History of the Alliance Party 1970-1998
The Alliance Party was founded on 21st April 1970. Many of the founding members were previously involved with the New Ulster Movement, a pressure group established in 1969 to promote moderate and non-sectarian policies. Two leading NUM members, Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper, decided that a new cross-community party would represent the best alternative to the established parties which had not changed for the previous fifty years. Napier and Cooper became co-leaders of Alliance, they were part of the ‘Group of 16’ which established the new party, other prominent founding members included Basil Glass, Robin Glendinning, Denis Loretto and Jim Hendron.
The founding principles of the Alliance Party in 1970 included the healing of community divisions in Northern Ireland, support for a devolved local Assembly, commitment to the rule of law and adopting a liberal approach to social and economic issues which were often ignored by other parties in favour of constitutional ones.
In subsequent years a number of politicians joined Alliance from across the political divide, such as Phelim O’Neill, Bertie McConnell and Tom Gormley in Stormont, and Westminster MP for North Belfast Stratton Mills. Following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1972, Alliance proposed a new Assembly elected through Single Transferable Vote and an elected power-sharing Executive, which was largely reflected through the short-lived 1973-74 Assembly which had eight Alliance members. Following the Sunningdale Agreement, Alliance joined the first power-sharing Executive in 1974, with party leader Oliver Napier serving as Legal Minister and Head of the Office of Law Reform, and deputy leader Bob Cooper serving as Minister for Manpower Services. Alliance also had eight members elected to the 1975 Constitutional Convention.
Oliver Napier served as Alliance leader from 1972 to 1984, during that time the party had three deputy leaders, Bob Cooper (1973-76), Basil Glass (1976-80) and David Cook (1980-84). During this time Alliance polled very well in the 1973 and 1977 local government elections, ensuring the election of several Alliance Mayors, such as Ivor Canavan as Mayor of Derry/Londonderry in 1975-76, and David Cook as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1978-79, the only non-unionist Lord Mayor from 1898 to 1997.
Despite the increased polarisation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Alliance continued to play a constructive role, including in the 1982-86 Assembly which had ten Alliance members. In 1984 John Cushnahan became party leader, and Addie Morrow became deputy leader. This period was defined by unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which included boycotts of council meetings. Alliance councillors such as David Cook (Belfast), Seamus Close (Lisburn) and Addie Morrow (Castlereagh) successfully challenged these boycotts to ensure local government continued to operate effectively.
John Alderdice served as Alliance leader from 1987 to 1998, while Gordon Mawhinney (1987-91) and Seamus Close (1991-2001) served as deputy leaders. The 1990s saw Alliance participate in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. In its document ‘Governing with Consent’ Alliance proposed an Assembly with five members for each constituency, elected through STV, that would be responsible for a wide range of matter transferred from Westminster. The Executive would be a voluntary coalition elected by a qualified majority vote, to ensure some input from unionists and nationalists without excluding cross-community parties. Much of this was incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement, however Alliance highlighted concerns around other aspects of the Agreement which had the potential to institutionalise sectarian divisions, such as the use of designations and cross-community votes which reduce the influence of ‘other’ MLAs.
Alliance supported the Good Friday Agreement and campaigned for it in the subsequent referendum which was supported by 71.1% of voters in Northern Ireland. Alliance gained six seats in the 1998 Assembly election, John Alderdice (East Belfast), Seamus Close (Lagan Valley), Séan Neeson (East Antrim), David Ford (South Antrim), Kieran McCarthy (Strangford) and Eileen Bell (North Down). Alderdice, who had been appointed to the House of Lords in 1996, became the first Speaker of the Assembly, and Séan Neeson succeeded him as party leader from 1998 to 2001, when David Ford was elected as leader from 2001 to 2016. Eileen Bell also became deputy leader from 2001 to 2006, and served as the Assembly’s second Speaker.