How the Alliance Party pulled it out of the bag
By Brian Gilliland (Belfast Telegraph)
3 December 2003
Against all the odds the Alliance Party managed to hold all six seats on a reduced vote in the Assembly election. Here, Brian Gilliland (41), a former Alliance election agent now living in London, where he runs his direct marketing business, gives a behind-the-scenes – and often witty – look at just how the party defied the pundits … in the end.
In 1998 I was in the thick of the Northern Irish Assembly election, as election agent for Lord Alderdice, subsequently the Presiding Officer, or Speaker, of the new legislature.
This year, Lord Alderdice was gone, and so was I, watching from my home in west London.
Politics, however, is a bug that once caught, is never lost. A few weeks before the election, I received an email from another Alliance exile.
It said that the party leader, David Ford, was on a knife-edge. He’d need every transferred vote the PR system could afford him to hang on to his seat. It was up to all of us who are David’s friends to do what we could, on the street, on the phone, to canvass votes.
David is a good friend, and the kind of man there should be more of in politics.
My own involvement with Alliance had come through a chance meeting with him, when I offered him a plague on all political houses, including his own, and instead of fighting back with flannel, he agreed. I couldn’t let him down now.
I volunteered to telephone canvass twenty-five houses. In a sign of his desperation, David sent me forty phone numbers.
Like an alcoholic offered a drink, I was back in, a fully-fledged political junkie. I did my homework, and, on the phone, I was discussing opposing candidates and tactical voting patterns that, twenty-four hours earlier, I hadn’t even heard of.
Suddenly, I was an expert again. I was amazed how easily it all came back to me.
There wasn’t much I could do on election day except note the news reports of bad weather and possible low turnouts. On Thursday, when the counts started, it was another matter.
Nine o’clock sharp, as I started work, I was logged into the live results services on the BBC and RTE websites, and Slugger O’Toole, a Northern Irish political bulletin board, for gossip and inside information from the counts.
I work from home, so down in the lounge, I had BBC1 Northern Ireland’s election coverage on Sky, and dashed to it at significant moments.
The first count numbers started coming through, and things looked bad. Any faint hope of a seat gain, maybe in South Belfast, was dispelled instantly.
The election was as we’d expected: the DUP and Sinn Fein performing strongly, and the centre parties, including Alliance, heavily squeezed.
Gerry, my fellow exile, was on the phone and we were looking at possible transfer patterns.
Three of our six seats seemed safe, but David Ford was in trouble, and Kieran McCarthy, our Strangford member, was even more deeply so.
In East Belfast, where I’d guided Lord Alderdice to an easy seat in 1998, and we’d just missed a second one, Naomi Long was no certainty. I reckoned she’d make it, Gerry wasn’t so sure.
As the first set of transfers strengthened David’s hand slightly, I checked Slugger O’Toole. Somebody had posted that Alliance stood to lose three seats and that party workers were shocked.
Damn him, I wasn’t putting up with that. I posted a riposte. I was, once more, a political dog-fighter, defending my man’s corner.
After a surprisingly swift count, Naomi, in East Belfast, was our first member elected, the transfers flowing just as I’d predicted. It’s hard to put in words, but Naomi had protected something of mine.
In 1998, I had worked my socks off, so much so that straight after the election I went down with the biggest, nastiest throat infection I have ever had. I still owned a bit of that win, of that Assembly seat, and Naomi had kept it safe for me.
I also felt a certain satisfaction in out-predicting Gerry, who is something of a PR expert.
That apart, the first day of the count ended as it had begun, Kieran and David teetering on the brink, three others safe.
Elsewhere the DUP were performing even more strongly than expected, winning first count seats with the UUP trailing in behind. The SDLP were getting hammered by Sinn Fein.
I watched Irish Robinson, one of Paisley’s DUP lieutenants, gloat over her victory on TV.
She started with, “I want to thank God for the great victory he has given us today,” and ended with, “Strangford is now a solidly DUP constituency, and let nobody doubt it.”
She sounded like she meant that the DUP had an exclusive corner on God’s bounty, that Strangford was theirs and theirs alone, and that the rest of you can sod off.
A non-Alliance friend from Belfast emailed me, having spent the day at the Belfast count. “Today is a good day,” he wrote, “to say thank God I live in London.”
That night I went to a charity show fashion show in Mayfair.
It was a bizarre contrast to the day’s preoccupations: beautiful, rich people, champagne and canapés, models in expensive underwear and diamonds. People posed, it was an event where the audience, never mind the models, wore the implausible. Few if any, I’d guess, even knew there’d been an election in Northern Ireland.
Back home, as I went to sleep, I thought of David, a decent, honest, honourable man, with his future, his job, his income, hanging in the balance.
His email congratulating Naomi (of course I’d checked the net for late developments when I got home, what would you expect?), had an air of fatalism about it. I wondered if he’d sleep tonight.
Friday, back online. My wife, non-Northern Irish, non-political, and with a few days off work, was wearing a bit tired of news about vote-share and transfers, but even she was appearing behind my shoulder to see how David was doing – he had earned her respect and affection too, in the few times they’d met.
As the PR transfers progressed there was a glimmer of hope for David, but less for Kieran.
We left to go Christmas shopping, and for me to book a restaurant to take my clients out for Christmas lunch. On my last check of the counts before going, I thought that if the transfers worked the right way, Kieran might take it, but only just.
In the West End, I punctuated the normal things with phone calls to Gerry – his phone was turned off, presumably so he could get some work done (on Thursday, he told me he was so anxious that he could barely work).
As I bought coffees in Borders bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, I noticed that the man ahead of me in the queue was Northern Irish. Not Protestant, no Catholic, just Northern Irish.
It was after five o’clock. I could take the tension no longer. Over my eggnog latte I phone Stephen Farry, Alliance’s General Secretary. He was chipper: David had made it, although Kieran was still uncertain. He told me that the DUP were three seats ahead of the UUP. I thought of yesterday’s email. It was indeed, I reckoned, a good day to be living in London.
Back home, later, I learnt that Kieran had held his seat in Strangford. Like six fighter aircraft returning from a mission, we’d counted them all in.
For Alliance, holding all six seats on a reduced vote, in an election that was always likely to be a tribal race, was a tribute to tactical campaigning, and an achievement not short of the miraculous.
I felt satisfied to have played a part, however small. Once again I’d felt that fire in the belly, that anxiety, that insecure, vast desire for success that everyone, of any party, who has ever been involved in politics has felt.
As Northern Ireland got down to sorting out its political mess I went back to running my business, getting ready for Christmas, being an average resident of Fulham, in West London.
It would all become distant again. Until the next election,
email or phone call.