Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Obituary: Sir Oliver Napier - Alliance founder who championed power-sharing politics

The first leader of the Alliance Party, Sir Oliver Napier

Sir Oliver Napier, who died in hospital on Saturday after a long illness, was one of the most important Northern Ireland politicians of his generation.

He was a founder member and a former leader of the Alliance Party, and he was also a well-known lawyer in a long-established family practice in Belfast. He was 75.

Oliver Napier was born in Belfast on 11 July 1935 and educated at St Malachy's College in Belfast.

He was the third generation of the family to attend the school.

He later graduated in law from Queen's University, and he was always proud of his alma mater.

Oliver Napier was a successful solicitor, later practising in insolvency cases, but he became more widely-known as a founder member and as a leader of the Alliance Party.

It was established in 1970 at a time when community relations and politics in Northern Ireland were sharply divided on sectarian lines.

The founders of Alliance, like Sir Oliver, showed courage and conviction at a difficult time for political bridge-building.

Oliver Napier was a committed Catholic, but he had a vision of an effective political party which could cross religious and political boundaries.

Given his passion, commitment and eloquence, he was a natural choice as leader of Alliance, and in the power-sharing but shortlived Northern Ireland Executive set up after the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 he was appointed Head of the Office of Law Reform.

He often recalled entertainingly in private the role and character of some of the major players in the politics of those days, including Sir Edward Heath and Dr Garret FitzGerald.

Despite the early demise of the power-sharing Government, Oliver Napier and Alliance constantly worked to develop and consolidate a political middle-ground.

Napier was a shrewd politician and a good campaigner, and in the 1979 General Election he narrowly failed to win Protestant East Belfast with 15,066 votes.

He polled only 928 votes fewer than the DUP's Peter Robinson and only 864 fewer than the Ulster Unionist Bill Craig.

He took particular pleasure from Naomi Long's victory for Alliance in winning the seat in the last General Election.

Sir Oliver was also delighted by Alliance taking two ministries in the current Stormont Executive, and he lived long enough to see his party making an important and effective contribution to power-sharing politics.

The current Alliance leader David Ford, paying tribute, said that Oliver Napier was ahead of his time " but the vision he had is demonstrated in all the excellent work being done to improve community relations in Northern Ireland".

When he stepped down as Alliance leader in 1984 the then Secretary of State Douglas Hurd said that everyone who had sought a political solution to the complexities of Northern Ireland owed Oliver Napier a deep debt of gratitude.

In 1985 he was knighted for his services to politics, and many of his friends and supporters felt that he also deserved a peerage, but that was not to be. During his career he was also a Belfast City councillor, and from 1988-92 he was chairman of the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights.

In recent years Oliver Napier suffered from poor health but he faced this considerable challenge with courage and dignity, as well as a wry sense of humour.

Even in his last weeks his mind was as sharp as ever and he remained deeply interested in, and well-informed about, all aspects of current affairs.

He was a charming and modest man of great integrity, with a generous spirit and a genuine interest in the well-being of other people.

He made a significant contribution to peace-making in Northern Ireland and was genuinely happy to see his early labours, and those of his colleagues, bearing fruit.

Sir Oliver is survived by Briege, his wife of 50 years, by their eight children (another child died at an early age), by their 19 grandchildren, by his wider family and his many friends and colleagues who mourn his passing.

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