Alliance and the Peace Process

The Alliance Party was formed in 1970. It is the largest cross-community party in Northern Ireland, and receives 6-8% of the vote. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, its members have designated themselves as ‘centre’, but more on group designations later. The Alliance Party Leader is David Ford.

I thought I might start with a quick background to the Alliance Party itself, before moving on to the party’s involvement in the peace processes. I’ll concentrate on what I see as the Party’s unique contributions to the Good Friday Agreement, and then describe some of the challenges that we all face. Of particular concern to Alliance is the requirement for sectional designations, the voting system at the NI Assembly, and realising the potential of devolved power.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was founded on 21 April 1970. As Alliance viewed the situation, the major problem of Northern Ireland was the division between Protestant and Catholic. The turmoil had it origins in that division and not in the partition of Ireland; partition was the result of the divisions and not the cause of them.

The place to start in understanding Alliance is with its conception of society. The distinguishing feature of the party is its belief in the legitimacy of a distinctive Northern community. Furthermore, this distinguishing community has more in common that what divides it.

Alliance does not view unionism and nationalism as distinct communities but as historical traditions. Alliance has offered itself as a ‘third tradition’, which includes those who, whether in politics, culture, religion or private life, have refused to be categorised as exclusively Orange or Green.

Alliance’s perspective has been to emphasise NORTHERN Irishmen. Alliance would have as much contempt for intransigent Northern Protestants who do not want to share with fellow Catholics, as it would have for an Irish government with a dominant Catholic ethos.


What Alliance set out to achieve was an acceptance by Protestants and Catholics of an agreed Northern Ireland, providing a cross-community consent for its constitutional status.

A key motivation of Alliance, as a new party, was to become the largest party in Northern Ireland, i.e. receive greater than 50 per cent of the vote. It is important to consider that into its first elections, Alliance did not advocate power sharing for Northern Ireland. Instead, the party itself represented power sharing internally.

Alliance did not become the largest elected party in the 1973 Assembly elections; the party recognised that it would unlikely ever be Northern Ireland’s largest party. Furthermore, the party also recognised the need to include ‘a Catholic party’ as part of a power-sharing arrangement.

The emphasis shifted early, from supporting one party, a ‘catch-all’ party, which could represent a wide spectrum of identities with a common interest (i.e. reforming Northern Ireland), to the recognition that reform was going to require the co-operation of a number of political party elites. Alliance adapted, and became part of the parliamentary power-sharing executive under the Sunningdale Agreement.

A key event in the erosion of Catholic support for Alliance were the 1981 hunger strikes. They had the effect of exacerbating the conflict, as well as enlargening the participating electorate. Significantly, much of a previously-abstentionist nationalist electorate became active.

Also in this situation was the case of ‘soft Nationalist’ Alliance supporters (i.e. those voters who floated from the SDLP and Alliance, and give Alliance secondary preferences in PR elections). Such supporters would have felt compelled to give primary support to moderate nationalism. This is an example of societal polarisation squeezing cross-community support.

When the Anglo-Irish Agreement was announced in 1985, the difficulty within Alliance was not between Alliance Catholics and Alliance Protestants: it wasn’t like that at all. Instead, what Alliance particularly objected to was the secrecy involved in its creation. Alliance’s demand was that any agreement affecting Northern Ireland should be based on cross-community consensus, and that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was not fair because it did not genuinely attempt to involve both sides in its creation. Having said all this, Alliance supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement posed a challenge to Alliance’s ‘soft Unionist’ support (i.e. those unionist voters who floated between Alliance and the UUP, and would give Alliance secondary preferences in PR elections). Such supporters would have had difficulty with the agreement’s incorporation of the Irish government’s role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. But Alliance’s vote actually increased at the next General Election. This can be attributed in part to ‘soft Unionist’ voters who did not approve of the UUP’s hard-line behaviour in the protests after the declaration of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Unlike the situation of the 1981 hunger strikes, because the UUP did not display relative moderation, ‘soft Unionist’ voters did not abandon support for Alliance.

Alliance blamed the failure of the 1982-86 Assembly on both Nationalist abstentionism and Unionist intransigence. Alliance recognised the changes brought about by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and in 1988 produced a substantive policy document, ‘Governing with Consent’, which explored how administrative devolution could command widespread support.

Up to the Hume-Adams Talks, Northern nationalists were divided between those who would attempt to make a Northern Ireland government work (for their constituents only, it must be said), and those whose efforts were directed at making Northern Ireland ungovernable. Alliance sought reconciliation with the former, knowing that their consent was necessary for a working devolved government, and frequently criticised unionist parties for not recognising this, and that a failure to reconcile with the minority community would give succour to those who sought to destroy or prevent an agreed Northern Ireland.

Seamus Mallon, member of the SDLP and previous Deputy First Minister, remarked that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. However, there are significant differences in the form of the two agreements.

It was the Hume-Adams Talks that altered the type of agreement that would be reached. First, while the DUP may have ultimately participated in an executive government with the SDLP, it was always improbable that it would consider being in any government with Sinn Finn, whose participation would now be a sine qua non.

The second change was the acceptance of a minority/mutual veto mechanism as part of any new agreement. This would mean that the Nationalist community would have to grant explicit consensus to decisions made in government. The principle had been established with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and even de facto by Alliance, by its early recognition of the need for a ‘Catholic party’ in any cross-community coalition. But Alliance has always opposed segmental institutionalisation; its preference is for weighted majorities, without reference to communal identities.

When the Good Friday Agreement was announced, Alliance warmly embraced it. For many long-serving party activists, it represented the culmination of 28 years of effort: an agreed Northern Ireland with the prospect of peace and stability. Much of the Agreement’s ethos can be derived back to Alliance Party principles, some specifically from ‘Governing with Consent’, e.g. in the establishment of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.

Three unique contributions Alliance made during the Multi-Party Talks that led up to the Agreement are: (1) serving a policing function, in upholding the democratic integrity of the negotiations, especially in regard to the Mitchell Principles; (2) serving as a weathervane on the feasibility of any proposals made, including any overall agreement; and (3) establishing the designation of ‘other’ in the Agreement itself.

It was Alliance who found itself, more than any other actor, playing a role of policeman to ensure the integrity of the Mitchell Principles. Alliance believed that the democratic mandates of the 1996 Forum elections to the Multi-Party Talks should be the only mandate for the parties to negotiate; the use or threat of use of force was incompatible with a democratic process and a democratic outcome. Alliance was concerned that if the Mitchell Principles were compromised, then other parties could achieve undue influence and/or gains.

Consequently, Alliance tabled indictments against the UUP and DUP for their actions at Drumcree in July 1996, where they brought the threat of civil disorder; against the UDP for a breach of the UDA cease-fire in January 1998; and against Sinn Fein for a breach of the IRA cease-fire in February 1998. While Alliance tabled the indictments, it was the decision of the British and Irish governments whether to expel the parties, and for how long. Alliance didn’t table indictments with any desire to see parties expelled from the talks. Instead, the motivation was to ensure the basis of non violence and the rule of law.

The price the Alliance paid for tabling these indictments was a perception of putting up obstacles to the talks process. However, the democratic principle of the Mitchell Principles was vitally important to the party, and it was willing to sacrifice popularity for the sake of what it saw as the long-term interests of society. The party hoped that it at least served as a deterrent to the greater use of violence to alter the course of negotiations.

The second contribution Alliance made during the Multi-Party Talks was to serve as a weathervane in gauging the broad acceptability of any proposal, including those the party made itself. Alliance believed that its proposals would not be rejected immediately by Unionists or Nationalists, in that it would not be seen as representing either.

The key moment this was put to the test was when Alliance rejected the ‘Mitchell draft’ of the Agreement (for more on how the ‘Mitchell draft’ came about, I would recommend Senator Mitchell’s own account, in his book). Party Leader, John Alderdice, publicly declared that Alliance could not support the ‘Mitchell draft’. Now, Alliance could have lived with the terms of the draft agreement, particularly the proposed North-South arrangements, but saw a higher weathervane responsibility. The Alliance talks delegation decided that the draft agreement could not be sold to unionists, was not a realistic basis in which agreement could have been found, and consequently rejected the ‘Mitchell draft’.

Alliance would have equally spoke out against any document perceived as being particularly pro-unionist, or ‘Orange’. However, there are many other defenders of nationalist interests: e.g. the Irish-American political lobby and the wider international community; Alliance would not have been the only ones objecting to an ‘Orange’ document.

The third unique contribution Alliance made was in achieving in the final Agreement political space for ‘others’, or those who do not exclusively define themselves as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’.

The reason the issue of segmental designations (i.e. ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’) is so important to Alliance is the same as it always has been: segmental institutionalisation entrenches the very divisions that Alliance is attempting to transcend. Not considering itself either unionist or nationalist, Alliance sought political space for itself, and any other of like perspective, in any final agreement.

To do this, the party had to make a direct appeal to British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Alderdice had made a public appeal for Blair to come to Belfast to salvage the talks process, when Alliance rejected the ‘Mitchell draft’. The Prime Minister came, though he was likely coming over anyway. His offices were keen to have Alderdice make a complimentary statement, which he did, along the lines that now that Blair had arrived, the situation was under control. Whether or not there was a quid pro quo, Alliance attributes the achievement of the allocation of ‘other’ to its direct appeal to the British Prime Minister.


Now I would like to highlight specific issues particularly relevant to Alliance and its vision for society.

Keeping in mind the themes I have briefly outlined on cross-community consensus and devolution for a distinctive Northern community, much of the challenges posed to Alliance emanate from the internal structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as prescribed in the Good Friday Agreement. Namely, they are the requirement for sectional designations as well as the over-rigorous voting procedures.

The Agreement stipulates that ‘members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity–nationalist, unionist, or other.’ Furthermore: ‘Arrangements to ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis; (i) either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting; (ii) or a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.’

One effect of the designations, as well as the minimum thresholds of unionism and nationalism in the weighted majority procedure, is that it grants less political rights to ‘other’ members. The votes of ‘others’ only count towards attaining an overall majority. ‘Other’ Assembly members have less voting powers than ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ Assembly members.

The designation of ‘other’ itself is derogatory and offensive to Alliance. The party sees the use of designations as a corporatisation of society and institutionalisation of divisions.

What the designation issue has produced is a more rigid form of power sharing. A more integrative model of power sharing would not require a mutual veto through designations, or the minimum thresholds in a weighted majority voting procedure.

Indeed, this whole matter came to a head last November, with the vote to elect a new pair of First Ministers (Mark Durcan replacing Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister). The first vote failed because the votes of ‘others’ did not count towards the cross-community consensus required. (Isn’t it a bit ironic that the votes of a cross-community party don’t count in votes that require cross-community consensus!)

The Alliance Party was split over whether to redesignate as ‘unionists’, as it was that group bloc that did not have sufficient votes. A compromise was reached: three Alliance MLAs–Sean Neeson, Eileen Bell and David Ford–would be able to temporarily redesignate, vote as ‘unionists’, then be able to revert back as ‘centre’.

Why did these Alliance MLAs redesignate? They were prepared to redesignate in order to protect the political stability that the Agreement has given. There was a very real danger of a return to violence if the redesignation had not occurred. The reward was political progress and stability.

However, there is no question whether Alliance MLAs are prepared to repeat the exercise. They are not, and will not.

The Good Friday Agreement represents a real compromise between the traditional sectional powers that have opposed each other for years. But shortly after the Agreement was reached, political leaders started to backtrack on what they had pledged, and began producing their own interpretation of the Agreement. For four years we have seen limited steps forward matched by multiple steps backwards.

This is an illustration of what has been wrong with the implementation of the Agreement. For most parties, the Agreement represents a ceiling of their ambitions, as far as they can go to reach an accommodation before reverting to traditional tribal positions.

For Alliance, the Agreement is a foundation upon which to build a united community, a liberal, open and mixed society that celebrates diversity and is progressive in outlook.

Thank you for listening. I’m happy to answer any questions.

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