David Ford to resign as Alliance leader
David Ford MLA is to step down as Alliance party leader.
Mr Ford, who will continue serving as South Antrim MLA, will resign on the 15th anniversary of his taking the leadership of the party.
His resignation will take effect from noon on Thursday, October 6.
His successor will be chosen by party members at a special Alliance party council on October 26.
In the interim Naomi Long will serve as leader. Mrs Long described it as the "end of an era".
Only the party's MLAs can put themselves forward to be new leader. They include Chris Lyttle, Kellie Armstrong, Naomi Long, Paula Bradshaw, Stephen Farry, Stewart Dickson, Trevor Lunn and David Ford. Mr Ford, however, said he will not enter his name, although he would be entitled to do so.
The successful candidate also needs to secure 50% of the support of the party's ruling council before they can become leader.
Mr Ford said: "With my 15th anniversary, I felt it the most appropriate time to step aside and pass the reins to a new generation of leadership for the party.
“Alliance has a well-established new Assembly team, which has hit the ground running by successfully submitting a number of private member's bills and continuing to provide the effective scrutiny of the Executive others have so far failed to do.
“I am proud to represent the people of South Antrim, who most recently re-elected me for my fifth Assembly term in May, and I will continue to do that in Stormont and in the constituency.
“Whoever succeeds me as Alliance leader will be taking over a party on the rise. I am confident they will continue that upwards trend of growing the party, while providing leadership for everyone in our community.”
Mr Ford was previously the Justice Minister, but refused the offer of the post in the new Executive.
Alliance said that under his leadership the party has grown "significantly in every form of election".
It said: "Having two serving ministers in the previous Executive, while the party became the home of Europe’s first Parliamentarian from the Chinese community and saw its first MP elected."
Paying tribute deputy leader Mrs Long said: "Today is the end of an era. David has served the Alliance Party in so many roles over the years, as a Councillor, Assembly Member, negotiator, Justice Minister, General Secretary and Chief Whip; however, his Leadership over the last 15 years has transformed the Alliance Party and made a huge contribution to peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
"In doing so, he has gained huge respect in the community and huge loyalty and admiration from the party members. As a party, he has steered us through some challenging times and, despite those challenges, delivered some of our best electoral results. He's stepping down from leadership having developed a strong, vibrant and growing organisation.
"I have had the pleasure and the privilege of serving as his Deputy Leader for the last 10 years and of working closely with him to shape and modernise the Party. I want to thank David, Anne and the family, for the sacrifices they have made over those years for which all of us in Alliance are hugely indebted.
"I know that David's passion for South Antrim, for Alliance and for building a united community are undiminished and he will continue to pursue those actively as a constituency MLA and an active member of our Assembly Team."
Stephen Farry MLA said it had been a "privilege" working with Mr Ford.
"In particular, I was impressed by his dedication and professionalism as Minister for Justice. In addition to being the most successful Alliance Leader to date, he leaves a powerful legacy in having successfully overseen the devolution of policing and justice.
"I know David's passion for South Antrim, for Alliance and for building a united community are undiminished, and he will continue to pursue those actively as a constituency MLA and an effective member of our Assembly team."
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt paid tribute saying Mr Ford would be remembered for his contribution.
He said: “I congratulate David on sticking the pace for fifteen years as party leader - that's quite a shift in what can be a very lonely and exposed position.
“He led his Party during some very challenging times both for Northern Ireland and for these institutions and I am sure he will be remembered for his contribution.”
The tenure of Mr Ford, who is an ex-social worker, has been the longest in the Alliance Party's history.
He assumed the leadership role in 2001 when Sean Neeson stood down in the wake of poor election results.
Six years later, the party achieved one of its highest ever vote shares and made further gains in the 2011 Assembly elections.
Mr Ford was appointed Northern Ireland's first justice minister in almost 40 years in 2010 - becoming one of two Alliance Party ministers to serve in the five-party coalition Executive during the last mandate.
During that time he became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the legal profession over plans to slash the legal aid bill.
In 2012 his party endorsed gay marriage.
And in February of this year he brought forward controversial legislation which would have legalised abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Following May's election, Mr Ford said his party would not be in a position to accept the justice ministry.
Among the favourites to take on the role will be current deputy leader and former East Belfast MP Naomi Long.
Nominations will close next week and the successful candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes cast by members of the Alliance Party's 250-strong council during a specially convened meeting on October 26.