The Alliance Party: How it began
Brian Eggins (Alliance News)
The Civil Rights Association (CRA) was formed in 1967, protesting about discrimination against Catholics. In November 1968, Prime Minister Terence O’Neill proposed reforms intended to meet their grievances. This led to dissension in the Stormont cabinet, with Bill Craig calling for tough action against the CRA, who themselves were not satisfied with O’Neill’s package. On 9 December, O’Neill appealed to the people in his “Ulster at the crossroads” speech, in which he asked, “What kind of Ulster do you want?”
He called an election in February 1969, but ten unionist MPs were against him, so in April he resigned.
In January 1969, the New Ulster Movement emerged, which aimed to develop cross-community politics with moderate and non-sectarian policies involving both Catholics and Protestants. An active organisation was built with thousands of members drawn from all sections of the community. It issued many influential papers. But its more radical members wanted a new political party.
Denis Loretto recalled, “A sixteen-strong group was formed late in 1969, consisting of some NUM members plus representatives of the ‘Parliamentary Associations’, which had formed around pro-O’Neill candidates in the February 1969 election. Behind the scenes it worked on the logistics of forming a political party from the ground up.”
Then on 16th April 1970, there were two by-elections. David Corkey backed by NUM obtained 25% of the votes in South Antrim. So, as Denis Loretto said, “In a hectic weekend we wrote a declaration of intent signed in 19th April by sixteen people, containing the founding principles of the party plus all the supporting documentation for a press launch on Tuesday, 21st April.”
The first Alliance Party conference was held in 4th July 1970, attended by 90 committee members. An acting Executive Committee was formed, with Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper as joint political chairpersons. In October was the first Alliance Party Council. Further Party Conferences were held in the Ulster Hall, attended by about 2,000 people.
Alliance leaders were soon involved in talks with British Government Ministers. In October 1971, Basil Glass, Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper met with Home Secretary Reginald Maulding, and in January 1972, Glass, Napier and Cooper had talks with Prime Minister Edward Heath.
Early in 1972, Alliance acquired a parliamentary party when the Stormont MPs Phelim O’Neill (Unionist), Bertie McConnell (Independent Unionist), and Tom Gormley (Independent Nationalist) joined the party. In April 1972, seventeen Aldermen and Councillors announced that they would be sitting as Alliance Party members henceforth.
A conference was held at Darlington in September 1972, to examine the options for Northern Ireland government. The new Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused to go, and only the Faulkner-led Official Unionists, Alliance, and the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) attended.
Phelim O’Neill (now Alliance Party Leader), Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper regularly met Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw for lunch. They convinced him that PR elections were needed. He pushed it through the cabinet against the advice of others. In November, a Green Paper was published which contained most of the ideas put forward at Darlington. The “Irish Dimension” was clearly going to be the most contentious issue.
In 1973, Stratton Mills, Westminster MP for North Belfast, joined the Alliance Party, but did not stand in the next election in 1974. Robin Baillie, Stormont MP for Newtownabbey, also joined.
A Government White Paper, “Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals”, was published in March, which was supported by Alliance and the NILP, but the SDLP gave only qualified support. The UUP refused to reject it. The DUP and William Craig’s new Vanguard Unionist Party were opposed. However, the proposals went ahead and two Bills were published in May.
Alliance was ready to contest its first elections. Expectations were high as 238 candidates stood in the Local Government elections in May and 35 candidates in the Assembly elections in June, both using the Single Transferable Vote system as proposed by Alliance. Alliance obtained 13.7% in the Local Government elections, winning 63 council seats. In the Assembly elections, the vote was 9.2%, yielding eight Assembly seats. This gave Oliver Napier a seat in the power-sharing Executive (as Minister for Law Reform), together with Bob Cooper (as Minister for Labour Relations).
A conference was then held at Sunningdale about the Irish Dimension. Although a Council of Ireland was agreed, different parties had different perceptions of it. The unionists considered it an advisory body, whereas the SDLP thought it was the route to a united Ireland. Oliver Napier asked, “Do you really want a Council of Ireland? The Council of Ireland hangs by a thread … If you do nothing in the next few weeks, history will judge you and its judgment will be harsh and unforgiving.”