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Alliance becomes Stormont’s third largest party for first time

(left to right) Alliance Party of NI Assembly elected candidates Kate Nicholl, party leader Naomi Long and Paula Bradshaw (Liam McBurney/PA)
(left to right) Alliance Party of NI Assembly elected candidates Kate Nicholl, party leader Naomi Long and Paula Bradshaw (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ahead of the election, Alliance leader Naomi Long predicted that a big result for her party could herald the end of a political system based on binary division.

A big result is certainly what Alliance delivered, increasing its first preference vote share by about 4.5% to 13.5% and leapfrogging the struggling UUP and SDLP to become Stormont’s third largest party for the first time.

Once derided as a metropolitan party whose support base was confined to greater Belfast and the surrounding areas, Alliance has now stretched its geographical reach into areas where seat gains had once not even been contemplated.

While the party’s continued rise is unlikely to prompt sweeping changes to Stormont’s powersharing structures in the short term, it will heap further pressure on their already creaking foundations.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement saw the creation of a system that required the biggest political bloc of unionists to share power with the biggest bloc of nationalists in a mandatory coalition.

While the powersharing deal acknowledged the right of parties to define themselves as neither nationalist or unionist, and instead designate as so-called “others”, it was arguably not really designed to accommodate a large bloc of these others.

Mrs Long, who has led her party to repeated election successes in recent years, has called for an end to the mandatory coalition system, thus removing the ability of any big party to prevent a ministerial executive being established.

She would rather a devolved government is formed by willing partners, which can command majority support in the Assembly with a negotiated programme for government.

“I think if anyone has a mandate to say that Stormont should be changed and changed dramatically, it’s Alliance,” said Mrs Long, a former Belfast lord mayor and East Belfast MP.

“We want grown-up politics.”

Alliance also wants to end the community designation system that effectively hands blocs of unionists or nationalists a veto in contentious votes in both the Assembly and Executive.

The controversial method means parties that designate as neither cannot influence votes where the results are determined by how many unionists and nationalists support or reject a proposal.

Alliance insists this system is no longer fit for purpose, as an increasing number of MLAs in the Assembly are unable to have a say in contentious decisions.

It proposes ending the cross-community voting system and replacing it with a method whereby controversial votes require a weighted majority to pass.

While Alliance’s rise has come at the expense of the more moderate wings of unionism and nationalism, in the form of the UUP and SDLP, it has also done damage to non-aligned parties, particularly the Greens.

The loss of two Green MLAs means the overall increase in the “other” designation is not as striking as it could have been if Alliance had made their gains elsewhere.

While that will no doubt be highlighted by those opposed to major reform of the structures, it is unlikely to dampen the calls for change from Mrs Long and her bolstered Assembly team.

“We’ve heard from 1998 that this place is all about managing division, well we want to move beyond that,” she said.

“We want to reconcile our community and create a united community and not one that is divided constantly along orange and green lines.

“We have an opportunity to have institutions that are fit to represent that, and that’s what we’re going in to try to deliver.”

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