A majority of grassroots Alliance members would back the party pulling out of the Stormont Executive in protest at the axing of one of its ministries, a Belfast Telegraph survey suggests.
A snapshot sample of the party’s rank-and-file attending the annual conference on Saturday were asked if they would support the party refusing to allow leader David Ford to continue as Justice Minister in protest at the Executive’s decision to axe Alliance’s other portfolio, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL).
A total of 60% said they would be behind the strategy, still to be finally decided by the party’s ruling council, although a significant minority of those questioned (32%) opted for ‘no’.
The verdict underpinned Mr Ford’s warning in the Belfast Telegraph last week that the ruling council could “certainly” decide to withdraw his name when the next ministerial share-out takes place, probably in the autumn.
The move could potentially plunge Stormont into crisis with the likelihood that the main unionist and nationalist blocs would prove unable to agree on a candidate from their respective camps to take over Justice.
Secretary of State Owen Paterson has pledged to introduce legislation providing guarantees that Mr Ford could not be similarly removed as Justice Minister by other parties, but Mr Ford insists the timing — next year — is too late. Now, in contrast to the party’s long-held image as problem-solvers rather than wreckers, the support for the threats to stand down from Justice — with 70% saying they are happy with the way the party has responded to the Executive threat (and just 26% against) — endorses the increasingly ‘get tough’ stance.
The poll also shows significant support for legislation which would allow for the formation of an opposition — the self-styled role Alliance played in the Assembly, along with several independents and former Green Party MLA Brian Wilson, until Mr Ford became the only candidate the other parties could accede to becoming Justice Minister.
But it also contained a rap on the knuckles for ministers, with 92% of those asked saying the Executive has not done enough in relation to the so-called shared future blueprint — officially called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.
On the issue of who from the other parties Alliance members trust, First Minister Peter Robinson got a lower rating than Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
A total of 90% said ‘no’ to the question of whether they trust DUP leader Mr Robinson, compared to 52% who answered ‘no’ for the former IRA second-in-command.
Mr McGuinness scored a 44% approval rating from those who said they trust him, compared to a lowly 6% who said they trust Mr Robinson, who lost his Parliamentary seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long.
A higher level of Alliance members, based on the survey, trust the Taoiseach Enda Kenny (72%) more than Secretary of State Owen Paterson (22%).
A total of 50 members of the party were chosen at random and agreed to take part in the survey at the one-day gathering at the La Mon Hotel.
There were high scores for Mr Ford as both party leader — 68% giving the highest rating — and as Justice Minister at 76%.
Perhaps surprisingly, a higher proportion of those questioned said they tended to transfer their vote to nationalists rather than unionists, even though Alliance is a pro-Union party.
Most, however, asked to be included as ‘other’ rather than plumping for either unionist or nationalist, and some arguing it would depend on the candidate.
A total of 82% did not believe there will be a united Ireland within 20 years, while 92% said the IRA ceasefire is permanent.
The survey for the Belfast Telegraph was conducted by Tanya Coulter and Michael Delaney, students on the National Council for the Training of Journalists course at Belfast Metropolitan College.
Warning: no whitewash on shared future
Alliance leader David Ford has warned he may not sign up for the Executive’s reworked blueprint to tackle sectarianism.
Addressing his annual conference, Mr Ford insisted the strategy — Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) — must lead to more children being educated together, so-called peace walls coming down and an agreed way to deal with the “scourge” of flags and emblems.
Mr Ford forced publication of the initial CSI document as his price for agreeing to become Justice Minister two years ago this month.
But in an open letter from community relations experts and practitioners to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the initial proposals were deemed deeply flawed, and a special Stormont team, including Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, is currently attempting a revamp.
“Even though we have worked with the other parties to try to produce a CSI strategy worthy of the name, we will not sign up to anything that sells that name short,” Mr Ford told party members at their first gathering since last year’s double Assembly and council elections.
“The test for our support will be high, because what is at stake is whether or not the Executive will deliver for our community on the biggest single challenge facing us — the creation of a genuinely shared future.”
Mr Ford said the CSI blueprint is among the most important tasks for this Assembly term and
he has asked Mr Lyttle to “to work for the strongest possible strategy”.
He said: “I will not sign off on any strategy that doesn’t result in more children being educated together; more people living in shared housing communities; more interface structures coming down, and a robust process for dealing with the scourge of flags and emblems that blight and label so many areas of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Ford also attacked the record of the other Executive parties and questioned the commitment of Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to developing a shared future.
“Of course, everyone’s talking the talk of a shared future these days,” he said.
“When he’s not threatening to collapse the power-sharing objective over the badge on a cap that
some prison officers wear, Peter Robinson is talking about a shared future.
“When they’re not insisting that the sectarian designations of the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved for ever and a day, the SDLP are talking about a shared future.
“When he’s not wrapping himself in the Union flag at the UUP AGM, Mike Nesbitt is talking about a shared future.
“And when they’re not cutting all the funding of the Department of Education’s cross-community youth programmes, Sinn Fein are talking about a shared future.”
But he said talk is cheap, and genuine leaders would turn up at sporting events for the national anthems.
“Gestures may be a good start, but gestures are empty if they don’t lead to actions with more substance,” Mr Ford said. “What costs is to lead, to go into communities and start to talk about lowering barriers instead of raising them; about building connections rather than fences.
“What Peter Robinson preaches in the Press is what he and his DUP colleagues should actually put into practice on the streets of east Belfast,” Mr Ford said.
He said what costs is also to face down the boards of schools and teacher training colleges and say: “Sorry, we know you are proud of your past, but the time has come to think of the future.
“Segregation isn’t part of the future that any of us should be paying taxes to maintain.
“What Martin McGuinness claims to aspire to, he and his Sinn Fein colleagues should deliver in relation to teacher training,” he added.