I come from a Protestant, British, unionist background, but background is the important word here - I never developed any sort of national identity. As such, I never really took any traditional position on the Border Question – as someone who rejected both religion and national identity, what relevance could the question possibly have for me?
In fact, even when I was young, I knew there could not be any possible justification for sectarianism, and the petty tribal squabbling of the country I saw while growing up. Even before I fully understood sectarianism and the Troubles and the nature of the deep divisions in my society, I knew there was nothing that could have justified the hatred, vitriol and division which pervaded this country.
The prospect of not only making a positive change, but the biggest possible positive change was something that appealed to me – and as far as I could see, politics was the way to do that.
Initially I was sceptical of party politics – I was aware that some were put off by it and that party politics could struggle to command the public interest. But eventually I came around to deciding that while party politics indeed had an image problem, it was still an effective way of creating change, and there was no reason I couldn’t help fight against the apathy and disengagement people had with how their society is organised.
I was intrigued to find Northern Irish politics was dominated by unionist and nationalist parties – parties whose respective raison d’etres were positions on the Border Question. The only non-sectarian parties I could find anything on were the Alliance Party and the Greens. Ultimately, Alliance won out – it remains the only Northern Ireland party with elected representation at any level which is not only nonsectarian, but also anti/counter sectarian, with the vision of a shared society free from pointless division as its default, with nothing else diluting that vision.
The harm which sectarianism has and continues to do here cannot be overstated – it costs £1.5 billion annually to our public services alone, and incurs an immeasurable human cost. Children are forced to grow up in separate schools and communities, many of whom then end up hating each other well into adulthood for no reason beyond their nationality or religious views.
Virtually no other society in Western Europe grapples with social division on this scale. Whatever political objectives you may prioritise, be it an end to inequality and deprivation, the protection of our natural environment, or even to ensure Northern Ireland can contribute to and not be a drain on our neighbours and the global community, ending sectarianism is a means to an end for all of those.
It therefore makes sense that healing our deep divisions should be the top priority, as it can, in and of itself, serve as a catalyst for virtually anything else positive for this society.
While other parties put the objective of a continued Union with Great Britain or a united Ireland above all else, they could never command the necessary support to bring about a shared future in Northern Ireland. At their worst, they actively contribute to dividing our society for their own political, electoral, strategic and financial gain, or condone or actively promote bigotry against marginalised groups, or even act as apologists for the continuing spectre of paramilitarism which plagues our communities.
I joined Alliance in March 2013, but had been looking into joining since October of the previous year. I am particularly proud to stand with a party whose elected representatives have faced death threats, attacks on their homes and offices, and torrents of abuse, in the name of improving this place for all of us. For all the ill-considered efforts to characterise us as a pithy middle-class party who aren’t strong enough to deliver on our lofty aims, the fact is we are now for the first time led by a woman from a working-class background (also the most successful nonsectarian Westminster candidate in Northern Ireland in over a century).
In the previous Assembly term we had two ministers who built a strong record on opposing wasteful segregation and protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Stephen Farry saved EMA, froze tuition fees and challenged the insistence of DUP/SF on keeping our two teacher training colleges separate. For a wishy-washy middle-class party, we have already accomplished a lot, both in electoral and practical terms.
I am proud too to be part of a party which is diverse not only in identity, but in its viewpoints. A party inclusive of all religious views and none, of various political persuasions, and of various positions on the Border. Alliance is a pluralist party which does not fracture at every disagreement amongst its members, but rather is strengthened in diversity.
It is a democratic party – when I wanted the party to back self-withdrawal from collective worship for over 16s and post-GCSE pupils as a policy, it was put forth at Party Council, the party’s decision making body, and to argue in favour of it. The policy has since been adopted.
In a sense, I am not what many would consider a traditional Alliance member. I am not from Belfast or Bangor, but Strabane. I wanted to join a political party whose principles and values reflected mine, and, if necessary, to build that party in my local area, so others who share my values can speak up and have their voices heard. I intend to stand in the council elections in 2019. I might not win a seat, but I will nevertheless stand proud for Alliance’s values.
Problems facing Strabane
Strabane is one of the most deprived towns in Northern Ireland, yet DUP/SF, who are ultimately responsible for perpetuating the regional inequalities and the sectarian division which disproportionately affects my town, are actually more popular here than in the rest of Northern Ireland. The SDLP, as a nationalist party, are never going to fully challenge DUP/SF on their perpetuation of sectarianism – and in my eyes, I cannot see how they will provide anything more than token opposition to the regional inequalities which Strabane is forced to deal with.
So long as DUP/SF never face a challenge to their dominance in Strabane, they will see no reason to put any significant investment into addressing Strabane’s issues, preferring instead to spend in an area where their vote is more marginal. Additionally, DUP/SF are complicit in exploiting sectarian tension for political gain, and using sectarian tensions over issues like flags, parading and the past to distract from their failures in government. Why would they want to undermine that by addressing the £1.5 billion annual cost of division? If there is any town which would benefit from a share of that £1.5 billion annually, it is Strabane – and Alliance is the only party which can unlock that dividend, to create jobs and prosperity.
I believe the vast majority of people are broadly progressive and anti-sectarian, yet don’t vote because they are disillusioned by the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland politics. If we can build Alliance into a movement with real clout, we can change this and rapidly attract new support from people who never vote, or haven’t done so in many, many years. But it is all dependent on people educating themselves about our politics and what is wrong with it, and refusing to accept that there can never be change in Northern Ireland.
I know change will happen, because I have looked at history and I have seen it happen, all it takes is people willing to stand up and make it happen. As far as I am concerned, to say “there will never be an end to sectarianism in Northern Ireland,” is just as bad as being in favour of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, because the first step towards creating positive change is refusing to accept the status quo and social injustice.
I know it’s easy to be cynical and overlook this all as rhetoric driven by self-interest, to think back to all the stereotypes of politicians as liars and cheats. But politics can only ever be as good as the sum of the people involved in it – and by not contributing your voice, you are giving in to the backwardness and bigotry of our politics.
Naomi Long, taking Alliance forward
The facts are clear: under the fresh leadership of Naomi Long, Alliance is a rapidly growing political movement. I have seen the influx of new members for myself, and I and the many other people right across Northern Ireland wouldn’t be a part of this movement if we didn’t genuinely have hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to make a difference. Whatever you’re able to do, do it, be it joining the party, volunteering by canvassing or delivering leaflets, donating what you can, standing as a candidate, or even something as simple as following us on social media and spreading the word.
Northern Ireland needs a political revolution, to rid our society of sectarian division once and for all, and create a new future which every citizen of every background can be proud of. Everyone has a part to play in that revolution, no matter how small.