Alliance must get off fence and start flying the flag(s)
David Ford and his colleagues can no longer afford to shy away from constitutional issues, says Chris Donnelly
The year 2010 was a great one for the Alliance Party. Against all odds, Naomi Long secured the party's first Westminster seat and David Ford its first ministerial post in the Executive.
After decades of acting the bit player, Alliance Party members had a reason to be in good cheer when they assembled at their annual conference at the weekend.
But the party shouldn't get too comfortable as decision time is looming large for Alliance if it wants to truly move from the margins into a position of long-term relevancy.
The recent defections of a bloc of disgruntled former Ulster Unionist election candidates is revealing in exposing the underlying perceptions of the self-proclaimed middle-of-the-road party.
That several Ulster Unionists could make the jump to Alliance in such a short period suggests what many nationalist have long believed - namely, that the Alliance Party is essentially a liberal unionist party in everything except its name.
This goes a long way in explaining the abject failure of Alliance to secure a foothold in any majority nationalist area of the north of Ireland.
During the Troubles, the party established its power-bases in the Protestant suburban belt surrounding Belfast, as well as in the south and east of the city. Its - limited - electoral success was based on the twin-pronged strategy of appealing to middle-class unionists uncomfortable with the sectarian excesses of mainstream unionist parties and the ability to secure the support of Catholics residing in overwhelmingly unionist areas, where the nationalist political parties had simply not bothered to show a presence.
Thus, it was through the incompetence of nationalist parties, coupled with the strident and fundamentalist views of the unionist mainstream, that a narrow ground was found for Alliance. But the advances of the SDLP and Sinn Fein into the once-unchartered waters of Strangford, Lagan Valley and large swathes of South Belfast and South/East Antrim has put the Alliance vote under pressure.
The boundary changes for the Assembly election will make it even more difficult for Alliance to survive in the medium term in East Antrim and Strangford, where nationalist quotas have been created.
If Alliance is to make the most of its sunshine moment, then it must act decisively. With the UUP imploding in its haste to retreat into the backwaters of the dreary steeples, Alliance can effectively seize the mantle of liberal unionism.
There has always been a space on the unionist political spectrum for a more liberally-minded, centre-Left political party.
Alternatively, the party could boldly jump off its cushioned fence by adopting the more radical constitutional position of supporting the national rights of both unionists and nationalists. Instead of shying away from flags and emblems, why not adopt both the Irish and British flags as its party crest, proclaiming support for nationalists seeking to build on all-Ireland alliances and for unionists seeking to preserve links with Britain.
The latter option would have the benefit of at least rendering the party relevant on the constitutional debate, which is forever lingering in the minds of voters as they approach the polling station.
Crucially, it also will allow the party to better sustain its electoral presence as nationalist and unionist parties strive to overcome the incompetence and anti-liberal rhetoric which has allowed Alliance to survive for 40 years.
One thing's for sure: staying on the constitutional fence is not a recipe for long-term success.