Alliance: The party of power sharing?

On about 4 August, in response to speculation that Sinn Fein and the DUP had reached some understanding about how the powers of policing and justice would be devolved to Northern Ireland, i.e. appointing an initial Executive Minister not via d’Hondt but a cross-community vote in the Assembly, Alliance Party Leader, David Ford, made a public statement to the media that emphatically ruled his party out for consideration.

Subsequently, Maurice Hayes wrote an opinion piece, which was published in the Irish Independent. I also wrote an opinion piece, signed as Allan Leonard, former General Secretary of the Alliance Party, but I did not submit it. Subsequently, David Ford made a further statement, which appeared to indicate that Alliance would consider the ministerial position, under certain circumstances.

Below is my unpublished opinion.

Alliance: The party of power sharing?

Before the announcement that Sinn Féin and the DUP had agreed the method by which the first Minister of Justice and Policing would be appointed by the devolved administration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, there was journalist speculation that the beneficiary would be the Alliance Party. At that time, Alliance deputy leader, Naomi Long, answered, “As no one has come to us with a serious proposal, I don’t feel obliged to provide a serious response.”

Yet when the Sinn Féin-DUP agreement was made public, Alliance leader, David Ford, gave an emphatic and resolutely unqualified answer, “Alliance is not here to bail out a failing and poor Executive … we have been given the role of Opposition.”

Neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP has ever (to my knowledge) formally approached Alliance in discussions about solving the transfer of policing and justice matters to Northern Ireland. It is reminiscent of November 2001, when the UUP and SDLP (and the whole British and Irish Governments) didn’t see the train wreck coming on the matter of re-establishing the First and Deputy First Ministers, and further presumed Alliance would just do whatever was required to make devolved government work in Northern Ireland.

An argument made then, and being made again now, is that Alliance should act for “the greater good”, for the sake of peace, etc. Reality check, please. Alliance candidates stand for office just like all other parties: to win seats with a prospect to be in Government and exercise power. Alliance is not an NGO wing of the Northern Ireland Office.

Thus, Alliance arguably paid a high price in autumn 2001, when it did what it was asked to do, to restore the Northern Ireland Government while not deriving any political benefit from its 4-hour act of re-designation. Perhaps non-Alliance voters smugly told themselves that Alliance was a nice and exploitable party. Some Alliance voters may have got a warm, fuzzy feeling; David Ford said he felt physically sick.

Now again, the powers that be, in the names of Mssrs Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, assume Alliance will do what it is expected (if not directly asked) to do. Coming from two parties long experienced in negotiation, that surely is a mistake.

But Alliance needs to ask itself if it is staying true to its raison d’être.

Most people don’t appreciate that at its formation, Alliance was not a party that supported power-sharing government. It expected that it would be the largest party in Northern Ireland and would exercise its version of one-party rule. Power sharing would be reflected within the party, not through coalitions with unreformable Official Unionists and the exclusively Catholic upstarters, the SDLP.

But the first local government elections and the 1972 Darlington Conference, where Alliance conceded that there would be a “Catholic party” as part of any power-sharing Northern Ireland Government, adjusted Alliance thinking, fast. Alliance was a central component of the 1973 power-sharing government.

Ever since, Alliance fought for decades to replace direct rule with power-sharing government. Frequently, it played the role of bell-weather and umpire, speaking up whenever negotiations were likely to be unpalatable to one side or another.

But far from this reactive role, Alliance representatives have often served as pioneers in controversial decisions and the process of progression.

During the post Anglo-Irish Agreement “Ulster Says No” campaign, where Unionist-controlled councils threatened boycotting their official duties [verify], Alliance councillors threatened legal action, which successfully ensured public duties were fulfilled.

Alliance was also the only non-Nationalist party to participate in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, held in Dublin during the Multi-Party Talks.

Holding the balance of power position in Belfast City Council, Alliance received much hostility when it gave its votes to the city’s first republican Lord Mayor in 2002.

Northern Ireland remains a very divided and segregated society. The reform of policing, through the Patten Commission and beyond, has been an arduous process. Fortunately, it has resulted in a unitary service, and not segregated within. Alliance involvement helped ensure the better result.

In the discussion about Executive oversight of policing and justice matters, a two-person ministry was mooted. Alliance persistently argued against that.

An Alliance minister for policing and justice would enable the party to at least put forward its agenda for further reform. Indeed, I would expect the new Police Service of Northern Ireland to be receptive to Alliance’s cross-community and services-for-all perspective.

Alliance could take the opportunity to pursue greater equality for all, starting with countering the damage done by the DUP’s Iris Robinson’s remarks on homosexuality.

The unique formulation of this ministerial post would also allow Alliance to remain above the fray of the rest of the Executive and its poor performance that Alliance accuses it of.

Indeed, for the first Minister for Policing and Justice in Northern Ireland to be a representative of Alliance would elevate the party to unprecedented international public attention.

This spotlight would provide an exceptional opportunity for Alliance to tell the world its vision of a Northern Ireland more secure with itself and as a socially just society.

But would critic’s claims of opportunism undermine?

Well, it depends on what you’ve decided to pursue elected office for.

If you don’t really have an agenda for change, and/or you only want to implement it on your own, clean terms of absolute power, then you can keep campaigning on that platform.

Alliance will need more than its best performance of 14.4%, back in the 1977 local government elections, to achieve this on its own.

Perhaps Alliance can hold out until Sinn Féin and the DUP falter, then be part of a UUP-SDLP Executive. Like the one Alliance wasn’t invited to from 1998-2006.

I certainly hope it’s not the case that Alliance doesn’t want to cooperate with the “bad” parties of the DUP and Sinn Féin, as if the “not-so-bad” UUP and SDLP will be any nicer to Alliance. Political history shows contempt for Alliance from all quarters; best to deal with it sanguinely.

A voluntary, power-sharing government with collective responsibility and accountability is a seriously worthwhile goal for establishing a liberal democracy. However, this was never said to me by those I canvassed on the doorsteps. Yet fairness, equality and cooperation often were.

Maybe as a political party with a very well worked through manifesto and experience of serving as leaders (even if not handsomely rewarded by the electorate or even acknowledged by the media or historians), Alliance should stay true to its vision of a better Northern Ireland, and take any opportunity, on its terms, to make it a reality.

Northern Ireland demands progress, not Opposition.

Allan Leonard was a former General Secretary of the Alliance Party.

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