IIES lecture – Alliance Party

I gave the following lecture to the Institute for the International Education of Students, Dublin, followed by Q&A.


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, then describe some of the challenges that we all face. Of particular concern to Alliance is the requirement for sectoral 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 dinstinguishing 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 catagorised 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 executive under the Sunningdale Agreement.

A key event in the erosion of Catholic (non-unionist) 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 Allian

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