Can Alliance rise in the West?

At its nadir in 2003, the Alliance Party mustered fewer than 4,000 votes in the nine Rural and Border constituencies (i.e. those not in or bordering on Belfast). By 2011, that had risen to over 10,000 – rising faster, in fact, than the party’s overall vote. The party had at least by then secured fifth place among the political parties in those constituencies (up from seventh a decade previously), but was still a long way from seriously challenging for an Assembly seat anywhere.

Why?

Courtesy of CAIN, a map of Northern Ireland with (marked in grey) the "Sperrin-Mourne corridor"

Courtesy of CAIN, a map of Northern Ireland with main arteries and (marked in grey) the “Sperrin-Mourne corridor

My own view is that the above map shows part of the problem.

Of all the people killed during the Troubles, fully 95% fell into one of three groups:

  • members of the security forces;
  • murdered in North or West Belfast; or
  • murdered in the “Sperrin-Mourne corridor” (essentially a line from Magherafelt to just north of Newry).

That “Sperrin-Mourne corridor” has often suffered most during the history of Ulster. It suffered most (particularly at the northern end) during the Famine; it suffered most from land redistribution after the plantation; even in Gaelic Ulster it was heavily contested by and around the O’Neills (given the seat of coronation was in modern east Tyrone and the seat of power in modern south Armagh).

This is a territory where folk memories go back far – and with good reason. If your history consists of land repossessions, famine and mass murder, the word “reconciliation” has little practical meaning. This is a world utterly, utterly alien from the one occupied by journalists and commentators who fret about whether NI21 will survive or whether Labour NI will be allowed to stand!

The Alliance Party has never had a single representative in the Sperrin-Mourne corridor. Even at the outset of the party, when it was topping to poll in parts of Newry, returning four members to Derry City Council, and scoring well in Fermanagh, it got absolutely nowhere between Magherafelt and Markethill. Its message simply had no resonance there. I canvassed for a really excellent candidate in Mid-Ulster last year – frankly, it still hasn’t!

Over time, the party has retreated to east of the Sperrin-Mourne corridor. At its nadir a decade ago it was restricted only to Greater Belfast. Now, it has broken out somewhat, winning two Councillors in the new Newry-Down Council, one in Coleraine and two in Larne. Still, however, it has no vote to speak of in the Sperrin-Mourne corridor, and since the Agreement none beyond it either (it lost its last representation in Omagh over a decade ago).

There are no easy answers to the conundrum, though I do repeat that the party is now scoring much better (typically treble the vote share, albeit from a frighteningly low starting base) in Rural and Border constituencies than it was 10-15 years ago. It will take time, no doubt. The party will need to build a message and find candidates who resonate in market towns (within which is scores a lot higher than in rural areas) beyond the “Sperrin-Mourne Corridor” – there is no doubt that representation is possible in the new Fermanagh-Omagh Council and further west in Causeway-Glens by the end of the decade if someone is prepared to have a real go for it. In due course, the case can begin to be made more determinedly in Derry (especially if the SDLP decline continues). However, the truth is, for the time being, the “Corridor” itself may have to be skipped. It is for another generation, perhaps.

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One thought on “Can Alliance rise in the West?

  1. There has been very limited appeal for Alliance in the West and indeed the constituency politics of the West will always be different from the urban centre. To juxtapose Belfast onto the rural and border regions does not take on board these differences. Integration Medes a different thing on the border, cross community means a different thing in a rural environment.

    You yourself spoke of needing a Belfast-centric economy here, if that’s how Alliance wishes to target these constituencies then it will unite Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and a Nationalist but only as the common enemy. Any inroads into Coleraine would be lost too.
    It offers no change to the poverty in the west, prosperity in the East way of life. There are opportunities for the poorest parts of West Belfast you won’t find in the richest parts of Tyrone, Armagh or Fermanagh and in the poorest regions of those counties better opportunities than in richer parts of Belfast. E.g Design engineering is more successful in Mid Ulster as an employer than in Belfast.

    Thirdly, grassroots are less necessary in an urban constituency, they are the lifeblood of rural areas. Fail your grassroots and your grassroots fail you. Whenever Alliance do make a breakthrough like in Omagh the support is not long lasting. Perhaps a complacency kicks in that does not a address the constituency politics of the area.

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