“NI UNIONISTE, NI NATIONALISTE”: THE RISKY RUN FROM THE CENTRE

Nathan Stewart

With all the noise surrounding the rise of populism around the world, it’s easy to forget about its political opposite: good old-fashioned moderate liberal centrism. Running from the centre is a risky game, and for every Trudeau grinning in a cave there’s a Clinton in a forest.

Most recently, Emmanuel Macron saw off the challenge from Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, amassing support from across the traditional Left/Right divide. Voters from other parties compromised in order to defeat the nationalist candidate and Macron’s centrist gamble seems to have paid off. However, with the legislative elections looming, we’ll have to wait and see whether he won on an anti-Le Pen ticket or a pro-Macron one.

Progressive voters in East Belfast find themselves in a similar predicament as the French in this General Election. Moderates are expected to rally around a centrist candidate in order to stop the far-right getting in. Under the First-past-the-post voting system, smaller parties lose out when it’s winner takes all. The Green Party in particular can expect to see their vote drop since March’s Assembly Election, when the STV system served them well.

It may seem a bit much to call the Democratic Unionist Party “the far-right” but their policies are not far off what we have come to expect from the infamous right-wing populist parties sweeping across Europe. While they may not be the full blown neo-nazis of the Front National, the DUP still can’t shake support from paramilitary organisations and do have a history of invading other countries.

With the rise (and fall) of the BNP and the normalisation of UKIP during the last ten years of British politics, the far-right has been portrayed as some scary new thing on these islands. But with the same anti-immigrant rhetoric, support for Brexit and opposition to gay marriage and abortion reform, the DUP have been there all along and it’s only thanks to a general disinterest in Northern Irish politics on the mainland that they have gone unscrutinised. We seem to forget that Stormont is full of populists on both sides, rallying their bases with sectarian tribalism at every opportunity.

Alliance insist they’re above this sort of politics in Northern Ireland of course, and position themselves somewhere down the middle in that nice inoffensive centre ground. In many ways, this was Emmanuel Macron’s plan for his presidential campaign, running as a centrist candidate that was ”ni gauche, ni droite”, neither Left nor Right.

Northern Ireland may not have a traditional left or right, but Alliance have long sold themselves as the centrist party nonetheless. In Stormont, the parties must designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Perhaps “ni unioniste, ni nationaliste” would be a better description than Other, but Alliance are de-facto Unionist and this puts a ceiling on their support from Nationalist voters.

However, by facilitating the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall and tacitly supporting the Irish language they lost a lot of Unionist support too. Further confusing things, at the same time as they are the party that are deemed to be too liberal for some more small-c conservative voters in Northern Ireland, Alliance don’t go far enough on many issues that progressive voters would hold close to their hearts. Vague support for gay marriage and abortion reform is not enough, and their uncertain stances on these issues also puts a ceiling on their support from younger voters.

The problem with centrism then, for both Macron and Alliance, is that by trying to appeal to everyone you are not really appealing to anyone in particular. Worse still, your refusal to commit to a particular side can find you alienating both sides. You just can’t please everyone from the centre, and pleasing no-one is the risk you take in trying.

For Macron, this risk paid off. Fortunately for him, the Front National are hated even more than bankers in France, and he was able to capitalise on this particularly dangerous moment in history and sneak into the Elysée Palace. Centre-left and centre-right politicians from both the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains are now jumping on the Macron hype-train and putting his name on their election posters.

For Alliance, this centrism is seen less of a risk as it has of course been their position since their inception. Running down the middle against the more extremist DUP has worked well for them in East Belfast in the past, with Naomi Long serving as MP from 2010-15. She will be hoping to win back her seat from Gavin Robinson and she was elected on the first count in March’s Assembly election. However, if she fails to do well against Robinson in a straight fight, you do wonder how much longer Alliance can keep this delicate balancing act up.

When you try to come across as all things to all people, you must live with the increased scrutiny that follows from all sides. Justin Trudeau is a media darling thanks to his solid PR game and nice hair, but his record on the environment doesn’t fit well with his cuddly image. Similarly, Emmanuel Macron has already fallen foul of the constant media attention of being President, with a recording of a distasteful joke he made at the expense of migrants surfacing last week and criticism from Human Rights organisations over his policies. By taking the high ground, Alliance open themselves up to attack from all sides.

That being said, Alliance do manage to do well off the goodwill they generate by simply not being anyone’s themmuns. There is a large chunk of the population who just wants “normal” politics and for us to “move on”. Naomi Long is also a supremely competent politician, and no matter the result in this election she will continue to lead Alliance to success in Northern Ireland. However, the party can’t go on trying to please everyone forever.

Liberalism is nice but only so long as this niceness is relative. While our political system in Northern Ireland remains polarised, Alliance can hold that middle ground. But like what happened with Macron, many who don’t agree with or understand their policies will only vote for them because there is no alternative. At some point, Alliance are going to have to be more than an anti-DUP vote.

If this can happen, then perhaps we will have finally moved on.


Nathan Stewart is from Belfast and is currently based in Paris.
Follow him on Twitter.

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