If opinion polls are to be believed, the outcome of the upcoming Stormont Assembly election will have two dominant scenarios.
The first, which is likely to gain prominence in media headlines, is whether the DUP or Sinn Féin will come out on top as the bigger party.
The second is the performance of other small parties that do not define themselves as unionists or nationalists.
Read more:Full coverage of the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections
While this sub-narrative may not attract as many front pages, depending on the outcome, it could have far-reaching impacts on the future of power-sharing.
The largest of these parties which designate themselves in the Assembly as “other” is the Alliance Party.
With an electorate frustrated by Stormont’s deadlock after the RHI controversy, Alliance broke the barrier of 10% first-preference votes in 2019 municipal and European elections.
And a snap election in Westminster later that year saw the party’s vote rise nearly nine points to 16.8%, with Deputy Leader Stephen Farry winning the MP seat in North Down.
Some have questioned whether this “Alliance push” will hold once devolved government is restored in 2020, but successive opinion polls suggest it does.
They indicate that the Alliance could rise from the fifth party in 2017 with 9.1% of first preference votes and eight seats to third with more than 15% and a double-digit seat count.
Lagan Valley, North Belfast, South Down and Upper Bann are among the key constituencies where the party plans to secure new MPs.
The party also has several secondary targets which, on a particularly strong day, could bring gains, such as West Tyrone, North Antrim and a second East Antrim MP.
It’s a remarkably comfortable position, given that polls suggest other parties such as the DUP and Sinn Féin are battling to retain the seats they currently have.
Some have questioned whether the Alliance’s performance could be hampered by a resurrected Ulster Unionist party under the leadership of Doug Beattie, whose socially liberal values might appeal to Alliance voters.
Naomi Long told Belfast Live it was “flawed analysis” to think voters would choose the UUP if they did not vote Alliance, adding that “our values and vision are distinct”.
The Alliance leader said Mr Beattie’s attempts last year to poach Sir Jeffrey Donaldson from the DUP revealed there was ‘not that much difference’ between the two Unionist parties.
She also questioned the UUP’s ‘progressive’ credentials, citing how the party recently opposed an Alliance bid to fly the transgender flag in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council .
Ms Long said ‘the idea of being progressive is not just something the leader can talk about and then the rest of the party carry on as usual’.
The Alliance wants to carve out its own political space, portraying itself as delivery-oriented while portraying political opponents as dysfunctional.
In her recent speech to the party conference, Ms Long accused Stormont’s rivals of being ‘addicted to crisis and conflict’.
But in increasing the Alliance vote, the party must also draw a line between appealing to Unionist and Nationalist voters while avoiding being seen as an electoral threat to the Union or potential Irish unity.
In pre-conference talks, Ms Long said Alliance would “no doubt” take a stand on the constitutional issue at some point in the future.
Stormont’s decentralized institutions were designed to facilitate the sharing of power between unionists and nationalists.
But if support for the Alliance and other non-aligned parties such as the Greens continues to rise, Stormont will increasingly be defined by three main blocs rather than two.
Mechanisms such as the cross-community veto of petition of concern currently operate in a way that nullifies the votes of MPs who nominate as “other”.
Alliance adviser Nuala McAllister also warned it would be “undemocratic” if her party were denied posts such as deputy prime minister because they do not designate as unionist or nationalist.
If the ‘other’ vote reaches new heights in May, Stormont’s power-sharing structures will come under increasing pressure to be redesigned to reflect a new balance of power.
Read more:The Alliance party announced that it would recruit unpaid foreign interns to work on the election campaign
Read more:Stormont will never be the same if TUV succeeds in election, says Jim Allister
For the latest political news straight to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter here.