to protect their visions of society? Even Slugger can provide no answer yet.
It suggests an intriguing possibility, as there is one other “normal” political party campaigning quietly in Ulster: the Conservatives. They are small locally, but they might, potentially, offer another bolthole for those who no longer want to feed the communal bifurcation of politics.
This is getting ahead of ourselves. The immediate breakthrough by the Alliance party in the locals and the Euros does not mean that they will achieve the same again at Westminster, whenever the general election happens. The European election was only a playtime election after all, and a way for Protestant Remainers (a minority, but a substantial one) to make a point, but it hints at changing attitudes.