Asked to differentiate their new grouping from the Alliance Party, Messrs McCrea and McCallister have tended to resort to the suggestion either that Alliance has “achieved nothing”; or that it “sits on the fence”. However, faced with the challenge of demonstrating either of these with even the slightest concrete evidence, they and their new followers have struggled – for the simple reason that neither is true.
In 1970, the Alliance Party was founded in large part to argue that devolved government in Northern Ireland had to be on a cross-community basis, given the nature of Northern Ireland’s sectarian division.
In 1973, long before it became fashionable, the Alliance Party advocated power-sharing within the UK with formalised cross-border co-operation as the only way to govern Northern Ireland in a way acceptable to people across the sectarian divide – it is a pity others took a generation to catch up.
In 1988, the Alliance Party produced the “Governing with Consent” document, which is no doubt still in a loft somewhere in Party Headquarters, much of which reads almost word-for-work as Strand One of the 1998 Agreement (with the notable exception of the system of “designation”).
In 2001, the Alliance Party saved the institutions, and arguably the entire process, by re-designating – something about which others like to take cheap shots, but which was in fact essential to progress at the time. In the same year, the party withdrew from the Parliamentary election in two constituencies at great electoral cost to ensure the process survived.
In 2004, the Alliance Party produced the “Agenda for Democracy” document, which includes a system of qualified majority voting which would enable cross-community government to remain with a formalised opposition. This is, however, impossible without cross-community consent, and Nationalists have thus far rejected it without even opening discussion. Nevertheless, a detailed case has been made which will no doubt, in time, become a model for future progress.
In 2010, the Alliance Party agreed to provide the Justice Minister, again in order to save institutions which would otherwise have fallen, as devolution of justice away from London was a central Nationalist demand in order to deliver broad public support for security arrangements (which had never previously existed).
At crucial junctures, and again in Belfast City Hall in December 2012, the Alliance Party has promoted the basic principles of the 1998 Agreement even when this has been at obvious short-term electoral cost – not just after it but also decades or generations ahead of it! The idea that, when it counted, the party has “achieved nothing” or “sat on the fence” does not stand up to even the remotest scrutiny.
Northern Ireland isn’t perfect and its politics are a long way short of it, but asked if I would rather live in the Belfast of 1973 or the Belfast of 2013, I know which I would choose – and I have a great deal of respect for all those, in all parties, who played a role in the political side of that transformation. Those who advocate “fresh politics” could perhaps start by showing a bit of respect for what others have achieved – and remember that it was often at great personal or electoral cost.