Alliance should not be neutral on the future of this island

Posted By: June 07, 2019

A surge in support for Alliance secured Naomi Long a seat in the European Parliament.

Denis Bradley. Irish news. Belfast. Thursday, June 7, 2019.

I could swear that I heard John Hume say that a bridge can’t be built from the middle of the river. It was an image to describe the efforts of the Alliance Party. It sticks in my head because I used to wonder if it was an accurate engineering metaphor and, politically, a strange image for him because his own party would have been described by others as a middle of the river party.

Alliance is big news nowadays. It has done very well in the last two elections. It has increased its vote and its representation. It has a presence and an authority now that it seldom, if ever, had in the past. Even more impressively, it has persuaded many voters and even commentators that the middle ground is the answer to many of our current and future problems. It has re-energised the narrative that concentration on the constitutional question is the cause of most of our past and current problems. Its response and its solution to that foundational difficulty is neutrality. It argues strongly that it is not a unionist party and that it is not a nationalist party. Alliance is neutral on the constitution; it doesn’t take sides and every member of the party has the right to have their own view on that question.

There are few who would not accept that Alliance is a party of integrity and courage. It has tried to be sensitive to the feelings and the hopes of all sides in our divided society. It has stood up bravely to the threats and the bullying of some sections of the communities within which it works. But political success comes at a price. With increased presence and authority comes greater responsibility. It could be argued that neutrality has served it well; up to now. It has allowed the party to have unity in diversity. It has also been a comfort blanket in times of uncertainty and confusion and there are few of us who don’t need a comfort blanket from time to time. But neutrality is not an answer to any of our fundamental problems. Neutrality is a piece of blank paper. It has little to contribute to the debate that this place needs and is going to have in the coming months and years. At a time when constitutional questions are so dominant, not just here but across these islands, neutrality is a cop out. It is not worthy of a serious political party and neither is it sustainable in the political maelstrom in which we live.

Brexit, a border poll and demographics are akin to hydro dams that are upstream of us. Those dams are threatening to burst. They can burst uncontrollably and do damage downstream or, preferably, their waters can be released in a controlled and planned manner, ensuring that the landscape downstream is neither saturated nor drowned. Alliance is in a strong position to influence which of those scenarios happen.

That responsibility falls, of course, on each of us and on every political party. But the Alliance vote has always attracted a section of moderate unionism. Because of the societal and religious changes in the south, coupled with a desire to stay in Europe, an increasing number of like-minded unionists have migrated to Alliance. That constituency is extremely important because it is part of the unionist family and that family are the most fearful, cautious and even obstinate in embracing the need to have a frank and honest negotiation about the future of this small island.

That doesn’t mean that Alliance must declare itself as either unionist or nationalist, but it does mean that it should not be neutral. Not neutral in identifying the changing realities. Not neutral in contributing to the conversations and the negotiations that this society must engage with in the coming years. To remain neutral, in that sense, would be irresponsible and even dangerous. Because they are in the middle and because they have attracted a greater number of unionist votes, they will be in a situation to prompt, promote and, at times, steer the fundamental debate.

A calm and sensitive discussion is not easily or often achieved in politics. The political instinct is to huff and puff and blow the house down. We have done the puffing and blowing during forty years of violence and twenty years of poor political engagement. Neutrality may well allow Alliance to feel clean and above the mess but it will do nothing for the mess itself.