I take the view that Monday was a good day for the campaign for freedom of marriage. Losing by just five votes was surprisingly close in an Assembly of people elected by what is assumed to be a socially conservative society; and the vote sets a platform for winning a similar vote in the next Assembly with MLAs more confident than ever that their position will in fact be endorsed by the electorate. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the Alliance team was publicly divided on the issue despite having a declared policy – leaving some instinctive supporters to question publicly just whether it is up to the task of “leading change“.
My own position on the issue – and on the right of people to take a legitimate counter-view – was set out here and is not the point of interest in this post; my own view of what the party needed to do to promote its policy once its Party Council had passed it was set out here, and the last paragraph in particular now looks somewhat prescient; the broad issue of how challenging “leading change” is was set out here, and notably was broadly endorsed by former Leader, Lord Alderdice. I hope he will not mind me re-quoting him (my emphasis):
[The size of the Alliance Party’s challenge] is, as you say, nothing less than a fundamental change of culture. Sometimes this is forgotten by those, supporters and critics alike, who think of it as a commitment to recognise and respect different cultures. In addition to the practical political agenda which you identify there is an intellectual agenda.
It is worth re-assessing those words in the light of this week’s debate on same-sex marriage.
It means that the Alliance Party’s role in the world is not to balance out the competing views of its electorate; it is to take a rational progressive position and promote it vehemently. This risks (and at times even guarantees) initial discomfort and unpopularity – but that is what “leading change” is about, and it is what got Naomi Long elected MP for Belfast East.
This of course goes well beyond our “traditional divide” in Northern Ireland. This week, the need not just to “recognize and respect” the legitimacy of gay relationships but also to lead the “fundamental change of culture” required to provide them with the precise same liberties as everyone else came into focus. The Alliance Party passes with flying colours on the recognition and respect (which, frankly, is a lot better than the vast majority of Unionist representatives), but has thus far stumbled on the second part.
It would be a bad mistake to take issue with individual MLAs who voted whichever way they felt was right. I would have to take issue a little, however, with the Assembly Party leadership’s failure to go out and sell the policy it had the courage to adopt – not just on the technical grounds that it happened to be the will of the Party Council, but on the practical grounds that it represents not just a “recognition of legitimacy” but also the “fundamental change of culture” which the Alliance Party is uniquely placed to advocate and which it was founded to pursue.
Before the onset of his current condition my father used to say: “In life, as in golf, if you hit a bad shot, you’ve got to make sure your next one’s a good’n” – it’s a fine maxim, and it applies to the Alliance Party now.