A few years ago, I recall Belfast based lobbyist Brendan Mulgrew describing Naomi Long as “a full colour politician in a black and white world”. And that was a few years before she took on the top job on from David Ford.
Just over a year into the job, and Northern Ireland’s liberal party have their best result since 1987. That’s a very long way from the nadir of 2003, when it was lucky to retain its six seats on a vote share of just 3.4% of the overall vote.
The party was able to use that apparent success to regroup and ask itself questions about what the Alliance party was actually for, now that the war was over and the progression of peace was largely undisputed.
That year, 2003, the party had suffered a squeeze as Unionism had its final squaring off over the Belfast Agreement, which sucked up almost all the independent unionist groupings in an effort to see who was top dog.
Fortunately the winner was the DUP. Alliance’s passionate anti-tribal liberalism gave them a clear contrast with the winners. It helped too that the UUP could not thereafter decide whether to attack their now incumbent rivals from left or right.
By the next election their vote share had recovered sufficiently to bag them another seat, and by 2011, they’d pushed their total up to its present level of eight seats. For the first time they had enough seats to come into the Executive.
Having struck a deal with the DUP and SF to take the Justice portfolio outside the aegis of the d’Hondt mechanism, it benefited from having two ministers in the Executive giving it a visibility and prominence far above its electoral strength.
But despite holding that figure (barring a tidal wave) no one was going to do that in an election where 18 seats had been removed, 2015 is a watershed year for the Alliance party. In none of its seats is it struggling to hold what it has.
And there are signs that the brand is starting to take hold outside greater Belfast. Paddy Brown gave the SDLP a fright in its former heartland of South Down, when Colin McGrath had to rely on Unionist transfers to get in ahead of him.
Clear positioning within the new landscape, combined with a major upgrade in the passion and clarity of its leader’s messaging has enabled the party to begin to fill reservoirs far from its home base in the east.
In short, in 2003 it was able to feign a strength it did not have in order to review its purposes and aims. This thorough review led it to discard its conflict-era old guard, allowing it to recruit new talent and communicate a shared purpose.
It has built thoroughly and consistently under the rather staid, and understated guidance of adopted son of David Ford. But Naomi Long’s passion and ability to extemporise on her feet has been this year’s great leap forward.
The test will come, as always, to see how she can build on that further. Because the next stage of growth may see them moving up the line and into third or fourth place. They will become a target for other parties. Ms Long does seem to be up for a fight.
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