Belfast Telegraph

David Ford calls time on career after 20 years up on the hill

By Allan Preston

After 25 years in public life, former Alliance leader David Ford has said it's time to spend more time in his walking boots.

This Saturday marks exactly 20 years since the 67-year-old was first elected as an MLA in 1998, having already served for five years as a councillor in Antrim.

"It's clearly the right time to step down," he said.

"It's been one of those issues I had to weigh up, but it's really the best opportunity to get someone else established during the Assembly suspension so they're good to go when the Assembly is restored. It's clearly the right time."

He said helping to get justice powers devolved to Northern Ireland has been his proudest moment, but this had been soured by the long-running stalemate at Stormont.

The former justice minister is hopeful that can change by next year and has called for new talks to include the five main political parties.

As a student at Queen's University, Mr Ford joined the Alliance Party the week it was founded in 1970.

"At that stage, we'd been through the difficulties of the early rise of civil rights turning to violence," he said.

"There was a hope that things were moving on in the political field, unfortunately that turned out not to be the case and we had 30 wasted years after that.

"I remain convinced the only way to move forward is to be genuinely committed to building good partnerships and working for a united community for all of us.

"Carving things up between other parties simply hasn't worked."

During the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, he said the thought of granting justice powers to local politicians seemed impossible.

"The fact that justice was devolved successfully with very little controversy is I think a tribute to the work done by the Alliance team and not just by me," he said.

"My biggest disappointment is that the poor relations between the two largest parties have led us into the current impasse."

While the UUP and SDLP have been steadily marginalised in the polls, he said the Alliance Party should remain hopeful for their future.

"We're the only party apart from the Greens that has never lost a seat in the Assembly despite the reduction in seats last year, so I'm confident we'll continue to be in that position of strength as one of the five main parties," he said.

Former Alliance Party leader Lord John Alderdice recently made the decision to leave the Presbyterian Church. Mr Ford himself was removed as an elder in his church in 2016 due to his support for same sex marriage.

"I share John's concerns on the church's direction in recent years even though I haven't agreed with him on leaving," he said.

"Things change and can change in different directions. I certainly hope we see a greater willingness and openness to recognise there's a breadth of opinion across a variety of churches including our own.

"I hope we can get a more tolerant position on the recognition of where some people come from."

On retirement plans, he said: "I'm looking forward to having a bit more time with the family now, more opportunity to put the walking boots on and spending time with the grandchildren."

It's expected the Alliance Party, now led by Naomi Long, will announce his successor next week.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was among the many who thanked Mr Ford for his service.

"Politics here is no easy business, and we have to pay tribute to those who have served their constituents during good and bad times," he said.

"Mr Ford has dedicated his political career to better the life of his constituents as an MLA for South Antrim, his own party during his years as Alliance Party leader, and his determination to better our justice system through his time holding the departmental portfolio."

Ulster Unionist MLA for South Antrim Steve Aiken said: "Really sorry to see David Ford stepping down - he has been a friend and a credit to South Antrim and his constituents."

South Antrim DUP MP Paul Girvan tweeted: "Best wishes to David for a long, healthy and happy retirement. An articulate and effective advocate for South Antrim."

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