Alliance Party conference: Anna Lo's remarks on a united Ireland may work to party's advantage
Published 24/03/2014 | 10:15
Were Anna Lo's apparently off the cuff comments about Irish unity and colonialism really a cunning plot to expand Alliance's voter base at the SDLP's expense?
My guess is 'no', but the fact that some nationalist commentators are floating the idea on the BBC shows that this thing could play both ways for Alliance.
The theory goes like this. Alliance has come through the fire of the flag protests but will find it hard to gather much more unionist support anytime soon. Anyway, the European election is crowded with unionist runners who'll transfer between each other. With the advent of NI21, Alliance needs to soften its unionist-lite image and get in line for some of the 5,000 or so surplus votes which Sinn Fein hates passing on to the SDLP.
Anna Lo ruffled nationalist feathers when she likened erecting Irish language street signs to marking out territory with flags. Now she has said something more friendly to nationalist voters.
I don't believe this was a planned outcome, but things could still play Alliance's way.
Our survey showed the party more or less in line with the overall population in terms of level of support for Irish unity and enviably united in political priorities.
David Ford is already the longest-running leader in Alliance history and every delegate surveyed backs him to lead the party into the 2016 Assembly election. Some 70% of members thought it was "absolutely essential" Alliance remains in government and only 4% thought it should pull out.
Devolution has been good for Alliance. Numerically it was only entitled to one ministry but got two because the other parties wouldn't trust each other with the sensitive Justice portfolio. That windfall has honed its skills and boosted its public profile.
Despite a soft image, Alliance is focused on its vision of a shared society and the need to stay in power. It has also held together through attacks on offices and personnel without splitting and, with luck, it can weather this storm too.
So far Anna Lo has been lucky: blame seldom sticks to her for long and those who attack her tend to come a cropper. But luck runs out if you push it and Ms Lo has taken more than enough risks for one campaign.
She needs to keep on message from now on.