The Alliance Surge – a wave of recent electoral successes for the remain supporting party. They have seen victories in the most recent assembly, council and EU elections, under the leadership of Naomi Long, now an MEP in Brussels, for now anyway. Would this surge continue in the 2019 election or would orange and green win the race?
If you look at North Down, then you can be certain that Alliance surged here. A huge percentage swing of 35.9% of the vote won Stephen Farry the seat. Yes, a tremendous win but the numbers must be contextualised. In 2017 Lady Sylvia Hermon won this seat for the fifth time, becoming the only remain supporting Northern Irish MP in the House of Commons. Before 2019, this was never a realistic target for Alliance: Hermon was popular locally and her political values were broadly aligned somewhere between the UUP and Alliance.
However, as soon as Hermon announced she would no longer be standing, Alliance had a chance. They did well to quickly select their deputy leader, Stephen Farry to contest the seat. Soon he received endorsements from the Green Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP – a broad coalition which amassed almost 3,500 votes in 2017. The big issue here was where Hermon’s 16,148 votes would go. Could Alliance perform strongly enough against the DUP whose vote had risen steadily here over the years? The answer, a resounding yes. In fact, with a majority of almost 3,000 votes. Alliance will be looking at this constituency in an upcoming assembly election. In 2017, Farry was elected as MLA here, receiving 18.6% of first preference votes. It is possible they could win a 5th seat here, possibly at the expense of the UUP.
Alliance’s other target seat of the night was Belfast East – a seat their leader Naomi Long once held from 2010 to 2015. Despite the recent Alliance surge, taking back this seat from the DUP’s Gavin Robinson would always be difficult. In 2017, he extended his majority to almost 8,500. During the 2012 flag protests, Naomi Long’s popularity amongst unionists declined here, and ever since it has been difficult to regain the seat. However, this was a different race to 2017 with the Green Party, Sinn Féin and SDLP once again standing aside. Alliance’s vote did increase by an impressive 8.9% but it was not enough. In the end, Robinson gained a decreased majority of 1,819 votes. Maybe if Alliance had not needed to concentrate its resources on North Down so much, they could have just about squeezed this seat off the DUP.
The other main focus of Alliance attention was neighbouring Belfast South. Early in the election campaign, this looked like a realistic target: Alliance as a remain party standing in a constituency with a remain vote of 69.5%. However, there was fierce competition in the form of Claire Hanna, a popular local candidate standing for the similarly remain supporting SDLP. Alliance was also not helped by Sinn Féin and the Green Party this time stepping aside to support the SDLP instead of Alliance. In the end, Hanna received a tremendous majority here of 15,401 – likely as a result of remain voters coalescing around the SDLP rather than Alliance. This was the only seat where Alliance saw losses to its support, losing 3.9% of its vote. This however is unlikely to worry Alliance – the distinct factors at play here with Claire Hanna is unlikely to be replicated in an assembly election in this constituency.
No other seats could be termed as Alliance targets at this election although strong progress was certainly made. This could be seen in seats in which in previous years transferred from safe UUP territory to supposedly safe DUP territory. Now, Alliance lie in a convincing second place in Lagan Valley, Strangford and East Antrim. In these seats, the incumbent DUP candidates, despite retaining their seats, saw a 14.52% swing against them. In comparison, Alliance increasing their vote here by a swing of 14.56%. There is no guarantee voters made this direct switch here but Alliance will certainly take these numbers as a positive for the party. These seats may not be in reach at the moment but are certainly fertile ground for any assembly or council elections. With more local successes and a more focussed campaign here, theses seats could well become realistic Alliance targets.
Take a look at this number-crunching of votes for the DUP and Alliance in Lagan Valley, Strangford and East Antrim.
% DUP Votes in 2019 = 45.08%
% DUP Votes in 2017 = 59.6%
Difference = -14.52%
% Alliance Votes in 2019 = 28.2%
% Alliance Votes in 2017 = 13.65%
Difference = +14.56%
Strong performances with double digit swings to Alliance were also seen in South Antrim and South Down. Notably, Patrick Brown’s 10.3% increase in the Alliance vote in South Down could have dented the SDLP’s vote share. If Alliance had not polled so well here, the SDLP could have regained this seat they lost in 2017.
In the remaining seats not mentioned so far, Alliance recorded single digit swings in their favour. In these 10 remaining constituencies, Alliance overtook the UUP in terms of votes in all but two constituencies, North Antrim (UUP polled well here in opposition to Ian Paisley Jr) and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (where DUP do not stand in favour UUP). This is an impressive statistic for Alliance: It shows a unionist centre-ground moving away from the UUP, once Northern Ireland’s largest party.
Seats like West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and South Tyrone all saw Alliance gains. These west of the Bann seats are far from the traditional Alliance territory of Belfast and its suburbs. Alliance have a distinct advantage of being able to peel away soft unionists and nationalists in equal measure from all parts of Northern Ireland. With voters showing a clear dissatisfaction with the DUP and Sinn Féin, a broader centreground is opening in Northern Ireland. A recent forecast by Peter Donaghy of Slugger O’Toole said that in the perfect Assembly election for Alliance, there is a possible route which would allow Alliance to hold a Stormont seat in every constituency but Belfast West. After this general election, the evidence is clear: the Alliance surge is certainly continuing.
Peter Moor is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.