Alliance counting on Anna Lo to give party a winning high
Published 20/03/2014 | 14:30
This year's Alliance Party conference will be very much the Anna Lo Show. As European election candidate, she is the star. Hopes are riding on her.
The days are gone when any party conference was about changing policy or holding contentious debates. Conferences are now stage-managed affairs to rally the faithful and showcase candidates and policies to the wider public watching televised highlights.
Alliance is no different – the official proceedings end by 3.30pm, although there is a Belfast Telegraph-sponsored fringe event on polling after that.
Like the DUP conference, it will largely consist of a series of panel discussions. There will also be speeches by big hitters, like Naomi Long, who did the seemingly impossible and took Peter Robinson's East Belfast Westminster seat, and Alliance's two ministers, David Ford and Stephen Farry.
The party has emerged from a year-and-a-half in which it has been battered, intimidated and sometimes seen the offices, or homes, of its leaders burnt out. It sees that as a sign of the threat it poses to the traditional political set-up.
Extensive flag protests broke out after Alliance brokered a motion which reduced flag-flying on Belfast City Hall to designated days only.
The alternative nationalist motion would have removed the Union flag altogether, but the main focus by unionists and loyalist protesters was on Alliance's role.
The aim, set out in the leaflets, was to stop unionist-minded people voting Alliance by equating the centrist party with Sinn Fein.
Last year's Alliance conference focused on what it had been through, challenging its portrayal as a cosy political home for the ineffectual middle classes.
Alliance has battle scars and a record of standing by its principles in the face of intimidation, which it is impossible to deny.
This conference focuses on aspiration. After a rough patch, research suggests that Alliance is regaining support after a 1.4% dip following the flag protests.
Last September, for instance, our LucidTalk poll showed it on 10.2%, compared to the UUP's 10.8%. The peak areas of support were East Belfast, North Down and Ms Lo's South Belfast stomping-ground.
Like Naomi Long, Anna Lo is seen as something of a magician – she pushed the Alliance vote up to nearly 20% in the last Assembly election, where in 2003 – the last election before she was a candidate – it languished below 6%.
When she was first elected, in 2007, it caused a sensation. The story went around the world. Ms Lo, who is Cantonese, was hailed as the first person of Chinese ethnicity to be elected to any legislature in Europe.
It later emerged that there had been one in Holland, but her election did help change Northern Ireland's image. It signalled that politics wasn't all about religion and the border.
Alliance is counting on her to do the same in Europe, scooping up the growing ethnic minority vote as well as bringing out new voters and harnessing the aspirations of people who are tired of the old politics.
Alliance are hoping that its policies on issues like designated days for flag-flying at all councils and the removal of paramilitary murals – both publicly championed by Ms Lo – will also appeal.
To be realistic, it would take a political miracle, surpassing even South and East Belfast, for her to actually win the seat.
To do that, she would need to come out ahead of the SDLP, UUP and NI21 in the first count and pick up a lot of transfers from them.
That is a tough ask. But Alliance feels it has the wind at its back this year.