North Down is a pro-Agreement constituency. Around 70% of local people voted ‘Yes’ to the Agreement. Yet, for the past 6 years, it has been misrepresented by an anti-Agreement MP, Robert McCartney, elected on a minority of the vote.
Furthermore, the Agreement is currently under severe threat. Anti-Agreement forces are trying to use the General Election to undermine the Agreement. A major swing to anti-Agreement Unionists, both in votes and seats, could undermine the cross-community legitimacy of the Agreement and the Assembly. In 1974, the election of 11 anti power-sharing MPs out of a total of 12 from Northern Ireland was a major factor in the collapse of the Sunningdale Initiative.
The Agreement is far from perfect. Better than many, I can appreciate the flaws and contradictions within it. Furthermore, implementation has been particularly problematic, with may parties not living up their obligations. Yet, the Agreement is the best thing that Northern Ireland has going for it.
Alliance has been campaigning on the streets of North Down for several months. We have been listening to what people have been saying to us. On the doorsteps of North Down, the main questions that people are raising are: 1. How to we best defend the Agreement?, and 2. How do we get rid of Bob McCartney?
Until I decided to withdraw from the race, North Down had one strong anti-Agreement candidate in Mr McCartney, and two strong pro-Agreement candidates, in Lady Hermon of the UUP and myself from the Alliance Party.
In an ideal world, we would have Proportional Representation in Westminster Elections, just as we have for all other elections. People could vote for whoever they please, and transfers would eventually go to the stronger pro-Agreement candidate, thereby defeating Mr McCartney. People could vote for their first choice rather than feel the need to stop the worst alternative from being elected.
However, under the ‘X’ vote, the candidate who gains the most votes wins. Anti-Agreement forces have united behind the single anti-Agreement candidate. But with two strong pro-Agreement candidates, the pro-Agreement vote will be fatally split between Lady Hermon and myself.
We will all play right into Bob McCartney’s hands. In all probability, he would have once again won the election, and the misrepresentation of the people of North Down would have continued for at least another four years. This would neither have been in the interests of North Down, nor of continued political progress in Northern Ireland.
It would have been preferable for all the pro-Agreement to reach understandings on what is the best way to maximise the pro-Agreement vote and the number of pro-Agreement MPs elected. However, this did not happen.
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect Alliance to bear all the responsibility for protecting the Agreement. However, we have shown considerable leadership in standing aside from a number of constituencies, with the latest and most significant being North Down.
My decision to stand aside from the election was taken after much soul-searching and consultation with family, friends and party colleagues. It was endorsed by the Party Leadership and the local North Down Association.
It was clear that Alliance was not going to win the seat. Nevertheless, it would have been easy for us to selfishly maximise our vote and serve our own interests.
However, in the end, it seemed that I could do much more good and the Alliance Party could have a bigger impact on the future of Northern Ireland by not splitting the pro-Agreement vote.
Alliance would ask the 7,500 people who supported Alliance at the last election to vote for the strongest remaining pro-Agreement candidate, Lady Hermon. However, in the end, it will be a matter of choice and conscience. No one is taking Alliance votes for granted. Votes have not been bought or sold. No deal has been done.
Many people may never have voted Ulster Unionist before – I certainly have not. Alliance is not endorsing the Ulster Unionists, merging with them or playing the ‘Orange Card’. We are not giving the Ulster Unionists a blank cheque. Alliance disagrees with David Trimble’s unilateral ultimatum to resign as First Minister. Many of his problems are of his own making.
However, if this Agreement is to work it does require the support of sufficient Unionists and Nationalists. We will all suffer if Unionist support for the Agreement is allowed to corrode.
The SDLP should not be contesting this particular election either. They will be splitting the pro-Agreement vote. They have no commitment to the constituency, and no Council candidates.
North Down should become a straight contest between a pro-Agreement candidate and an anti-Agreement candidate, with the constituency giving another overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement.
Nevertheless, I know that many traditional Alliance voters will be very disappointed and feel disenfranchised through not having an Alliance candidate to support in the General Election.
But people should view a vote for Hermon as not necessarily a vote for the Ulster Unionism but for the Agreement.
Alliance is certainly not abandoning North Down. The job of Alliance in Northern Ireland politics is far from done. This is purely a one-off. Alliance is contesting the Local Government Elections. We hope to gain an additional Assembly seat, and will be contesting the next Westminster Election.
It is interesting that those writing the obituaries for Alliance are the hard-liners on both sides, such as Robert McCartney and Brian Feeney. Alliance is not doing this out of weakness, but out of strength and a confidence in itself and what is best for Northern Ireland. There remains a clear need for a cross-community party in North Down and Northern Ireland.
The Agreement is not an end in itself. Alliance does not just exist to bring Unionists and Nationalists together. Rather, what we want to do is to create a new shared, non-sectarian society.
Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided society. If anything, while the intensity of the conflict has been reduced, divisions have become more polarised. We cannot for ever merely manage the divisions in Northern Ireland, we must begin to overcome these divisions. Indeed, it is that continued tribalism that is creating so many problems for the Agreement.
But to have a chance of putting this vision into practice, we need a framework in place – the Agreement.
With the two elections on the one day, voters will have the opportunity to vote to protect the Agreement in the Westminster Elections, and to vote for the Alliance Agenda of Sharing over Separation and our strong track record on local issues, by voting Alliance No.1 in the Local Government Elections.
What we have done is an extraordinary and unprecedented step. But we are in an extraordinarily difficult situation that requires brave and imaginative approaches.
I am very grateful for all the messages of support that I received over the past few days.
I think we have done the right thing, and hope you can think so too.