Does Alliance actually have a philosophy, beyond ‘we are much nicer than everyone else’? David Ford’s party certainly stresses its non-sectarian credentials, but that hardly qualifies as a political programme.
With its haste to allege prejudice wherever it sees so much as a Union Flag, and its insistence that Northern Ireland’s politics are best conducted in a vacuum, Alliance is as dependent upon sectarianism as any other party.
Last week David Ford lashed out at Sir Reg Empey when he suggested that Ulster Unionists will not endorse, sight unseen, any deal which the DUP and Sinn Féin might concoct on policing and justice. The UUP leader’s demand that his party should be consulted is hardly unreasonable.
Ford’s reaction epitomises the spineless and rudderless nature of Alliance politics. Before Christmas he indicated that his own party would name a price for its cooperation in devolving policing and justice. Now, spooked by a suggestion that the Assembly could collapse, and with his sights set firmly on a ministry within the Executive, Ford harangues Empey for not snapping to attention.
Throughout the current period of power-sharing the UUP and SDLP have complained bitterly that their input has been ignored. At the Ulster Unionist conference Sir Reg suggested that his party would demand genuine coalition as the condition for its support for policing and justice. It is a strategy grounded in solid common sense.
Although the SDLP has followed Sinn Féin’s lead and elevated the devolution of justice to the status of a symbolic nationalist touchstone, Mark Durkan’s party would, if it were clever, follow Empey’s lead.
Its representatives are already unhappy that the d’Hondt mechanism will not determine the affiliation of a new justice minister. By urging a swift resolution to the policing impasse, without any preconditions, the SDLP is colluding in a deal which will be to its disadvantage.
The Alliance party too is short-sighted in its demands for devolution at all costs. The issue has acquired a significance it does not deserve, simply because Sinn Féin has insisted that it is critical. With its panic stricken response Alliance is playing into republicans’ hands and, although its priority in the short-term is to get its hands on the justice portfolio, the party could soon find itself marginalised by larger parties within the Executive.
If the UUP and SDLP find it difficult to make their voices heard, how much harder will it prove for Alliance, whose presence at the top table will in any case be determined by a backroom deal, rather than by merit of the party’s electoral strength?
Without a coherent programme of government for justice in place, hasty devolution may not prove to be the coup for his party David Ford obviously anticipates. The DUP and Sinn Féin might thrash out an ill conceived plan which leaves Ford holding the baby, but the ill-starred brat will become Alliance’s responsibility nevertheless.
The truth is that David Ford’s confused and contradictory approach to the issue is merely a symptom of his party’s wider political purposelessness. Alliance, despite its pieties, has no strategy to normalise politics in Northern Ireland. It is thoroughly infected with the notion that we are doomed to remain exceptional, a place apart.
The party relies, for it electoral fortunes, on the electorate here remaining isolated from national politics. Its vision of Northern Ireland, operating most effectively in splendid isolation, is a vision which infantilises voters. It denies them the possibility of full participation in UK politics in case such participation risks widening the sectarian divide.
Ironically sectarianism is actually perpetuated by the type of insular politics, based on division, of which Alliance is an enthusiastic participant and sponsor.
The Alliance party might be the party for ’nice people’, but it lacks any genuine plan for Northern Ireland’s future. It is a function of the broken down politics which characterise our devolved institutions and it is eager to condemn us to more of the same.