I got involved with Alliance in December 2012 as an act of solidarity. The Party was under attack, not over the removal of a flag from City Hall, but over an election in East Belfast – and I was angry. Naomi Long had the audacity to win her Westminster seat from Peter Robinson in 2010, the retribution for which would last the best part of a decade. Most people would have crumbled, but Naomi Long is not most people.
In my seven years as an Alliance activist I have become accustomed to election campaigns, and to losing them.
The first election defeat I was involved in was the 2013 Mid Ulster by-election. I remember an SDLP activist (kindly) saying to me that he liked how we walked into that count like we stood a chance. We tallied furiously and cheered the loudest for our much respected candidate Eric Bullick when he increased our vote by 0.3%.
In 2014 my then boss Anna Lo was our EU candidate. Her personal views on the constitutional question had dominated headlines and many said that would be the end for Alliance, but in truth I think it served as a reminder that Alliance is genuinely a cross-community party. In the end Anna achieved our highest vote and we were elated, though at 7.1% of the vote we knew we still had a way to go to break the desired 10% barrier.
The next year – the 2015 Westminster election – was the one that really stung. After a particularly nasty campaign, Naomi lost her seat to the DUP’s Gavin Robinson (though she increased her vote by 4,000). His bitter and aggressive “5 Long years” speech stood out in stark contrast to the dignity and grace with which Naomi has become known for. And it didn’t go unnoticed.
In the 2016 Assembly election we kept our 8 MLAs, as was the case in the 2017 election (despite the Assembly having been reduced from 108 to 90 MLAs) – only this time Alliance seats in North Belfast and South Down were now within reach. It was then I realised that maybe things were changing.
With no functioning Assembly since 2017 and the cliff edge of Brexit looming; people are tired of scandal, self-interest, and political point scoring. For too long divisive, negative politics has dominated – and there doesn’t seem to be much to lose. So when a person like Naomi comes along – someone who is genuine, who speaks sense, and most importantly will work with anyone for the greater good (and is just that bit scrappy); it’s not difficult to see the appeal.
While Brexit and the absence of an Assembly undeniably contributed to our recent triumphs, the Alliance surge is not something that happened overnight. While Naomi is extremely likable and engaging (even her most dedicated trolls wished her well when she signed off social media to receive medical treatment), behind her is a pretty impressive team. Deputy Leader Stephen Farry – who is an actual genius (I have seen him engage in a conversation, analyse a policy document and play tetras all at the same time) – has been a reliable and trusted voice on Brexit. And because evidence-based policy is very much our thing, it means even if you don’t agree with an Alliance position, there’s integrity behind the decision making. The MLAs, their staff, and the small central team are dedicated and hard working – which are key ingredients to any success.
Mostly I believe that our strength lies in the fact that at the core of Alliance is a sense of inclusivity – which carries more campaign miles than fear mongering ever can. And while these elections are ones that will take a while to come down to earth from, we know we cannot be complacent. We face many serious challenges as a society, but for the first time in a long time it seems that those working towards the greater good were rewarded.
And there is endless hope in that.