Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Naomi Long making Alliance force to be reckoned with across Northern Ireland

The Alliance leader is taking the party well beyond it's traditional base, writes Suzanne Breen

Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party with party leader Naomi Long after he won the North Down constituency (Michael Cooper/PA)
Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party with party leader Naomi Long after he won the North Down constituency (Michael Cooper/PA)

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

The Alliance Party began 2019 hoping to break through the magic 10% barrier in the council and EU elections. In hindsight, that was an unambitious dream.

It ends the year as the third largest party in Northern Ireland with an MP, an MEP, and a raft of new councillors.

Last week’s Westminster results indicate that if an Assembly election is held early next year, Alliance is well-placed to make even more gains. It’s a threat to all the other parties because it has proved it can take votes from them all.

When Naomi Long won her EU seat in May, there was talk that some Sinn Fein voters had ‘lent’ their support to her. Judging by last week’s results, they’ve stayed there with Alliance more than doubling its support.

The party secured 17% - 134,000 votes – to the SDLP’s 15% and the UUP’s 12%.

In the 2017 Westminster election, Alliance was 174,000 votes behind Sinn Fein. Last week, it came in 48,000 votes behind. That’s massive ground to have made up in just two years.

There were headline wins on Friday for the SDLP in Foyle and South Belfast, and for Sinn Fein in North Belfast.

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But not only did Alliance have its own big victory with Stephen Farry elected North Down MP, its vote increased in 17 of our 18 constituencies, and in some it soared.

In South Down, Patrick Brown more than trebled his party’s 2017 tally. He should pick up a Stormont seat next time.

Despite a low-key campaign against the backdrop of the big Dodds-Finucane battle, Nuala McAllister doubled her party’s vote in North Belfast, and she will be a real contender in the next Assembly election.

A seat is surely also on the cards for 21-year-old Eoin Tennyson in Upper Bann, one of the most impressive young candidates I’ve ever met. Despite spending considerable time canvassing for Farry in North Down, Tennyson almost trebled the Alliance tally in his own constituency to hit 6,400 votes.

Based on last week’s results, Alliance could be on course to secure two Assembly seats in Lagan Valley where Sorcha Eastwood almost trebled the party’s vote to become runner-up to the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

The party would also be in the running for a second seat in East Antrim, where Danny Donnelly almost double dAlliance’s 2017 tally.

In West Tyrone, Stephen Donnelly trebled his party’s vote and is a real contender for a Stormont seat.

Jackie Coade also trebled Alliance’s tally in Newry and Armagh – that was a real surprise – which gives her a great chance in the next Assembly election.

In other constituencies where the party is building its base, the result was equally strong.

Mel Boyle more than trebled Alliance’s vote in Mid-Ulster; Chris McCaw more than doubled it in East Londonderry; and Matthew Beaumont trebled it in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

In East Belfast, Naomi Long reduced the majority of DUP MP Gavin Robinson from 8,000 votes to just under 2,000.

In West Belfast, Donnamarie Higgins doubled hear party’s 2017 vote as did Kellie Armstrong in Strangford. With Stephen Farry now headed for Westminster, Armstrong is surely set to play a big role in Stormont when devolution is restored.

Despite the Eastwood-McCallion head-to-head in Foyle, Rachael Ferguson still managed to increase her party’s vote by 50% there. It was only in South Belfast that Alliance’s vote fell with some of Paula Bradshaw’s voters switching to Claire Hanna for this election.

In the Westminster poll, the party benefited from public frustration with the Stormont stalemate and our big two parties, and it also offered a home to unionist Remain voters. Conditions in future elections may not be quite as favourable.

But so long as it has Naomi Long at the helm, it will be seriously competitive with every other party in Northern Ireland.

She is taking Alliance well beyond it’s traditional base and making it a force to be reckoned with across Northern Ireland.

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