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Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
|Deputy Leader||Stephen Farry|
|Founded||21 April 1970|
|Preceded by||Ulster Liberal Party
New Ulster Movement
|Headquarters||88 University Street
|Youth wing||Alliance Youth|
|LGBT wing||Alliance LGBT+|
|Political position||Centre to centre-left|
|European affiliation||Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (associate)|
|International affiliation||Liberal International|
|Sister party||Liberal Democrats|
|House of Commons
1 / 18
|House of Lords[a]||
0 / 791
7 / 90
|Local government in Northern Ireland||
53 / 462
The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI; Irish: Páirtí Comhghuaillíochta Thuaisceart Éireann) is a liberal and centrist political party in Northern Ireland. It was long Northern Ireland's fifth-largest party, currently holding eight seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but made breakthroughs in recent elections to place third in first preference votes in both the 2019 European Parliament election and the 2019 UK general election. The party won one of the three Northern Ireland seats in the European Parliament, and one seat, North Down, 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 the consociational power-sharing mandated by the Good Friday Agreement as deepening the sectarian divide, and, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is designated as neither unionist nor Irish nationalist, but 'Other'.
The Alliance Party won their first seat in the UK House of Commons in the 2010 general election, unseating the former East Belfast MP Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Naomi Long was the first MP from the Alliance Party since Stratton Mills, who joined the party from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in 1973. However, the DUP regained the seat at the 2015 general election following an electoral pact with the UUP. In the 2019 general election, Alliance regained its presence in the House of Commons when Stephen Farry won the North Down seat vacated by the independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon. Earlier that year, the party's leader, Naomi Long, won the party's first seat in the European Parliament in the last European election before Brexit.
Early growth and the 1974 Northern Ireland Executive
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 and expressly aimed to act as a bridge between the Protestant and Catholic sections of the community and heal the divisions in Northern Ireland society. The Party's founding principles were expressly in favour of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, although in contrast to other unionist parties, this was expressed in socio-economic rather than ethnic terms. On 5 February 1973, prior to the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll, the party's Chairman, Jim Hendron, stated that "Support for the position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom is a fundamental principle of the Alliance Party, not only for economic reasons but also because we firmly believe that a peaceful solution to our present tragic problems is only possible within a United Kingdom context. Either a Sinn Fein all-Ireland republic or a Vanguard-style Ulster republic would lead to disaster for all our people."
The party's prominence increased in 1972 when three members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons defected to Alliance. The MPs were drawn from across Northern Ireland's political divide and included Bertie McConnell, an independent Unionist, the Ulster Unionist Phelim O’Neill and Tom Gormley who sat as an independent Nationalist. In 1973 Lord Dunleath joined the party in the House of Lords. Stratton Mills, who had been elected as an Ulster Unionist/Conservative MP at Westminster for North Belfast also joined that year, becoming the party's sole MP between 1973–74 and didn't have another MP until 2010. Its first electoral challenge was the District Council elections of May 1973 when they managed to win 13.6% of the votes cast.
In the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly which followed the Sunningdale Agreement the party polled 9.2% and won eight seats. After the elections Alliance entered the power sharing Northern Ireland Executive. Oliver Napier became Legal Minister and Head of the Office of Law Reform and Bob Cooper took the junior role of Minister for Manpower Services.
Alliance's vote increased significantly in the 1977 local elections when it obtained 14.4% of the vote and had 74 Councillors elected. In 1979, Party Leader Oliver Napier came closer than Alliance had previously come 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.
Stabilisation and decline
Alliance was seriously damaged by the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, 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.
Its 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 and Sinn Féin across Northern Ireland. In 1996 Alderdice accepted a peerage, becoming the Alliance Party's only representation in Parliament. Lord Alderdice took the Liberal Democrat whip on wider UK and European issues but remained free from the whip's control on issues impacting 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 Northern Ireland peace process negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, which it strongly supported. Alliance polled poorly in 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 it had been expected to do much better.
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 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. Another problem for the APNI was that the rules of the Assembly require major votes (such as the election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) to have the support of both a majority of unionist and nationalist MLAs, thus diminishing the importance of parties such as Alliance which are not aligned to either of these two blocs.
In the 2003 Assembly elections, Alliance held all their seats, while the Women's Coalition lost both of theirs. 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 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.
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 and 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 six 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 DUP 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 on with doing the job that they were set up to do". Following further negotiations, Ford assumed office on 12 April 2010.
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. The 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly Election resulted in eight Assembly members being returned with a gain in Belfast East. It overtook the UUP on Belfast City Council.
In a poll conducted in November 2012, Alliance (on 11.6%) overtook the UUP (11.4%) for the first time.
During the 2016 elections to the Assembly, in spite of initially confident predications from David Ford that Alliance would see a surplus of up to 11 seats, the party's share of the popular vote stagnated somewhat, from 7.7% in 2011 to 7.0%. Ultimately, its 8 MLAs from their original respective constituencies were returned to Stormont for the fifth Assembly term. Ford later resigned as Alliance Party leader on 6 October 2016, on his 15th anniversary as leader of the party.
2016–present: Opposing Brexit
On 26 October 2016, Naomi Long officially became the new leader of the Alliance Party. In the snap 2017 Assembly election, Alliance increased its vote share to 9.1% and retained all eight of their MLA seats in a reduced Assembly. For the 2017 general election, the party advocated a confirmatory referendum on the Brexit withdrawal agreement and remaining in the European Single Market. In April 2018, the party joined the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party as an associate member.
Alliance increased its vote share by 5 percentage points in the 2019 local elections and broke out of its traditional Greater Belfast heartlands by taking seats on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and Derry City & Strabane District Council where the party had not previously been represented. During the election campaign, the party had urged a break from "orange and green politics" and was vocal in its opposition to Brexit using the slogan "Demand Better".
In the 2019 European election, Naomi Long became the Alliance Party's first ever MEP, receiving the second of three seats allocated to Northern Ireland and securing the best ever result for Alliance with 18.5% of first-preference votes.
The party greatly increased its vote share at the 2019 general election, from 7.9% to 16.8% of Northern Ireland, over-taking the SDLP and UUP to come third overall. The party re-gained a seat in the House of Commons (North Down, previously held by the retiring independent Sylvia Hermon), and was second in another four constituencies.
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 a 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 Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). After Irish nationalist politicians withdrew their role as official Opposition at Stormont, and the resignation of UUP Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O'Neill in 1969, the NUM split between those who wished to remain a pressure group for the UUP 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. It contended that 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 population. The party's founding principles were an attempt to address the "fundamental fears" 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 Ireland 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". (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.
Electoral performance and the regionalisation of Alliance's vote
|Antrim and Newtownabbey||
7 / 40
|Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon||
3 / 40
10 / 60
|Causeway Coast and Glens||
2 / 40
|Derry and Strabane||
2 / 40
|Fermanagh and Omagh||
1 / 40
|Lisburn and Castlereagh||
9 / 40
|Mid and East Antrim||
7 / 40
0 / 40
|Newry, Mourne and Down||
2 / 41
|North Down and Ards||
10 / 40
One trend over time with Alliance's vote is that in contrast to 1973, when Alliance support was dispersed across Northern Ireland, Alliance has 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 Londonderry, 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, Londonderry, 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 region Alliance increased their number of councillors from 45 to 60.
The party won eight council seats across Belfast in 1985. Although that has now recovered to six (from three in 2001), the six are entirely from South and East 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 in 2001. In the neighbouring areas of Dunmurry Cross (Twinbrook/Dunmurry) and Macedon (Rathcoole) Alliance lost their councillors in 1989 and 1994 respectively; on the other hand, the party won three out of seven seats in Victoria in 2011, the first time since 1977 that the party had won three council seats in the same electoral area.
By 2005, the party had councillors in only half of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies. However, this rose to 13 in 2011 after gains in Coleraine, Craigavon, Down and elsewhere. Having had around 30 councillors for a decade, the party won 44 seats in 2011. In the 2010 elections, the Alliance gained the Westminster seat of Belfast East, and gained a 22.6% swing there; in 2011 it re-emphasised that result, winning two out of the six MLA seats available.
In 2014 the party gained one seat in the Belfast Council area, this coming in North Belfast when Nuala McAllister ousted Sinn Féin. Outside of the capital the party's vote held up, and with the exception of Patrick Brown winning in Rowallen, there were no outstanding results.
In the 2015 Westminster elections the party directed their resources at retaining the East Belfast seat Naomi Long had gained from the DUP in 2010. The party lost the seat to the DUP by 2,500 votes, after a Unionist pact, whilst the Alliance vote increased by 6% across the constituency.
The 2019 Northern Ireland local elections saw a substantial increase in the Alliance vote and resulted in 53 councillors being elected, with the only council not having any Alliance representation being in Mid Ulster. The balance of power in the capital of Belfast, is held by the party after an increase to 10 seats and becoming the 3rd party, at Belfast City Hall.
|Dungannon and South Tyrone||5.9||2.9||1.1||0.9|
|Newry and Mourne||13.5||8.3||3.6||1.0||2.0|
|Northern Ireland totals||13.7||14.4||8.9||7.0||6.9||7.6||6.6||5.1||5.0||7.4|
|Antrim and Newtownabbey||12.7||18.7|
|Ards and North Down||13.4||22.2|
|Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon||3.3||7.8|
|Causeway Coast and Glens||3.9||8.0|
|Derry and Strabane||1.6||4.7|
|Fermanagh and Omagh||1.7||3.9|
|Lisburn and Castlereagh||12||23.6|
|Mid and East Antrim||9.4||15.8|
|Newry, Mourne and Down||2.4||7.5|
|Northern Ireland totals||6.6||11.5|
Devolved Legislature elections
|Election||Body||Seats won||±||Position||First Preference Votes||Vote %||Executive|
8 / 78
|1975||Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (NICC)||
8 / 78
10 / 78
|1996||Northern Ireland Forum||
7 / 110
6 / 108
6 / 108
7 / 108
8 / 108
8 / 108
8 / 90
Leaders of Alliance
|1||Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper||1970||1972|
Elected representatives and party spokespeople
- Stratton Mills — Belfast North, 1973–74 (defected from Ulster Unionists)
- Naomi Long — Belfast East, 2010–2015
- Stephen Farry — North Down, 2019–present
Elected in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election:
|MP Name||Constituency||Spokesperson for|
|Naomi Long MLA||Belfast East||Northern Ireland Executive Office|
|Kellie Armstrong MLA||Strangford||Infrastructure|
|Paula Bradshaw MLA||Belfast South||Health|
|Stewart Dickson MLA||East Antrim||Justice|
|Andrew Muir* MLA||North Down||Economy
|John Blair* MLA||South Antrim||Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs|
|Chris Lyttle MLA||Belfast East||Education|
|Headquarters||88 University Street,
Belfast BT7 1HE,
|Mother party||Alliance Party|
Alliance Youth is the youth and student movement of the Alliance Party. Alliance members who are under 31 years old automatically become members of Alliance Youth if they choose to share their details at registration. Alliance Youth is also responsible for overseeing Alliance Societies at Northern Ireland universities. Young Liberals Northern Ireland does not organise in any of Northern Ireland's Universities, encouraging members to become active within Alliance Youth societies.
Alliance Youth actively campaign on issues affecting young people, and aim to shape policy of the main party in these areas. Previous campaigns have focused on racism, child poverty, and human trafficking, as well as specific domestic issues facing young people, such as mental health care, tuition fees, sustainable transport, LGBT rights and homelessness.
The current executive is as follows:
|Vice Chair||Luke Patterson|
|Campaigns & Development Officer||Rowan Fitton|
|Equality, Diversity & Welfare Officer||Odhran McAllister|
|Under 18 Membership Officer||Thomas Blain|
|Policy Officer||Gerard Collins|
|QUB Alliance Chair||Vacant|
|UU Alliance Chair||Vacant|
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