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ANALYSIS: David Ford steadied ship and ensured Alliance held its ground

David Ford in 2001 when he took over as Alliance leader. Picture by Stephen Davidson

DAVID Ford is arguably an exception to prove Enoch Powell’s oft-quoted assertion that all political careers end in failure.

His 15-year tenure as Alliance leader hasn’t been a runaway success but when one considers where the middle-ground party was when he took over, then the South Antrim MLA is to be commended.

At the time Sean Neeson vacated the leader's post, Sinn Féin and the DUP were in the ascendency and it was feared centrist politics in the north were becoming an irrelevance.

While his impact wasn’t immediate, the then 50-year-old steadied the listing Alliance ship and fended off a threat to his own seat.

His first election saw the party’s vote drop but it managed to hold its six assembly seats, which it also maintained in 2007 as the north prepared for new power-sharing arrangements post-St Andrews.

In 2010, after the Hillsborough talks and devolution of policing and justice, Mr Ford became the first Stormont justice minister for 38 years.

It was a role that the sober church elder appeared well-suited for and it is widely acknowledged that he conducted himself independently, impartially and effectively.

In the Westminster election that year came a high point in Alliance’s history when deputy leader Naomi Long unseated DUP leader Peter Robinson in East Belfast to become MP.

However, while it showed Mr Ford’s party was far from written off, it led to a pan-unionist backlash, with a DUP/UUP leaflet campaign fuelling anti-Alliance sentiment around a council vote to fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days only.

Flag protests saw loyalist mobs take to the streets and picket Alliance’s office on the Newtownards Road, coupled with death threats against elected representatives and the torching of party offices in Carrickfergus.

The protests only boosted the party’s standing among the wider community. Nonetheless, Mrs Long was unseated in 2015 after a unionist electoral pact.

In this year’s Stormont election, Alliance’s vote fell marginally but as David Ford departs, the party has two more MLAs than it had when he assumed the leadership.

Notably, however, it does not have enough representatives to join the assembly’s fledgling opposition.

Articulate and with greater intellectual abilities than most on Stormont’s benches, the departing Alliance leader has been criticised for being a cold fish and on occasions tetchy.

However, he can point to his successful record in holding Stormont’s middle ground in the face of many challenges.

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