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Peter Shirlow

The DUP and Sinn Fein remain dominant, but can Alliance knock one of them off their perch?

Peter Shirlow

The debate over Irish unity will either make or break Naomi Long's party, but if they don't lead the conversation, who will, asks Peter Shirlow


Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry speaking at the party’s conference at the weekend

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry speaking at the party’s conference at the weekend

Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry speaking at the party’s conference at the weekend

The Cobbler Of Preston by Christopher Bullock produced the line "'tis impossible to be sure of any thing but death and taxes". Maybe he should also have added change.

People change, populations change, and even Northern Ireland is changing.

But then again, he may have been right to keep it to death and taxes as some hanker for tradition or long held and assured perspectives.

In our University of Liverpool-led 2019 Westminster household survey we find that very problematic in that changing attitudes and ambiguity of opinion pounds against the rock of political certainty.

The keyboard warriors have over the past week ramped up a tirade against our highly transparent body of research.

One thing you learn when under such attack is that the keepers of truth generally hide behind pseudonyms.

Obviously, when given the gift of knowing all things they are sworn to never reveal themselves as they wrap themselves in Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility.

However, they are not united in their judgment when dispensing all knowledge; I am either a unionist bigot, a republican lackey of the ringmaster of liberal elitism.

Our first 'mistake' was to show that 53.5% of the sample support remaining in the UK with only 29% wanting Ireland's reunification.

But how could this be true asked the republican keyboard wizards who argued that Brexit had made the hapless unionists think that it was time for the four green fields.

Surely, the survey had to be a fix driven by unionist schemers. An awkward perception given that some on the research team are pro-Irish unification. "Drat" came the roar, but as Jimmy Cricket would have it: "There's more."

So, if that was not true then the survey was wrong, as republicans would not tell an interviewer what they really felt about the constitutional question.

But 22.9% of our sample told us that they voted for Sinn Fein, who had received 22.8% of the Westminster vote. Double drat!

They limped away at that point to regroup and give the wizard's beard a wee tug.

While beard-rubbing, they may wish to consider that around 20%, or the floating fifth, do not know what the constitutional future should be.

This forgotten and potentially most important group within the electorate is not apathetic and have opinions on many matters. But how do you capture them when they reject political tradition and ritual? Who knows? But secure the ambiguous and you assure the future.

We upset others in reporting a growth in socially liberal people who support marriage equality, integrated education and those marrying the "other sort". Indeed, the largest group now at around 40% did not care for the label unionist or nationalist.

The most socially liberal people are young non-voting Protestants, followed closely by their Catholic counterparts.

A self-declared unionist who did not have a proper name, maybe they had forgotten it, once tweeted that not only was he going to save us from damnation, but there were no liberal Protestants.

If there were, he admitted, they were watching "too much Hollyoaks". Another assured me this liberalism would not last when the young got older.

As is well-known, the aging process makes one anti-marriage equality and starts you disliking themuns.

For those concerned by mixed marriages, such as the significant shares of Sinn Fein and DUP voters, there is comfort to be had if we follow such aging logic. When Billy's hair thins or when Siobhan asks him "is this dress tight on me?" it will end in sectarian tears. Although it is more likely to end if Billy gives the wrong answer.

Of course, support for marriage equality rose as the young are not filling the pews and when a relative now shouts "I'm coming out, I want the world to know, got to let it show", most families rightly show love and admiration. That is change plain and simple, not a short-term youthful dalliance with equality and respect.

So, who do these liberally minded people vote for? Some vote, with just over 40% of DUP voters supporting marriage equality but many do not bother as they are turned off by a sterile proxy war.

Among those who do not vote but have a constitutional preference, a staggering 75% are pro-Union.

They are so significant that the SDLP and Sinn Fein better capture pro-unity voters whereas the DUP and UUP lag in getting the pro-Union vote out. A simple equation - unionist social conservatism equals significant pro-Union non-voting.

But there has been an obvious beneficiary - that is the Alliance Party.

In 2010 they received 42,762 votes. Last year, akin to Lazarus, 134,415 put an 'X' by their name. A mere 17% of their voters oppose marriage equality compared to around 40% and 30% of DUP and Sinn Fein voters.

They, along with the DUP, gained around half of those who did not vote in 2017. And 51% of their voters are Protestants compared to 94.9% of UUP voters.

Moreover, 49% were not religious or Catholic compared to 90% of SDLP voters.

But electoral success may also bring a headache in the sense that their voter base has become more pro-Union, as they gained 18.6% of their vote from former DUP voters.

In 2017, 44.4% of their voters wished to remain in the UK. This now sits at 58.8%, with 25.6% supporting Irish unity. A reminder of Aesop's Fables "be careful what you wish for".

Naomi Long, who has sprung this electoral success, is not going to debate Irish unification, but instead encourage her party to develop arguments that covers both the benefits of the Union and the potential of reunification.

As a party that is uniquely composed of significant shares of members and voters who see legitimacy within both constitutional positions, the capacity for an inclusive debate is there but will require political dexterity.

Such ingenuity would be real change and will draw the constitutional debate into a new arena.

For Alliance, that debate will be evidence and issue-driven.

It will make or break them but if they do not lead such a binary conversation, that is reflective of society, it simply will not happen.

Alliance may be capturing part of the wind of social liberalism, but can they create a new way to debate the future?

As Bob Dylan extolled: "Keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again, for the times they are a-changin."

One thing Alliance have shown is that for an increasing share of the electorate traditional forms of nationalism, republicanism and unionism just do not cut it anymore.

Sinn Fein and the DUP remain dominant, but will Alliance knock one of them off that perch?

No one knows. But they now have the base from which to do so.

Professor Peter Shirlow is director of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool

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