I wonder who’s wakening up with the sorest head this morning? Lots of people have good reason to be feeling a bit post-celebration shaky. The Greens might be feeling off-colour, given their striking successes throughout Europe as well as in the south of Ireland. Martina Anderson might be feeling pretty wasted, given that she topped the poll on the first count. Diane Dodds might be rubbing her eyes and groaning a little, given that she was the first to be elected MEP in the north. But the person most likely to be tired and emotional is Naomi Long.
The Alliance Party has been the story of this EU election. It was predictable, in a way. The opposition was the Ulster Unionists who’d held the seat in Brussels for…how long – thirty years? Long enough, certainly, to transform Jim Nicolson from a simple country boy into an elegant European gentleman. (Yes, Virginia, they pay very generously in Europe – one of the things that needs reforming). But whether it was because they thought they’d be bound to win the seat they’d held for so long or whether it was they figured they hadn’t a chance, the UUP put Danny Kennedy in to bat.
Bad choice, certainly if they were serious about trying to retain the seat. Danny is a likeable man, reasonably coherent but eminently forgettable. On the radio yesterday someone – Tom Elliott? – referred to him as “a consummate politician”, which has to be some sort of UUP in-joke. Consummate politicians draw the votes of lots of people. Danny didn’t. So while Naomi’s victory was more than the collapse of Danny’s party, the lack of resistance from the UUP did her no harm. Naomi has knocked out the leader of the DUP and taken his Westminster seat, and now knocked out a leading UUP figure and taken their Brussels seat. One way or another, the Alliance Party are on a surge. And yes, two Remain MEPs in Brussels will send a distinct message.
But you may have noticed how British television, referring to Naomi’s win, habitually calls the Alliance Party “the cross-community party”. The implication is that other parties here are stuck in a historical sectarian rut. Wrong implication: they’re not.
There may be sectarian bigots in the DUP and in Sinn Féin, but the great majority are devout unionists or republicans, not crusading Protestants or Catholics. This means that they are centrally motivated by the constitutional question – whether the people of Ireland should govern themselves, or whether people in the north of Ireland should maintain the link with Britain.
If you listen to an Alliance advocate, they’ll tell you that they don’t concern themselves with the constitutional question: they concern themselves with real things, bread-and-butter issues, and people getting along regardless of their religious faith. They cite this as a matter of pride. But perhaps they should think about that.
Who runs the show in any organization or country is very important. They can decide how much money is available, how they’ll get on with other countries – in short, they’ll be maître chez nous – masters (or, yes indeed Virginia, mistresses) in their own house. Who holds the position of ultimate authority is of great importance (witness how our 56% Remain figure shrinks to nothing since the master of the house voted otherwise).
If I were to tell you that the man next door has ultimate control of what happens in my house, but I just get on with working and providing for my family and don’t waste my time about who runs my house, you’d be shocked. And when I hear Alliance state or imply that it doesn’t really feel the need to address the core constitutional question – who’s in charge in this part of Ireland – I’m shocked too.
So here’s a prediction: the present Alliance wave will recede. The matter of the north’s constitutional position will become, in the next few years, more important rather than less important. And any party that sits on the fence, even if its ear is to the ground, will suffer splinters where it hurts and ultimately crash to earth.
It’s sad that it has to be repeated so often: our big problem here is not sectarian, it’s constitutional. Ignore that problem at your peril.