The news that "all 13 Northern Ireland MPs are going to be sitting in the opposition benches" is yet another small proof that Northern Ireland is a ‘place apart’ and not really a full part of the UK.
The surprise in this news lies less in the fact that the SDLP – a sister party of the Labour Party – are formally opposing the Tory-led government, or even that the 'Ulster Nationalist' DUP are remaining in splendid isolation, but in the fact that Naomi Long, the Alliance Party’s fresh MP, is joining the SDLP and the DUP in opposition to the Tory-LibDem coalition.
Because the Alliance Party has always portrayed itself as the sister-party of the LibDems – a fellow member of the ELDR group of liberal parties in the EU. This ‘sister party’ status is mentioned in bold on page 36 of their 2010 manifesto and “we are proud to be members of ELDR (the European Liberal Democratic and Reform party) and of Liberal International, in association with the European and international liberal families”, they say on page 44.
And yet, when their sister party gets closer to real power, and when Alliance could have used their sisterhood to exert some small influence over matters that affect them – they actually turned against their sister party and decided to oppose them! And this despite such opposition being futile, as the coalition has a relatively secure majority.
So why did Alliance do it? Why, when closer to power – admittedly twice-removed – than ever believed possible, did they retreat into pointless isolation, choosing as allies the Little Ulsterists of the DUP?
Why did Alliance not choose instead to proudly announce that they, and only they, of the four Northern Irish parties with MPs, actually could influence policy? Why did they not integrate themselves into the ruling coalition, perhaps even gaining a minor role somewhere?
The alignment of the Alliance MP with the DUP and the SDLP is bizarre and counter to all political logic – bar one thing. That thing is that the Alliance Party too sees itself first and foremost as a 'Northern Irish' party and not as a part of the British political mainstream. By joining with the homophobes and bigots of the DUP in order to extract the 'best deal' possible for Northern Ireland, they show themselves to be regionalists who have no great interest in the wider welfare of the UK. This, of course, is music to the ears of (Irish) nationalists, because it demonstrates loudly and publicly that even the internationalist Alliance Party is primarily a Little Ulster party – 'Ulster Nationalists' in the closet, so to speak – though their choice of Westminster seating arrangements on Tuesday shows that they are starting to come out of the closet.
The majority of opinion in Northern Ireland is now clearly on the side of island-based nationalism – Irish in the case of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, 'Ulsterist' in the case of the DUP and now Alliance. This identification with Ireland (in one or other format) rather than with the UK provides an interesting parallel with the situation over 100 years ago when the Irish MPs returned to Westminster also constituted themselves as an 'Irish Party' – concerned primarily with the interests of their country rather than with those of the UK. That situation now appears to be re-establishing itself in a smaller version, with all 13 sitting MPs grouping themselves into a clear Northern Irish block, even in opposition to their own British sister-parties!
The new Northern Irish block demonstrates that the same separatist tendencies exist, even amongst those who proclaim their 'Britishness' most loudly. It tells the world that Northern Ireland is only a semi-detached part of the UK, interested mainly in the hand-outs. It seems that despite the absence of Sinn Féin, sinn féin remains the mantra of the sitting Northern Irish MPs.