The question has been asked – “Why did Alliance contest the South Antrim by-election?” There is an argument being made by some commentators that moderate Unionism and moderate Nationalism must be shored up at all costs, with parties such as Alliance fading into the background.
This is dangerous short-termism. This approach tends to freeze out alternative perspectives that are vital to the long-term benefit of Northern Ireland. People are encouraged to vote to avoid their worst fear rather to realise their best hope.
Alliance believes that it is important to give the people of Northern Ireland a genuine choice at the ballot-box, a choice over what type of future their wish to achieve.
Alliance stands for a vision and set of values radically different from the other parties wedded to a tribal form of politics.
Importantly, Alliance also provided a candidate who clearly supports the Agreement. Punditry reached the bizarre and illogical level that pro-Agreement voters were told that they had to support a declared ‘no-man’ in order to vote ‘Yes’. This was an argument that few bought.
Alliance has always had a clear vision of Northern Ireland, but publically we had been most closely associated with the promotion of power-sharing and the opposition to the use of violence. We have recognised the necessity of updating our own party message to adjust to the post-Agreement realities in which virtually all parties accept these, at least rhetorically.
Recently, I launched a document entitled ‘Centre Forward: Alliance Leading the Way’. It explains the identity and values, plus the vision and mission of the Party, and sets out the key policy themes to be addressed in the future. Together, it amounts to a comprehensive and ambitious set of goals for moving forward the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics.
This document was the product of a Review Group that I established to look at the role of Alliance in this new post-Agreement situation.
The answer emerging from our discussions is that there is a clear, coherent and distinctive role to be played by Alliance in helping to produce a shared, non-sectarian Northern Ireland, while in the process making the Good Friday Agreement system durable.
Alliance has unfairly been accused of simply splitting the difference between Unionism and Nationalism. While our members and supporters come from a wide range of backgrounds, they have united behind a shared political identity and common set of values. We are a cross-community party of the political centre. Our values include liberalism, pluralism and anti-sectarianism. Furthermore, we are further proud of our European and international links.
Within our evolving message, several themes can be identified. First, we want to make the Agreement work. Alliance did much to promote the themes that are now reflected in the new arrangements. However, much must still be done to make the new institutions durable.
The Agreement gives Northern Ireland the opportunity for peace and stability, justice and prosperity. But nothing can be taken for granted. The Agreement is built on fragile foundations and can easily crumble. As long as this society remains deeply divided and characterised by segregation and sectarianism, this danger will persist.
There are rival, competing visions regarding the type of society that the Agreement should deliver. For many, it is about entrenching the notion of two ‘separate but equal’ communities. By contrast, for Alliance, it is about creating a shared, non-sectarian society, within a more united community that cherishes diversity and multiculturalism.
Indeed, there are many elements of the Agreement that institutionalise divisions, and therefore rely upon skillful conflict management. Nevertheless, the reality is that unless moves are made towards conflict resolution by the promotion of sharing over separation and a common sense of destiny among the people of Northern Ireland, the Agreement system may not prove to be durable in the long term. ‘Two separate communities’ can all too easily go their separate ways unless they are brought closer together and their differences are not ignored but transcended. Top priority must be given to the promotion of sharing over separation. Alliance wants to see greater integration within education, housing and lifestyles. We also need to get away from this notion that this society is rigidly divided into ‘two communities’. It not only denies the pluralism that already exists in Northern Ireland, but blocks the development of more. We must stop institutionalising this approach within public policy.
Alliance is conscious that the different constitutional aspirations of Unionists and Nationalists deepen the polarisation of an already divided society. We do not run away from the constitutional issue. Indeed historically, we have been most closely associated with the promotion of the Principle of Consent – the people of Northern Ireland should have the right to democratically determine their own future.
But the heat must be taken out of a divisive issue. Alliance believes that Northern Ireland should be developed as a distinct region within both a decentralising British Isles and an emerging federal Europe. It is important that common interests are promoted above and beyond merely loyalty to the Good Friday Agreement system.
While Alliance continues to support the institutions of the Agreement, it is clear that there are deficiencies that need to be overcome in the context of the Review procedure.
The use of designations and the associated voting systems are the most problematic. While there is scope for non-Unionists and non-Nationalists to register differently, the reality is that this space is given grudgingly and such MLAs have less power than their colleagues. This is arguably a breach of equality provisions and of human rights, affecting both the elected representatives and the voters that put them there alike.
Furthermore, it acts as a major deterrent against people supporting non-aligned parties, and therefore obstructs the emergence of the greater pluralism necessary to reinforce the Agreement, and undermines the prospects of any political realignment along socio-economic lines.
Second, Alliance puts people first. We are more concerned with the interests of people rather than arguments over territory. For most people, their greatest concern is the quality of their lives. This is why the quality of our health, education and transport services, and the nature of the local environment are so important.
The fundamental importance of peace and stability to the creation of an amenable environment for investment, economic growth and prosperity should be recognised.
However, further steps must be taken so that Northern Ireland fully capitalises upon the opportunities available to it and to ensure that the wealth created is fairly distributed. In addition, we must have an outward looking approach to playing our part within a modern Europe and an increasingly global economy. On the recent cross-party trade mission to North America, in which I participated, the opportunities were clear to see.
Third, Alliance is concerned with the rights and opportunities of every individual citizen. This is why human rights and equality need to be top of the political agenda. I fear that efforts to recognise ‘group rights’ for Unionists and Nationalists mean we may lose sight of those of the individual. People should have the right of proper choice over their identity and should not be pigeon-holed.
Society must also become aware of how sectarianism and segregation, alongside an atmosphere in which paramilitarism continues to flourish, create an environment in which social exclusion intensifies and people are denied opportunities. Society loses as a consequence.
Emphasis therefore should fall on promoting sharing, and investing in education and training. Furthermore, the consistent application of the rule of law is fundamental to both democracy and human rights.
With the Agreement, Northern Ireland is coming of age. It is time for a mature, measured and positive approach to setting the goals for the future. Centre Forward is our contribution.