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Apart from flags, it's been a few good years

Has Alliance finally recovered from the flag dispute? That is the big question hanging over its conference tomorrow. Party leader David Ford believes they probably have come out ahead at this stage.

The bitter dispute arose when nationalists proposed banning the flying of the Union flag on City Hall. Unionists wanted to keep flying it constantly. When Alliance proposed that it be flown only on 'designated days' such as royal birthdays this was accepted by nationalists but rejected by unionists.

In the aftermath, Alliance offices and members were attacked by loyalists.

"A lot of people across Northern Ireland, when they hear about flags, get annoyed about tatty rags hanging off lampposts. People who want to discuss the issue tend to accept that Alliance put forward a reasonable compromise in line with what most councils in the UK do," Mr Ford claimed.

Alliance will use its influence to have designated days introduced in both nationalist and unionist-controlled councils. Another alternative Mr Ford will accept is an 18-month moratorium on changes to flag-flying policy under our 11 new super councils.

"The last thing we want in the new councils is a divisive debate about dealing with flags as soon as they open," he said.

He had better hope this is how people really feel on the day. If Alliance does lose East Belfast it will be a much diminished force.

Apart from flags, the last few years have been good to Alliance, which now has two ministers and an MP.

It got two Executive ministers because Mr Ford was elected on a cross-community basis to take on the Justice portfolio, while Stephen Farry got Employment and Learning under the normal d'Hondt system.

That will change in the next Assembly and they will only qualify for one. The loss of a minister and an MP would be a major blow, and they would lose allowances. The larger UUP has no MPs and one minister.

If Alliance is returned to Westminster most observers think it will tend to back Labour. Mr Ford demurs. "The chances of the DUP being on the same side of a Westminster coalition as us are remote," he said.

Belfast Telegraph