Northern Ireland

John Manley analysis: Alliance is upbeat but Long-term has it reached a high water mark at 15%?

Alliance Party Conference 2024
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long. PICTURE: JONATHAN PORTER/PRESS EYE

Alliance has a spring in its step. In the past three elections (four if you include the 2019 European election) Naomi Long’s party has made significant gains. Deputy leader Stephen Farry won the North Down Westminster seat in 2019, while the party all but doubled its Stormont quota in 2022 and a year later took its council chamber representation to 67, its highest number ever.

Mrs Long’s seven-and-a-half years as leader have been an undoubted success. For the first time, the party has two ministers in the executive, albeit because of the manner in which the justice minister is selected rather than on the strength of its electoral performance, nonetheless it’s another highpoint in Alliances’s 54 year history.

The frustration evident at last year’s corresponding conference was replaced on Saturday with collective buoyancy. The party’s sights are now on the forthcoming Westminster election, with the leader using her speech to name-check North Down, East Belfast, Lagan Valley and the newly-named South Belfast and Mid Down as the target constituencies.

Alliance Party Conference
Alliance agriculture and environment minister Andrew Muir at the party's conference. PICTURE: JONATHAN PORTER/PRESS EYE

The party’s candidates for three of those constituencies have been selected but Mrs Long has yet to throw her hat into the ring to contest her native East Belfast, where in 2010 she famously took the seat from the then DUP leader Peter Robinson.

While Alliance has depth of squad, to use the soccer parlance, its leader is arguably still its strongest asset and the person most likely to oust the DUP’s Gavin Robinson. Yet her reluctance to declare suggests there’s a lot of deliberation going on.

As a recently appointed Stormont justice minister Mrs Long must be conscious of the questions that were asked about her executive colleague Robin Swann’s commitment to the health ministry while being earmarked as the UUP’s Westminster candidate in South Antrim.

There’s a chance Alliance could emerge from the Westminster election with two MPs, possibly more. Equally, it could come away empty handed. Whether or not there are DUP/UUP pacts will play a key role in deciding the outcome.

However, polling also suggests Alliance may have reached a high water mark. The momentum that lifted the party to its current level appears to be easing, with support seemingly plateauing at around a 15% .

There’s no detectable change in strategy and little sign among delegates at the well-attended conference that their enthusiasm and drive has been tempered. Now that the fallout from Brexit appears to have finally been resolved, Stormont’s two largest parties resistance to reform is where much of the party’s ire is directed.

The DUP in particular gets singled out for criticism, possibly because it was responsible for the most recent collapse of the institutions or maybe because it poses the greatest threat to Alliance in its target seats.

This may change in the time ahead, however, as research shared privately with party members on Saturday showed a shift in how they view Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, with a significant chunk supporting Irish unity in the long-term.