The greatest political challenge for the pro-union Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) is one of identity. Ostensibly it is a British unionist grouping, albeit with a small “u”, and it draws the majority of its votes from this community. However there are some individual activists who feel closer to an Irish nationalist viewpoint, though with an even smaller “n”. In recent times the latter have been somewhat more vocal than the former, at least as far as drumming up outrage among the pro-UK regional press and the likes of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice. Poor Anna Lo, the Chinese-Irish president of the party, fell from temporary grace by questioning the United Kingdom’s continued colonial presence in Ireland and the very existence of the UK-administered Six County paratstate itself.
Despite decades of briefing by British officials and journalists, claiming that the government-friendly Alliance was a “cross-community” party, its weak electoral strength lies in its appeal to a small minority of liberal-leaning unionists and tactical voting by nationalists. The rhetoric of the APNI machine has never matched the reality of the north-east though that has not prevented Alliance politicians from assuming a holier-than-thou attitude towards their competitors. However even the plaster saints of tolerant unionism are not immune to the lure of power and the need to appeal to the wider pro-union electorate by playing coy with everything from Irish language rights to marriage equality.
The Alliance Party is now embroiled in a scandal around “sock-puppet” activity by its members, an electioneering practice which the national parties of Fine Gael and Labour perfected long ago (just look at thejournal.ie and other online news sites). From the Belfast Telegraph:
The Alliance Party plotted to “hijack” a BBC radio phone-in show with fake callers, explosive posts from a secret social media group have revealed.
The party’s top Press man sent a series of directives to an inner circle of members – including Naomi Long, David Ford, Paula Bradshaw, Stephen Farry and Chris Lyttle – encouraging grassroots supporters to field “tricky” on-air questions to political opponents and “softballs” to their leader.
Mr Jamison, head of communications for the party, sent the messages on a ‘secret’ Facebook group, and said Alliance was once again targeting BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback after it had done so successfully in last year’s election while David Ford was leader.
He also told the group, which has 195 members, that callers should “feel free to use a fake name and location if you’re so inclined” and be sure there was “no saying you’re an Alliance member etc”
There is no denying that senior Alliance Party officials were aware of the social media chicanery, though you can expect the APNI to plead persecution and unfair reporting in an attempt to muddy the waters. As usual.