The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is a liberal and nonsectarian political party in Northern Ireland. It is Northern Ireland's fifth-largest party overall, with seven seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and one in the House of Commons.
Founded in 1970 from the New Ulster Movement, the Alliance Party originally represented moderate and non-sectarian Unionism. However, over time, particularly in the 1990s, it moved towards neutrality on the Union, and has come to represent wider liberal and non-sectarian concerns. It opposes consociational power sharing as deepening the sectarian divide, and, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is designated as neither unionist or nationalist, but 'Other'.
In May 2010 the Alliance Party won their first Westminster seat in a General Election, in Belfast East, unseating Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland. Naomi Long, the successful candidate, is the first MP from the Alliance Party since Stratton Mills who had joined the party from the Ulster Unionist Party in 1973.
Aims and objectives:
Paragraph 1.3 of Alliance's constitutions states that 'the objectives of the Party shall be to heal the bitter divisions in our community and to promote the policies of the party as determined by the ruling Council'.
Over the past 40 years and particularly since the mid-1990s, Alliance's political philosophy has veered away from non-sectarian Unionism towards a more liberal, neutral position on the question of either an united Ireland or continued Union with Great Britain. While the Good Friday Agreement has attempted to implement consociational power sharing, Alliance continues to argue that such enforced coalition government in Northern Ireland entrenches division rather than providing a basis for overcoming it.
The Alliance Party was founded on the back of efforts by the New Ulster Movement (NUM), which was established as a moderating influence upon the Unionist Party. After Nationalist politicians withdrew their role as official Opposition at Stormont, and the resignation of Unionist leader Terence O'Neill in 1969, the NUM split between those who wished to remain a pressure group for the Unionist Party and those who saw reform only through the establishment of a new political party. The latter broke off and formed the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, 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 its origins in that division and not in the partition of Ireland. "Partition was the result of the divisions and not the cause of them." (John Cushnahan, 1979)
The party's founding members resolved to change the "traditional mould of sectarian politics" in Northern Ireland, by launching a party deliberately set out to win support from "both sections of the community". The party's founding principles were an attempt to "allay the fundamental fears": namely, of Protestants being coerced into a united Ireland, and of Catholics being condemned to a second-class citizenship within Northern Ireland.
The distinguishing feature of Alliance is its belief in the legitimacy of a distinctive Northern community, one that has more in common than what divides it, with most inhabitants speaking a common language, sharing some form of Christianity, and not separated by distinguishable racial or physical characteristics. "Its people … are one community … living in what has been called a place apart, but sharing a great deal with the rest of this island, the rest of these islands, and the rest of the developed world." (Alliance 1992)
Alliance does not view unionism and nationalism as distinct communities, but as "political positions". Furthermore, Alliance sees identity as an individual matter, originating in historical contexts, producing unionist and nationalist traditions. Alliance is at times seen as representing a "third tradition". "In the context of Northern Ireland it includes those who, whether in politics, culture, religion, or in private life have refused to be categorised as Orange or Green (i.e. nationalist)." (Alliance 1992)
As Alliance have moved to an ideologically liberal perspective, and Northern Ireland society has become more diverse, support for diversity has become a key Alliance platform, with Anna Lo MLA elected as the first ethnically Chinese parliamentarian in Western Europe and the party promoting a number of openly gay spokespeople.
Alliance are linked with the Liberal Democrats and are members of Liberal International and the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party.
It was formed in April 1970 as an alternative to the established parties. In the context of a rapidly worsening political crisis, the party aimed not only to present an alternative to what they perceived as sectarian parties, but to make sure that the primary policy of the party was in contrast to the Northern Ireland Labour Party and Ulster Liberal Party. Alliance expressly aimed, at first, to act as a bridge between the Protestant and Catholic sections of the community, with a secondary goal of attracting support from Northern Ireland's Jewish community and its small but steadily growing Asian (Chinese, Indian, Pakistani) population, the vast majority of whom are neither Catholic nor Protestant.
The Party's founding principles were expressly in favour of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, although in contrast to the Unionist parties, this was expressed in socio-economic rather than ethnic terms. It also placed great emphasis on the consent principle and therefore only supported the Northern Ireland's position within the UK as long as the people of NI wished it.
The party was boosted in 1972 when three Members of the Parliament of Northern Ireland joined the party (one from the Nationalist Party, one from the Ulster Unionist Party and one Independent). Stratton Mills, an Ulster Unionist/Conservative member of the Westminster Parliament for North Belfast also joined, providing Alliance with its only House of Commons representation prior to the 2010 General Election. Its first electoral challenge was the District Council elections of May 1973 when they managed to win a respectable 13.6% of the votes cast. In the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly which followed the next month the party polled 9.2% and won eight seats. The then party leader, Oliver Napier and his deputy Bob Cooper became part of the short-lived power sharing executive body. Alliance's vote peaked in the 1977 District Council elections when it obtained 14.4% of the vote and had 74 Councillors elected. In 1979, Party Leader Oliver Napier came closer than Alliance have come before to electing a Westminster MP, polling just 928 votes short of Peter Robinson's winning total in East Belfast, albeit placing third in a three-way marginal. It was in 2010 that they eventually took their first seat, by Naomi Long, this time unseating Peter Robinson in East Belfast
Stabilisation and decline:
Alliance was seriously damaged by the Provisional Irish Republican Army Hunger Strike of 1981, which deeply polarised Northern Ireland politics, and led to the emergence of Sinn Féin as a serious political force. The Party supported the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and despite claims that this would fatally damage its soft Unionist support, Alliance rebounded to pick up 10.0% of the vote in the 1987 United Kingdom General Election, with some voters rejecting the tacit mainstream Unionist support for violence in the aftermath of the Agreement. New leader, John Alderdice, polled 32.0% of the vote in East Belfast, while Alliance came within 15,000 votes of both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin across Northern Ireland. In 1988, in Alliance's keynote post-Anglo Irish Agreement document, "Governing with Consent", Alderdice called for a devolved power-sharing government. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alliance's vote stabilised at between 7% and 10%.
After the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994, Alliance became the first non-Nationalist party to enter into talks with Sinn Féin, as an active participant in the talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement, which it strongly supported.
The Alliance Party polled poorly for the 1996 elections for the Northern Ireland Forum, and the 1998 election for the Northern Ireland Assembly winning around 6.5% of the vote each time. This did enable the party to win six seats in the Assembly, although this was somewhat of a let down given that the party had been expected to do much better with their surprise defeat in Belfast South being particularly disappointing for supporters.
The Good Friday Agreement era:
John Alderdice resigned as party leader in 1998 to take up the post of the Assembly's Presiding Officer. He was replaced by Seán Neeson, who himself resigned as party leader in September, 2001. Neeson was replaced by current party leader David Ford, a member of the assembly for South Antrim.
It was predicted that Alliance would suffer electorally as a new centrist challenger established itself in Northern Irish politics, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, whilst the main Unionist and Nationalist parties both moderated their position on cross-community co-operation. Another problem for the APNI was that the rules of the Northern Ireland Assembly require major votes (such as the election of a First Minister) to have the support of both a majority of Unionist assembly members and a majority of Nationalist assembly members, thus diminishing the importance of parties such as Alliance which are not aligned to either of these two blocs.
Nevertheless, in the 2003 Assembly elections, Alliance held all their seats, while the Women's Coalition lost both of theirs. However Alliance's vote fell to just 3.7%. In the European Parliament Elections in 2004, Alliance gave strong support to Independent candidate John Gilliland who polled 6.6% of the vote, the highest for a non-communal candidate in a European election since 1979. In the early years of the Northern Ireland peace process, the centre ground was relentlessly squeezed in Northern Ireland politics. The support for Gilliland's candidature, which was also supported by parties such as the Workers' Party and Northern Ireland Conservatives, reflected a desire to reunite the fragmented and weakened non-communal bloc in Northern Ireland politics.
In the 5 May 2005 United Kingdom general election, they contested 12 seats and polled 3.9% of the vote. In the simultaneous elections to Northern Ireland's local authorities, they polled 5.0% of first preference votes and had 30 Councillors elected, a gain of two seats relative to the previous elections.
The 2006-2007 period saw some signs of an Alliance upturn with Alliance topping the poll and gaining a seat in a by-election for Coleraine borough council.
In the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Alliance put in a strong media campaign and polled 5.2% up from 3.6% in the previous election with Alliance gaining a seat in Belfast South following the successful candidature of Anna Lo, the first ethnic Chinese public representative in a national assembly anywhere in Western Europe. In an election cycle where many pundits had predicted that the Alliance Party would struggle to hold on to the 6 seats it won in the 2003 election, the Party pulled off a credible performance which included Deputy Leader Naomi Long doubling her share of the vote in Belfast East.
In 2008, during the deadlock between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party over the devolution of policing, the two parties came to an agreement that the Minister of Justice would not come from either party. The Alliance party was the obvious choice but party leader David Ford said "it's a very definite and a very emphatic no." Ford further stated, "this executive is incompetent, it's time they got with doing the job that they were set up to do." Ford assumed office on 12 April 2010.
At the 2009 European elections, Alliance achieved its best European result in 30 years with 5.5% of the vote.
In the 2010 general election, the party won its first seat in Westminster, with Naomi Long taking the seat of sitting First Minister Peter Robinson.
Regionalisation of Alliance's vote:
One trend over time with Alliance's vote is that in contrast to 1973, when Alliance support was dispersed across Northern Ireland, APNI have increasingly polled best in the Greater Belfast hinterland. For example the 1977 elections, while representing an overall increase for Alliance, masked a sharp decline in vote share in many Western councils. In the 12 councils covering the former counties of Derry, Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh their vote only rose in Omagh, it remained static in Magherafelt and fell in the other ten councils (these being Fermanagh, Dungannon, Cookstown, Strabane, Derry, Limavady, Coleraine, Newry & Mourne, Armagh and Craigavon.) Overall in these 12 councils the number of Alliance councillors fell from 18 in 1973 to ten in 1977. In contrast, in the rest of the province Alliance increased their number of councillors from 45 to 60.
This trend continued in the 1980s and early 1990s as Alliance lost their last remaining councillors in North Antrim (Ballymoney in 1985 and Ballymena in 1981 - although the seat was temporarily regained in 1989.)
The party won eight council seats across Belfast in 1985 although that has been reduced today to four and the party has been virtually wiped out in North and West Belfast. Both seats in the Falls Road area of West Belfast were lost after the death and resignation of their councillors there in 1987 while their seat in North Belfast was lost in 1993 regained four years later and lost again, seemingly for good, in 2001. In the neighbouring areas of Dunmurry Cross (Twinbrook/Dunmurry) and Macedon (Rathcoole) Alliance lost their councillors in 1989 and 1994 respectively.
Today Alliance has 32 councillors in ten of the 18 Westminster parliamentary constituencies, following the regaining of a seat on Coleraine Borough Council and former SDLP councillor Oran Keenan in February 2010. (by contrast in 1973 Alliance had representation in 16 out of the 18 current Westminster constituencies.) In the 2010 Elections, the Alliance gained the Westminster seat of Belfast East, and gained a 22.6% swing there - although it remains a marginal seat.