Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long has her party playing the right tune as it looks to expand

 

By Suzanne Breen

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann walked to the podium to Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down. Arlene Foster's conference song was Take That's Get Ready For It. But Alliance delegates were denied their chance to sway with the music on Saturday.

Naomi Long stepped onto the stage with nothing playing in the background. Given that she's a big Abba and Bon Jovi fan, the list of possibilities was endless. The lack of a theme song could be laid firmly at the feet of one man.

Party spin doctor Scott Jamison vetoes a musical accompaniment every year - "It's cheesy" - preferring a minimalist approach to conference.

As Long made the final preparations for her speech at the back of the hall, she took time out to cuddle Finn, the baby son of Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister. "It calms my nerves. Finn's the official Alliance charmer!" she joked.

Some observers felt this year's conference was a tad flat and maybe they had a point, but Alliance is still in a far healthier state than its two big rivals for the 'middle-ground'. The UUP and the SDLP are just about hanging in there whilst in last year's Assembly election Alliance recorded its highest share of the vote (9%) in 30 years and its biggest number of votes (73,000) in nearly four decades.

New leaders have failed to reverse the dwindling electoral fortunes of the UUP and SDLP. But the switch at the top of Alliance with Long becoming leader in 2016 has been the key to its success.

Before the party was seen as worthy but dull, seen as full of do-gooders who would bore you to death. Long has successfully rebranded it and brought much-needed passion and fire to the middle ground.

Strong on both substance and soundbites, she is a consistently able media performer. Her critics accuse her of being sanctimonious and tetchy.

Yet her fortitude in the face of death threats during the flags protests, whilst also dealing with serious health problems, has led to admiration across the political spectrum. She remains her party's greatest asset.

During the last round of talks, Alliance was strikingly positive and helpful with the DUP and Sinn Fein in both public and private. Some in the DUP were surprised at how constructive Long was.

Her Next Steps Forward document published last week continues in a similar vein and is an attempt to get the Stormont show back on the road in a way that would be acceptable to both the big parties.

The Irish language proposals in the DUP-Sinn Fein draft agreement last month seemed largely based on an Alliance policy paper.

So keen is the party to have devolution restored that there is little doubt that, if offered the Justice portfolio, it would accept a seat in a new Executive providing there was some reform to the petition of concern.

Next year's council elections will be a big test for the party and it will be hoping to significantly increase the 7% vote it secured in 2014. Most importantly, it aims to expand beyond its traditional base in Belfast, North Down, East and South Antrim, and Lisburn and Castlereagh.

In the last local government poll, Alliance secured a healthy 10%-13% in those areas but its support was virtually non-existent west of the Bann. The signs are that this is starting to change particularly in nationalist areas. In last year's Assembly election, Alliance posters appeared for the first time in the Bogside and the party won 1,100 votes in Foyle compared to around 200 the previous year.

It was a similar story in West Tyrone where the party doubled its vote. John Doherty and Stephen Donnelly are candidates the party believes can make inroads in their areas. Despite its cross-community ethos, Alliance has until now struggled to win anything more than a smattering of votes from within the nationalist community.

Mrs Long's leadership is changing that. If Alliance can hold onto its traditional voters, while expanding into this new territory, it could be in the running to become Northern Ireland's third largest party.

Belfast Telegraph

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