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.
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.