Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Alliance is re-energised on the back of a strong election

 Alliance Party leader Naomi Long pictured at the conference at The Stormont Hotel

ALLIANCE members are buoyant these days. A decade ago, commentators were writing the party's obituary, casting it as increasingly irrelevant in an era when the power-sharing it had long advocated was becoming a reality. But Naomi Long's ousting of Peter Robinson as MP for East Belfast in 2010 signalled that the tide had turned. The Belfast City Hall flag controversy was initiated by scheming unionists to undermine the party's renaissance yet the street violence that followed inadvertently raised its profile and in all likelihood helped Alliance electorally.

A unionist pact saw the DUP reinstated in the East Belfast Westminster seat in 2015 but that is a singular setback in an otherwise solid performance over recent years, which has included a super smooth leadership transition.

In the March 2 assembly election, Alliance held its eight seats in a reduced assembly. It was, conference was told, the party's biggest percentage share of the vote for 30 years and its largest total vote since 1979.

Among the new leader's priorities is to grow Alliance outside greater Belfast - west of the Bann it is still a fringe party. Its message, Mrs Long said, was "as relevant in Lisnaskea as in Lisburn; in Newry as in Newtownards; in Derry as Dundonald".

She is encouraged by how the party faired in South Down, where Patrick Brown breathed down the neck of the SDLP's second candidate and came close to stealing the seat. The constituency is still in the east but it's outside Alliance's traditional metropolitan `doughnut'.

Mrs Long also spoke of the increased numbers of young people joining the ranks in recent months though a glance at her audience revealed that bald and silver heads were still in the majority. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that the party is re-energised.

Where it goes from here depends on what emerges over the coming days and weeks and whether devolution is restored. Will it be part of an executive or will it remain outside, where it now meets the threshold to qualify as official opposition?

Mrs Long says the conditions for taking the justice minister's role remain the same as last May when the DUP and Sinn Féin opted for independent unionist Claire Sugden. Alliance has range of demands on integrated education, governance, skills, tackling paramilitarism, and addressing the legacy of division. The new leader has the party at her back and the membership for now is more than contented.

Mrs Long's lengthy speech to conference won't live too long in the memory but then her strength has always been in debate and analysis rather than oratory. And at the end of a week that saw one of the most noteworthy speeches about forging a shared future delivered in Derry, the East Belfast MLA was always going to struggle to trump a US president.

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