Following the new that Labour are to organise in Northern Ireland, and seeing as the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives are treading carefully towards their allegiance, is is time to awake the electorally dormant but keen Northern Irish Liberal Democrats? And what does this mean for our sister party there the Alliance Party?
The Lib Dems in Northern Ireland have long taken the stance that they would not contest elections but lend support to the most prominent centrist party, which is the Alliance Party with their 7 Assembly Members and 32 councillors. David Ford and his group of elected representatives have long been fighting an uphill struggle where when facing oppression people tend to flock to the political extremes rather than to the centre. The consolidators and consensus viewpoint tends to get drowned out by clarion calls of "No!", "Never!" or whatever.
With the Good Friday agreement the mood at least for a while lifted and there was real hope for many of a change. But with the repetitive start stop start of devolution in Northern Ireland the old party divides became more entrenched to the extent that the DUP and Sinn Fein overtook the Ulster Unionists and SDLP respectively further polarising Northern Irish politics. Against such movement to the flanks the fact that the Alliance retained its group size in Stormont was a notable achievement. But other centrist groupings like the Northern Ireland Women's coalition lost out in both their MLAs.
But if the Tories and Labour are both serious about fighting future elections in Northern Ireland is it time for NI Lib Dems and the Alliance Party to formalise our bounds and stop merely living together?
What could the Lib Dems give to Northern Ireland? While the Tories will be ending up with a protestant party in Northern Ireland through its marriage with the Ulster Unionist the Alliance as with the working classes who may come to the Labour movement are spread across the divides. Indeed the temporary realignment of a couple of Alliance MLA's to get the qualified majority of a key piece of legislation during the first Assembly caused rather a stir. So the Lib Dems wouldn't enhance that message of reconciliation as both parties already abide by the liberty and freedoms of all. Indeed the Alliance peers do take the Lib Dem whip in the House of Lords already so there is already some quasi-formality in the arrangement.
What it would do would provide assistance, structure and experiences that would greatly enhance the ability of the centrist voice in Northern Ireland. From campaigning strategy to policy formation and following through to Government level in Scotland and Wales. Look (and listen) around you. Lembit Opik and Michael Moore are two MPs who both hail from Northern Ireland. Then there are activists, workers, councillors etc around the country who hail from there myself included. Many of us still have links with people 'back home' and take a keen interest in goings on in 'Norn Iron'. However, even if we return for a short spell we may have been put off from too active an involvement due to the underlying sectarianism of politics back home. But if the Northern Irish seats were to be contested by the three main UK parties plus of course Sinn Fein as the equivalent of the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales the Lib Dems rather than the Alliance should be the name on the ballot papers alongside that of Labour and the Conservative and whatever Party.
One final thing on this issue as discussed with Lembit Opik outside the Glee Club at the spring 2005 Conference in Harrogate. If we do want to fight elections seriously there is Lembit going to stand in our home constituency of North Down and does he still want me to assist as an organiser or something?