It is a fact of life that anyone associated with the Alliance Party faces constant questions over the party’s stance on the ‘constitutional question’. These are usually opposed by parties which perceive themselves as its closest rivals, and are placed as if they are somehow a trap which will cost Alliance votes. It is increasingly the case that the reverse is the case – it is in fact the UUP and SDLP who are trapped into defining themselves by a question to which everyone knows the answer.
A recent, fairly reliable poll showed that only 7% of NI’s population would vote for a ‘United Ireland’ tomorrow. If it takes nine years to merge North Down and Ards Councils, it is not difficult to see why! With such vastly different economies, legal systems, case law and so on, a ‘United Ireland’ is not exactly a practical prospect at the best of times – and this is anything but the best of times. It is a fact of Northern Ireland society that we don’t go around saying this too often, and perhaps even some correspondents here will wish to go through the optics of disputing it – but we all know in our hearts it is true.
This is why the UUP and SDLP are trapped. The UUP defines itself by supporting something which is already self-evident – it may as well make support for the grass being green a central policy! The SDLP defines itself by supporting something it knows it cannot deliver any time in the foreseeable future. Both positions are ludicrous, yet both parties are obliged to endorse them.
The truth is, it is suddenly the Alliance Party that looks like the sensible one. Endorsing the “principle of consent” means – even if no one says it – endorsing the current constitutional position (which frankly everyone endorsed at some time between 1998 and 2006), namely power-sharing devolution within the UK with cross-border cooperation, a position the Alliance Party was in fact the first to arrive at. People who are contentedly British have no problem with this obvious reality and no need to be any more overt about it; people who in their heart would prefer a ‘United Ireland’ can nevertheless vote for a party which recognises this obvious constitutional reality but doesn’t feel the need to shove it in their face.
The good news for the Alliance Party is there is no obvious way for its nearest rivals out of this trap. The even better news is that representatives of those parties do not seem even to have noticed the trap in the first place.