Alliance delegates gathered at the Stormont Hotel in East Belfast for their first conference since the 2022 Assembly Election. After doubling their representation at Stormont, delegates were in good form and confident of further success in the local elections. After years of being the consistent 5th place party, they are now firmly established as the third force in Northern Ireland politics. The party had around 400 delegates in attendance making this the best attended conference they have ever had.
The day was kicked off by former leader, David Ford reciting the party’s success on May 5th 2022. He reflected back on the days in 2003 when the party scraped home in seats in places like Strangford and South Antrim, making favourable comparisons with the ease in which the party held their ground last year and made advances forward. Poor Jon Tonge even got teased for his prediction of a three seat gain for the party.
The entire theme of the morning sessions was about restoring Stormont and fixing key public services such as Healthcare. The entire message from the Alliance conference broadcast focuses on this theme of rejecting gridlock and punishing those keeping Stormont down.
Going back to the future, the party’s slogan for local government is “Alliance Works” which is another reversion back to the old Alliance slogan from less electorally successful times. 75 days out from the local elections, there will be hope that they can improve on the 2019 results and ultimately become the third largest party of local government.
The warm up act for the leader was as usual, Deputy Leader, Stephen Farry;
On the Good Friday Agreement;
We’ve seen significant strides in the way of opportunity and prosperity here. But too many people are still being left behind, and Northern Ireland is not living up to its full potential. And we do need to see a credible opportunity and prosperity agenda over the next quarter century. Sadly, the Agreement has seen stop-start governance baked into the political landscape of Northern Ireland.
On restoring the institutions;
Northern Ireland badly needs to see the restoration of the Assembly, the Executive and the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. There was never any excuse for them being down. And Alliance has consistently opposed all parties who have sought to take them hostage and to use them, and the people of NI, as leverage for partisan demands. Concerns regarding the Protocol should have been addressed in parallel to functioning institutions
On the protocol
Indeed, most people and businesses in Northern Ireland continue to be pragmatic around the Protocol. They understand why it was necessary. Alliance has consistently sought to maximise the opportunities – the relative opportunities – that come from the Protocol in terms of dual market access. But it was never a full alternative to being fully part of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Yet right from the very start, we have been clear that the Protocol does bring challenges in terms of friction. And we have consistently pursued change. We have led in advocating for a comprehensive UK-EU Veterinary Agreement, solutions on medicines, and even pet travel. What we have stressed is that any outcomes must be mutually agreed, legal and long-term sustainable solutions. We want to give clarity and certainty to businesses, and to provide stability for Northern Ireland.
Party Leader, Naomi Long gave an energetic speech;
Reflecting on the party’s success she said;
However, the biggest achievement since I last spoke to you is the result of the Assembly election. At conference last year, I encouraged you all to redouble your efforts on the ground in the weeks ahead and ensure that we knocked as many doors and engaged as many voters as we could, to maximse the opportunity for Alliance and for Northern Ireland in those elections.
And conference – you did. And we did.
We grew our team from seven to 17, leapfrogging from the fifth largest to the third largest party. It was, without doubt, an incredible election for Alliance, building on the momentum of previous success and keeping the Alliance Surge moving forward.
On the departure of Patricia O’Lynn she said;
As you will be aware, Patricia O’Lynn has made the difficult decision to move on and take up an opportunity in Queens University. She has been an invaluable member of our team and, both as a local Councillor and in her short tenure as part of the Assembly Team, she has not only been a fierce and fearless advocate for her constituency, but has helped to grow the local Association and strengthen the team across North Antrim. QUB’s gain will be the Assembly, North Antrim and Alliance’s loss: Trish, on behalf of us all, I wish you every success and happiness in your new role.
Sadly, this is part of the price we all pay for the failure of the institutions: people with real talent, ability and ambition across all parties are either reluctant to get involved in the Assembly at all or reach a point where continuing becomes untenable.
If we want the Assembly to attract the kind of MLAs and staff we need and retain them, the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer, then it needs to function. It needs to work.
Her speech focused heavily on reform of the Good Friday Agreement;
I am weary of successive governments telling us that we have won the intellectual argument on reform – this isn’t debate club, or an academic exercise. It isn’t about being right, it’s about delivering solutions.
We do not want to be patronised and patted on the head: we want our mandate – our votes and our voters’ votes – to be treated as equal to everyone else’s. And we want the people to have a stable, functioning government. No more excuses. No more delays.
Failure to act is ruining people’s lives and jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement itself.
By responding to those who up-end the institutions by pandering to their demands time after time, rather than ending their ability to do so, they are condemning devolution to death by a thousand collapses.
Our proposals for reform are consistent with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement – principles of power-sharing, inclusion, interdependence and respect – but they also acknowledge the inherent instability of the structures created to implement it.
In this the 25th anniversary year of the Agreement, the fact that the institutions are suspended for at least the 3rd time, and the second time since 2017, is irrefutable evidence that real change is needed
Unlike last year, this conference was much more buoyant and energetic. I have been coming to these conferences since 2014 and this is definitely the biggest and the one with the most confidence. Alliance seem sure footed, with targets for growth and confident in their positioning in the political arena.
When Alliance last used the slogan “Alliance Works” the party was nearly wiped out, in 2023, they are a world away from those days.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs