I have always been passionate about politics, however it was not until last year that I seriously contemplated joining a political party. I reluctantly perceived Northern Irish politics negatively, primarily due to the fundamental unionist/nationalist division which most parties here rely upon in order to gain votes.
We saw this ‘Division by Design’ in action coming up to the 2016 Assembly election, when the DUP’s campaign amounted to not much more than ‘Vote Arlene Foster for First Minister or you’ll get Martin McGuinness, ignoring the consociational nature of our political system; Foster and McGuinness have equal powers and are joint leaders. This negative style of politics kept me away from becoming involved in local politics for a long time.
However, this negativity was what actually gave me the drive to eventually get involved in politics, and specifically to join Alliance.
The primary catalyst was the 2015 Westminster election, when Naomi Long lost the East Belfast seat in the House of Commons despite an increased vote of over 4000, because of a unionist pact. This struck me as a huge step backwards, a determination by unionist parties to maintain division, to cling to the status quo of separateness, and prevent progressive politics in Northern Ireland. I joined Alliance shortly afterwards because I did not want to see such a result again.
Another motivator to get involved, and to join Alliance, relates to my local constituency of North Belfast. Being perhaps the most divided part of Northern Ireland, North Belfast also faced one of the infamous unionist pacts to keep the DUP’s Nigel Dodds in Westminster; while Sinn Féin were keen to point out how they should win because there were more Catholics in the area than Protestants.
The first time I was old enough to vote, 2014, provided me with hope, as Alliance gained its first North Belfast councillor in many years, Nuala McAllister in the Castle area. Later, I thoroughly enjoyed being part of Nuala’s team for the Assembly election, where we had a very strong chance of upsetting the establishment in North Belfast. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it, Nuala polled seventh while six seats were available, but we gained an impressive result and there is a strong chance of victory next time – yet more reason for hope, yet another sign that joining Alliance was the right thing to do.
I chose Alliance over other parties because I believe it has the best record of delivery and success. Alliance is Northern Ireland’s main liberal party, that obviously appealed to my ideological beliefs. But it is also an anti-sectarian party, we are not unionist nor are we nationalist; we oppose the sectarian stalemate which exists in Northern Ireland and which the DUP/Sinn Féin led Executive has done little to resolve, and one could argue, has actively perpetuated.
Alliance has a strong record in Councils and particularly in the Assembly, where they have never lost a seat. After providing twelve years of constructive criticism in opposition, Alliance later proved successful in government, thanks to the excellent work of David Ford as Minister for Justice and Stephen Farry as Minister for Employment and Learning. Both ministers achieved much in trying to reduce the sectarianism prevalent in Northern Irish society, whether it was through education, housing or jobs.
Unfortunately some of the other parties were unwilling to commit to the same values, therefore I believe Alliance made the right decision not to take the Justice Ministry after May’s election, because although we presented very reasonable proposals to the DUP and Sinn Féin (including reforming the petition of concern, a strategy to tackle paramilitarism and investment in integrated education) those parties clearly were not interested.
Alliance is a party with strong values, such as liberalism and non-sectarianism, but it is also a party with a history of delivering on these values, which I believe places it above a lot of parties, some of whom provide strong criticisms of the current system, but have no solutions to it.
It is also a party which encourages diversity, from welcoming new people and cultures to Northern Ireland, to supporting minority groups like the LGBT community. We are also a party who are able to encourage debate and accept differing opinions. Some criticise us for having issues like abortion as ‘issues of conscience’ but I believe it is wrong to run a party like a dictatorship and demand every member vote the same way. In other parts of the world, like Great Britain, moral issues like abortion are given free votes by parties. I don’t see the problem in doing the same and in fact wish more acted this way.
The problems in Northern Ireland will not go away overnight, they must be confronted and resolved. Most of our parties have failed to do this, but I believe that Alliance is capable of tackling the problems which divide us every day; whether it is the need for integrated, not just shared, education, a complete end to paramilitary presence, and reforming the elements of our consociational government that maintain sectarianism in our politics, including cross-community voting and the petition of concern.
This is why I joined Alliance, because the kind of future I want for Northern Ireland is best achieved through the aims and goals outlined above.