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David Ford: 'I'm leading Alliance into the election... don't write me off'

Published 29/02/2016

Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister David Ford
Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister David Ford

Having just turned 65, Alliance leader David Ford tells political correspondent Noel McAdam he is standing down as Justice Minister after the election and that his party may not want to take up the post again.

Q. Is the issue of how long you are going to remain as leader of Alliance on the party's radar?

A. It wasn't very long after I became leader - probably only weeks if not days - that I said to the party: "Whenever it comes to the time you want me to go, there is no need for any of the men in grey suits - just tell me." The party hasn't said anything like that, and I think it's because they see the successes we have had in recent years.

Q. Should it be on their radar, though?

A. Well, there are a number of people who are more than capable, who could take the party over, because we have a very good team.

Q. You have been leader for almost 15 years now. Is the issue of how long you want to remain in the post on your personal radar?

A. Yes. Inevitably, after a period as long as that, you look towards the future, but I am leading the party into this election and I am gearing up for one of the things I enjoy most in politics: knocking on doors and meeting people.

Q. Is the worry that the minute you say anything you are in danger of becoming a lame duck?

A. I have heard that said about various political leaders over the years. If I were to fall under a number 120 bus in Glengormley tomorrow morning, there is no shortage of leadership in the Alliance Party.

Q. So will there be a contest when you do go? Or is it a coronation for Naomi Long?

A. That depends on who puts their name forward and how many of them there are. The party rules say that if you want to be leader, you have to be an MEP, MLA or MP, so we will just have to wait and see. When I was elected as leader that was after a contest with Eileen Bell (in 2001). But don't be writing me off just yet.

Q. Alliance's share of the vote seems to hover around 7-8%. Is that a personal disappointment to you?

A. In the last European election Anna Lo had the highest result (in terms of vote share) since Oliver Napier (former Alliance leader) in 1979, and in the last Assembly election we gained an extra seat.

In the Westminster election last year, despite losing East Belfast in the face of a five-party pact between parties who could not agree among themselves about anything else except the pact, the vote for Naomi went up by 4,000.

And in the other 17 constituencies we also had uniformly good performances with increased votes.

Q. Is the designation as 'other' arising from the Good Friday Agreement one of the reasons for the party's performance?

A. I am not sure it makes as much difference now as it would have done in the past. Immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the campaign run by Tony Blair and his team was designed to support David Trimble and John Hume, and there was some damage to Alliance as a result. But the party has more than recovered since.

Q. But should the Good Friday Agreement not in fact have helped establish the middle ground in which Alliance could grow?

A. The problem is the structures as opposed to the principles. The structures were built to support the largest parties in each of the two traditional groupings, which were formerly the SDLP and Ulster Unionists and now the DUP and Sinn Fein, so it did make life more difficult.

But we remain as a united community in terms of our designation in the Assembly, and united community is what the Alliance Party is all about.

Q. Does an apparently resurgent Ulster Unionist Party threaten Alliance prospects in the May Assembly election?

A. I think the UUP had some lucky gains in the last council elections, but don't forget that on the same day they also had their worst ever performance in the European election.

Then in the Westminster election they had one genuinely surprising gain (Tom Elliott) in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Their other gain in South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) was not so much a vote for him as a vote against Willie McCrea (DUP). Danny is the nearest thing you could imagine to a genuine liberal unionist, and yet at the same time people who voted for him as a liberal unionist and as a means of keeping Willie McCrea out have told me they will vote for me this year.

Q. What constituencies are you targeting to increase your current eight MLAs?

A. We are looking to increase our votes right across Northern Ireland, but I am looking at five or six seats constituencies in particular - South and East Belfast, North Down, East Antrim, perhaps North Belfast also, and East Londonderry is possibly in the mix.

Q. Looking further ahead, where do you anticipate gains in local government to increase your present 31 councillors?

A. We are certainly considering Belfast, which when you think about it was the focus of the flag dispute. Despite the attempt to destroy us there we strengthened our team to eight councillors, which we had not had for several years.

In terms of suburban areas, we have good ground to build on in Lisburn and Castlereagh where we have seven councillors, and Antrim and Newtownabbey where... due to some slippage we should have had more.

Q. Is it your intention to stay on as Justice Minister if possible after the May election?

A. I think it is likely that after six years doing one of the most difficult jobs in the Executive it would be inappropriate for me to put my name forward to remain as Justice Minister.

Q. But isn't that just putting a gun to the head of the other parties? It is very likely the other parties will not be able to agree who should get the justice portfolio.

A. If we qualify for a ministry, there is nothing to say that we have to take Justice. The big question is whether we are going to get sufficient agreement around the Programme for Government. We will wait and see whether we want to continue running Justice, or if we want to take over another department.

Q. But couldn't it precipitate a crisis?

A. Why should it be a crisis? Why should it cause a crisis because Alliance sticks to its principles?

Q. Aren't you just using this threat as leverage to get as many of your own proposals into the Programme for Government as possible?

A. Are you suggesting that only the Alliance Party can take up the Justice position? I don't think any of the others could do as good as job as my party, but that does not mean they could not do it at all.

Q. I know you will say it is for others to judge, but how would you rate your own performance as Justice Minister ?

A. It is not just for other people to judge, but others seem to judge in the Assembly chamber and in newspapers every week.

Q. Have you been frustrated, with the things you have been unable to achieve?

A. Our budget was more significantly cut two years ago than any other department, so that produced difficulties. The pace of prison reform is faster than it has been, but there are always those who would want it even faster.

Q. Would you have expected the closure of local courts (Limavady, Strabane, Magherafelt, Ballymena, Armagh and Lisburn have all been earmarked) to have been more controversial?

A. I think that if you were to do a survey in any town you would find 95% of people have never been in their local court and 95% would never want to have to go to their local court.

The closure of six courthouses will not see a reduction in scheduled court sittings, as business will transfer on a like-for-like basis to the new venues, so there is no reason that there would be any negative impact on access to court time.

The remaining courthouses in the estate will ensure that access to justice, within a reasonable travelling distance, is preserved for court users.

I welcome the indication from the Lord Chief Justice that the judiciary is prepared to consider the timings for court proceedings and to explore the benefits of a more flexible court sitting day to alleviate any difficulties that individual users may have

Q. Have you concerns that some local weekly papers do not cover their courts?

A. The role of the media in reporting cases and their outcomes is an essential component of the principle of open justice. Access to courts by the media and the public isn't affected by a reduction in courthouses.

Q. Why have you been so critical of the role of the Ministry of Defence in relation to legacy inquests?

A. I wrote to the Secretary of State on June 15 last year asking her to raise the issue of tracing retired military witnesses directly with the Secretary of State for Defence.

I asked that he consider what steps might be taken, or whether additional resources could be deployed, by the MoD to address the problem that the coroners have encountered with retired military witnesses.

In response, the Secretary of State for Defence advised that he was conscious of the importance of securing the full participation of the widest possible range of witnesses, and that the MoD would do all that it reasonably could to facilitate their engagement.

I appreciated that response.

However, it is clear that much more work is required in the identification and tracing of retired military witnesses and in communication with them regarding participation in the inquest process.

I also note the involvement of the MoD in the preliminary hearings on legacy inquests before Lord Justice Weir recently.

Those 43 inquests with an MoD involvement represent a significant proportion of the legacy inquests that remain outstanding.

I trust that the MoD will respond fully to the requests for information that Lord Justice Weir made in those hearings.

Q. But has there been some improvement in the MoD position more recently?

A. I think that we have seen an improvement in the help being offered by the MoD. However, that is where I hinted that we needed to ensure that it was carried through into reality.

For example, we have seen the MoD instituting better administrative checks on records, including pension records, to look at potential witnesses.

We have also seen the agreement that the Royal Military Police (RMP) will use its policing powers, if necessary and possible, to assist the process.

That would mean, obviously, that the RMP would have policing powers to go into liaising with outside agencies beyond simply trawling through the MoD records.

I think that there is some progress implied; the important issue is whether comments made by Lord Justice Weir are taken into account by the MoD representatives and carried through.

Q. Do you ever wish you had stayed on as a social worker or remained an ecumenical volunteer at Corrymeela?

A. Corrymeela was always going to be just a one-year experience.

I enjoyed my time as a social worker. I don't know that I would have wanted to go back, though. My job in politics is endlessly fascinating, and I have enjoyed my time as party leader and, although it is a tough role as I have said, as Justice Minister.

Q. And are you still a bit of a railway anorak?

A. I was never an anorak, but I have campaigned for years for a better service between Antrim and Belfast, and particularly at Knockmore for people from the Crumlin area, and a rail link to the International Airport.

Q. Are you expecting to see real tangible progress soon on cross-border policing co-operation?

A. The first full meeting of the cross-border taskforce (set up under the auspices of Stormont's Fresh Start deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the British and Irish Governments) is in the next few weeks. There already was a ministerial meeting in December, and I frequently have discussions with Frances Fitzgerald (the Irish Justice Minister). I think, probably at every meeting I have with her, the issues of operational support for the two police services (arises).

I know that there had been discussions ongoing very recently between officials about the refresh to the cross-border policing strategy, which I hope to be able to launch within the next few weeks, subject to timing arrangements at this stage largely because of the elections to Dail Eireann. I believe that good work has been done on that, but it is important that we get the public statement of the relaunch of that strategy.

Q. You came in for a lot of criticism over secrecy in relation to the funeral of Robert Black. Have you had second thoughts about how it was handled?

A. The way in which the funeral arrangements were made was entirely in keeping with normal practice, not only in Northern Ireland, but England, Scotland and Wales. The comments made in the media did not change the way that was going to be handled.

I am very happy to report that Mr and Mrs Cardy (parents of Jennifer Cardy, who was one of Black's victims) have recognised that we carried out the funeral as sensitively as we could in all the circumstances.

Q. Next weekend you will be giving the keynote address at your 15th conference as party leader. What will be your message? Is it effectively the launch of your election campaign?

A. Well, I will be highlighting the achievements of the party in recent years and talking about our broad themes for the election, but it is not the launch of our manifesto.

I will be emphasising the need for Northern Ireland to get away from the pattern of 'stop-go' politics and the need for us to govern in a more effective way than the province has been governed over recent years.

There is a line I frequently use when I meet visitors who come here. Is Northern Ireland better than it was before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998? Yes, of course it is. Is Northern Ireland as far on as it should be? No, it is not, because of the failures by others.

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