Belfast Telegraph

Why David Ford is no longer teacher's pet

By Liam Clarke

Alliance's charmed existence up at Stormont is swiftly coming to an end. Time was the middle-of-the-road party was treated as the equivalent of a teacher's pet by the head and deputy head, in the shape of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

Now it looks as if they are in for a caning, first on their second ministry and secondly on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) - their most distinctive policy.

There will be little pupil solidarity from the SDLP and UUP, which always saw Alliance as suck-ups to the Big Two. They will hope to benefit from the rough and tumble to come.

The halcyon days started in April 2010, when Alliance looked like the answer to the DUP and Sinn Fein's prayers.

Appointing David Ford, the Alliance leader, to the Justice Ministry on a cross-community vote, solved the big parties' thorny problem over the devolution of policing and justice.

The Robinson/McGuinness double-act dates from around that point.

Ford seemed so central to their achievement that he was seen, for a time, as almost a junior partner, a fast-tracked scholarship boy who could do no wrong.

Ford pressed for various concessions, including pledges on an anti-sectarianism initiative, CSI, which will come to a head in the next few weeks.

Alliance got a ministry it wasn't entitled to under d'Hondt and that made them look like winners going into the Westminster election a month later.

Thanks to the ministry and Robinson's discomfiture over the Irisgate affair, Alliance took Robinson's own East Belfast seat.

Worse still, from the DUP viewpoint, when the boundary commission proposed new constituencies, the planned South East Belfast seat favoured Alliance over the DUP.

In the Assembly election, Alliance pushed up its vote, especially in the Belfast travel-to-work doughnut, and took another ministry, Employment and Learning (DEL), at the UUP's expense - though they had just half the UUP's seats.

Alliance got two ministers, Ford and Stephen Farry at DEL - as many as the UUP and SDLP put together.

Farry was then given funds - some from cuts in his own department - to hold down student fees: another vote-winner. That sort of luck doesn't make you many friends at Stormont. Hence the sniggers from the UUP and SDLP benches at the decision to scrap DEL - even though the main beneficiaries will be Sinn Fein and DUP ministers. Ford learnt who was in charge when Robinson threatened an election if he pushed through changes to prison officers' uniforms and, after consulting with his lawyers, Ford retreated.

He has been slapped around on the justice committee by Paul Givan and Jim Wells for presiding over a prison system the DUP considers too soft, while Sinn Fein portray him as too tough on prisoners like Marion Price.

Ford and his colleagues are now being blamed for delays in finding agreement on CSI and, within the next month, the big parties can be expected to produce their own joint-paper, whether he supports it or not.

The head and deputy head are counting on Ford to swallow his pride and get on with his work.

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