Northern Ireland

Lord John Alderdice: 'English have no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland'

Former Alliance leader Lord John Alderdice
Former Alliance leader Lord John Alderdice Former Alliance leader Lord John Alderdice

The English public's attitude to Northern Ireland has "changed profoundly" over the past quarter of a century and there is now "no emotional attachment" to the region, according to a former Alliance leader.

Lord John Alderdice, who led Alliance from 1987-98, believes the north is on an "inevitable trajectory... towards de facto joint authority" and that recent elections highlight how the pace is quickening.

Offering his analysis of the recent council elections, which saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party in local government, the one-time East Belfast MLA believes the May 18 poll was "disastrous" for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and DUP on the key issue of preserving the union.

"He [Sir Jeffrey] is secure as leader, having comprehensively fought off the threat from the TUV, PUP, and UUP and, characteristic of the ‘in-lodge’ thinking of unionism, he has claimed this as a victory," Lord Alderdice wrote.

"However, the position on the key issue of ‘the union’ is disastrous for him and his supporters and from his comments one might be forgiven for thinking that he has not quite realised how catastrophic it is."

He said the recent election “may be judged by history to be one of the most consequential in the history of Northern Ireland”.

Noting how nationalists in the north collectively outpolled their unionist counterparts for the first time, the former Stormont speaker said "Alliance voters are now moving closer to the position of the SDLP, if not SF, than that of the unionists". 

"There is a demographic shift that is proceeding irreversibly and this only increases as we go down the age profile," he wrote. 

"Unionist talk post-election has been all about getting the unionists together, but it is now too late for that." 

He said the Good Friday Agreement offered the "last best hope for unionists, and they failed to build on it". 

"They did not grasp that it was they, not Sinn Féin, who needed the Northern Ireland Assembly to work and for that to happen they needed to treat nationalists, as well as others, and even sometimes each other, more fairly and with more respect," he wrote. 

"They now call for ‘respect’ from republicans, but they provided little example of that when they were the dominant political force, even after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement."

The Ballymena-born Liberal Democrat peer said a key development that receives "remarkably little attention in Northern Ireland" is what he terms the "profound change in attitudes in England" since he joined the House of Lords in 1996.

"There is now no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland – commentators on UK affairs regularly speak about the UK without any thought of, or reference to, the Northern Ireland component," he wrote.  

"The BBC’s John Simpson recently remarked that the Union was now secure because of the implosion of the Scottish National Party – the security of the Union with regard to Northern Ireland did not seem to enter his calculus."

He said any belief that the situation would change under a Labour administration was misplaced.