“Number 20 is a party member” I said to the only other canvasser out with me, who also happened to be the candidate. “Ay, but is she actually voting for us?” came the weary response.
November 2003 was a dark, drizzly month which matched the public mood in Northern Ireland. The Assembly had collapsed (what’s new?) and the hardliners were on the rise.
In those days, along with an English guy studying at Queen’s who didn’t have a car and in any case always seemed to be too busy researching to do any campaigning and a woman who had a car but wasn’t allowed to campaign because of her job, I was the Alliance Party youth wing. Two years before, the party had lost sixteen Council seats to be left with just 28, all in the Belfast suburbs except for the three in City Hall. Of the six MLAs, it is fair at this distance to say that one was the Speaker and one clearly resented not being the Speaker, and one was the Leader and one clearly resented not being the Leader, leaving the former Leader and Chief Whip to make up the numbers. There is a reality that in a declining party much time is spend defending internal positions rather than promoting external visions.
And then an Assembly Election was called for the week before Advent.
Starting from the worst electoral position in its history and setting out to emphasise the importance of retaining its six seats in an Assembly which did not really exist while all the pressure was on to boost Trimble’s UUP and Mallon’s SDLP, the party had no option but to circle the wagons. Much of my time as Party Organiser was spent fending off calls from founder members in the 12 constituencies with no Alliance representation (which, by the way, included South Belfast) to explain that no, there were no posters, and no, there would be no posters because, you know, there was no money. And no point.
Canvassing in North Down was duly begun. At the first door, having climbed some wet steps in the dark down a dimly lit lane, the gentleman calmly took my leaflet and proceeded to rip it up in front of me before handing it back. As someone new to the game, I was daft enough to take it back too. A new leaflet was secured but didn’t even leave my hand at the next door as it was evident it (or I) would receive the same treatment. Every other leaflet had to be binned anyway because they got wet so quickly. There was joy at the fifteenth door, however, where a kindly woman said “Well, we usually do”. Admittedly, that left it implicit that she wasn’t going to this time, but I drew solace from the fact that at least she had taken the leaflet.
After a while it did get easier. After all, if anyone young answered the door you could just leave again – no one with even a hint of cool voted Alliance, it soon became apparent, so that was anyone under 40 discounted. You could also begin to turn to walk away in almost all cases if a man answered the door, as it was soon obvious the male vote had gone too. One retired woman wanted to know if I meant Countryside Alliance. Another wanted to know why I was talking about “lions”. Finally, on the third day, came the breakthrough. From behind the trees in Cultra I heard my fellow canvasser exclaim “Oh, you will?!”
One pledge thus secured, we became more determined to dig out a few more. Indeed, such was our excitement, we even sent South Belfast a few posters just to see if they could save their deposit. Not face posters obviously, only the big parties in the constituency like the Ulster Unionists and the Women’s Coalition could afford those, but posters all the same. And as the leaflets began to arrive through the post, at least we could save ourselves time and inevitable ignominy by recognising the unoccupied houses.
It was not all bad. This was Arsenal’s Invincible season so at least the football results were reliable. And mobile phones were now common, so at least if you got lost you would be found again within an hour or two. And they had to find you, since your presence doubled the active campaign team in any given area.
Then came the day of the count. I used said mobile phone to make contact with one North Down candidate. By then composition had returned and there were mutterings only that our vote definitely had not increased; I was reliably informed by the spouse subsequently that the immediate reaction to the papers being tallied had been, and I quote, “Where have all our votes gone?”
From early declarations it was hard to work out precisely how well we were doing because generally the Alliance candidates had so few votes that they were lumped in with “others” on the second page. We were assured that in North Antrim we had mustered nearly 1000 and in South Down had come agonisingly close to 500, and that we had at least reached three figures everywhere. Except West Belfast, obviously, where the candidate having her name at the top of the ballot paper still couldn’t quite stop the haemorrhage down to just (well actually quite a bit) below 100.
For all of that, one of the six seats was always going to be secure because one candidate had such a personal vote and no obvious competition that he couldn’t possibly lose. Or could he? Word soon reached us, to our collective relief, that he had indeed polled “well” – as in more than half what he had polled the previous time. Having topped the poll well above quota the previous time, this year he would “probably” be elected, on about the twelfth count, some time the next morning. There was light at the end of the tunnel, though admittedly this was the guy who wanted to be Speaker so there remained the possibility that it was the light of an oncoming train. But there was hope. A bit. Maybe.
At dusk on the first evening, as the hardliners made their advance to a majority on each “side”, the Alliance seat tally remained resolutely stuck at zero. Then, after news that the deposit had been saved in South Belfast (albeit by less than a single percentage point) the dice came up with two sixes. In a mistake extraordinarily unlike them, the DUP had not balanced correctly in East Belfast and would only win two seats of the six. With two for the Ulster Unionists and one for David Ervine, that still left one. By virtue of that bit of luck, sneaking in under quota for the last seat in East Belfast came a new face no one had ever heard of named Naomi Long. But who cared what her name was, right? It was one seat!
And there was definitely, well probably, well maybe at least one more to come. At least then we could have a Leadership contest. The night was spent hunting down count details from each count over dial-up Internet before the dawn. By mid-morning the guy with the personal vote was a near cert. As it became brighter through the day, news came of a “useful order of elimination” in North Down and “transfers flying towards our candidate because he is so well known and no one actively hates him” in East Antrim. Could it be four? I mean, we would have lost the Party Leader and the Chief Whip, but four wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
The Party Leader David Ford was new to the post and he then began appearing in the media, rejecting angrily any notion that he was out of it just because he had begun nearly 1000 votes behind his main rival for the seat, Sinn Féin’s Martin Meehan. “Ford or Meehan, you decide” said the posters at Sandyknowes Roundabout, and he remained sure that they would decide. Madman!
The Chief Whip was definitely gone, of course, having finished over 150 behind a very popular SDLP candidate on the first count. Or, wait a minute… was he? At 5p a time, I kept refreshing the Internet; and every time he seemed to be five votes closer. So I figured if I tried refreshing it 30 times that might be £1.50 well spent, even if it did block up the phone line. I never did reclaim the money from the party.
When it happened, it happened quickly – two became four with eliminations helping Alliance incumbents… then five as the Leader survived, still rejecting angrily any notion that there ever was any doubt… and then would you believe it? With just 25000 votes in 18 constituencies (a total that each of the “four main parties” could surpass by selecting merely their best two) and having spent just £1.50, the party had retained all six seats.
Days later came Party Council. People looked at each other as if they were attending a conference for people who had been supposed to be on crashed planes but had been delayed on the way to the airport. There was a sense of a job well done strategically, but no jubilation. There was a party to rebuild.
Sixteen years later founder member Jim Hendron, who masterminded the great escape in East Belfast while I was getting lost behind trees in neighbouring North Down, was joined by four young Councillors out of the 10 elected to Belfast City Council in an City Council election where the Alliance Party outpolled the Ulster Unionists and SDLP combined. Ross, Peter and Sian had just combined to deliver three seats on over 40% of the vote in their part of the East, while in Castle alone Nuala amassed more than four times as many as the party attained in the whole of North Belfast in that grim November (in fact even the candidate for Oldpark, never exactly an Alliance stronghold, beat that entire North Belfast total from 2003).
And then news came through. A seat in Derry! I mean there’s always a freak somewhere, like Strangford in 2003, but Derry? And it hadn’t even cost me £1.50.
Reeling from the shock I returned home. I flicked on my laptop. “Alliance elected – Lurgan”.
“Lurgan. I’ve seen it all now.” I tweeted.
And then the next day came another seat in Derry…