Belfast Telegraph

Lord Alderdice’s parting shots

 

Former leader of the Alliance Party and first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Baron Alderdice, Lord John Alderdice, was a key figure in the Agreement negotiations and a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission from 2004 to 2011. A psychiatrist by profession, he is the son of a Presbyterian minister and was himself an elder in the Church until his recent headline-hitting resignation. Here, he talks about politics, paramilitaries, Presbyterianism - and that 'most difficult decision'.

Q. You were born in 1955. Where did you grow up?

A. I was born in Donaghcloney; my father David Alderdice was minister of the Presbyterian church there. My dad had met my mother Helena when he was a student minister. I have two sisters, Anne and Ruth, and a brother, David. After Donaghcloney we moved to east Belfast where my father was minister at Westbourne Church on the Newtownards Road.

My father was then called to Ballymena - to Wellington Street Presbyterian Church. I went to Ballymena Academy and then up to Queen's, where I studied medicine. I went on to study psychiatry and then got my consultant job. By that time I was working part-time because I'd already become Alliance Party leader when I was still a junior doctor.

My wife Joan Hill and I had married when we were medical students (we have three children, Stephen, Peter and Anna, and five grandchildren). Joan and I went to the same school and her family came to my father's church. We'd been going out together since I was 16 and she was 15. Joan became a pathologist - a histopathologist - looking at breast cancer screening and cervical cancer screening. She set up a lot of these services for the Northern Board.

Q. How did you get into politics?

A. From an early stage I was interested in politics. Part of the reason for my going into psychiatry - I was particularly interested in psychology, psychoanalysis - was to find a way of understanding conflict. It seemed to me that a lot of the political science explanations of that time didn't really fit with the reality of what I was seeing, didn't really give us the tools to sort the problem.

So I thought: who is it who knows about people behaving in a self-destructive way? And the answer is psychiatrists, because that's what psychiatry is about - people not behaving in their own best interests, but in a self-destructive way.

I thought if I could understand what happens with individuals, I could apply it to whole communities.

Q. Looking at the continuing impasse, do you feel pessimistic?

A. I'm not particularly pessimistic about things. We're obviously going through a difficult patch. But I think it's not that hard to see why. It's important for people to understand that peace processes are more like playing the accordion than riding a bicycle. It's not about working up a momentum and then just keeping going.

They do work to and fro. That's in the nature of them. The second thing is that, for various reasons, the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, are preoccupied with things outside Northern Ireland. The DUP are preoccupied with the role that they are playing at Westminster, with the support they're giving to the Government.

This is a position they had long wanted to be in. Sinn Fein are very much focused on the South. They can see there's a major election coming up. I think they will be looking at the possibility of getting into a coalition government there. They've been doing very well and they will do even better under Mary Lou. She's a very bright lady and very dynamic.

She probably does want to find some sort of accommodation with unionists - whether that would be something that would be appealing to people on the unionist side is another matter. She's still young enough in her leadership to think things could be achieved under her mantle that could not have been achieved under the mantle of her predecessor. Neither of the two parties, and maybe particularly Sinn Fein, are too keen to do the heavy lifting on the decisions about Brexit that face Northern Ireland. They'd much rather the British and Irish Governments did.

But once we reach the other side of that, I think we may then see a move back to how we get things moving in Northern Ireland again. I think there's a fair reason to believe that is possible. That's not to say it's inevitable. It's not.

Even if people don't want things to go awry, they can still go awry. But I'm not pessimistic in the short to medium-term. I think it's entirely possible that we get the show back on the road again.

Q. Do you think enough is being done to tackle the paramilitaries?

A. Part of the problem at the moment is that the Government is preoccupied with Brexit. But there is also a real resistance in people getting involved in the practicalities of Northern Ireland. Some of that is because of the devolution settlement, but some of it is because they fundamentally just do not understand Northern Ireland. I really don't think that the Prime Minister really understands the dynamic in Northern Ireland at all. She'd like it all to be fine and good, but she really doesn't understand it.

More troubling within Northern Ireland itself, when we had devolution, both Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, although they were very positive about the Report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups that Monica (McWilliams) and John (McBurney) and I produced, in terms of following up on it, they were not very good.

I was disappointed that although Martin seemed to be pretty tough on dissident republicans, I didn't see the same kind of strong action by Arlene Foster with regards to loyalist paramilitaries. On the contrary, she was photographed with them and there were questions about funding given to paramilitaries. And I was disappointed that when the commission was established to report back about what was being done about the paramilitaries, and despite my making efforts in the Lords to ensure that those reports were at least once every six months, the Government absolutely refused and insisted on once a year.

But there hasn't even been a report since because it's taken them months to appoint a commission and then the commission has taken time to become operational. I've been really disappointed by the lack of energy that seems to have been applied.

Q. What is your particular concern?

A. At this stage within these (paramilitary) organisations you still have people, guys my age, who know the cost to the community of paramilitary engagement. Some of them were prepared to pack that in.

However, if you do not address the issue when these older guys are the leaders of the organisations and new, younger people come in who don't realise the consequences to the community - and frankly, don't care - and they then become leaders, you're setting yourself up for a whole new generation of paramilitary control. And in many ways it may be the unionist and loyalist community suffer most from this.

Q. Do you think people here are as divided as ever?

A. Yes, I think that's very true. In a way I think the community is now divided three ways. When I was Alliance leader, and in David Ford's day, you had the unionist side, moderate and less moderate, and then you had the nationalists, moderate and less moderate, and then you had Alliance - there very consciously as a bridge and seeing their main role as trying to help each side listen to each other and understand each other and build a society that would work for all.

I think now that's changed and that now what Alliance mainly represent is a third element in the community - they describe themselves as progressive.

They're not actually as devoted to the proposition that they are there to bring the two sides together.

It's not that they ignore it. But they're not as devoted to it because they say, we have our own agenda, we have our own view of what society should be like and we have the support of a lot of young people who have what you might describe as a metropolitan attitude to many things, social issues and economic issues - they would say we're there to build up a third section of the community.

Particularly in the east of the province, in the greater Belfast area, that's an analysis that has some truth to it.

There is now this fairly substantial cohort of people who don't remember the Troubles, who have a very different understanding of life and community and they don't see it as their job to bring the two sides together.

So, instead of two sides of the community and people trying to hold it together, you've now got three cohorts. And none of the three are that comfortable with each other.

Q. Do you think this change in Alliance's role is a negative - a loss to the community?

A. It's a very difficult thing to say because I think, as a political leader, you have to analyse the challenges in the community as you see them and then construct a strategy to deal with that.

There is a case to be made that the peace process is actually over and we should recognise that and get on with building society.

That is part of the analysis that the peace process is the previous generation's and we're about something different. I think that probably is an analysis that Naomi (Long) makes.

It does mean, though, that there is not, in the same kind of way, a political component that feels itself there to try to draw things together.

And that can have disadvantages in that, frankly, no one from outside can do it.

On the other hand there is an argument that says it's about time people grew up and the major political parties started taking responsibility for working together - that's what they committed themselves to.

And if there's always somebody there to hold their hand, then they never learn what they need to do and how they need to behave.

I think that's also a fair argument and I certainly wouldn't criticise it.

It's a different place, it's a different context, and instead of going on about the peace process we should get on with the business of governance.

Q. But we're not getting on with the business of governance...

A. Yes, that true. And again, I think it's got a lot to do with outside factors. Brexit does contribute to some of the unstitching or, at least, loss of momentum. That's not necessarily fatal, but it's a problem and we have to find a way through it. But I think it's too early yet to pronounce a benediction on it. I think it's entirely possible that in the next 12 months we'll see things moving again, and if that happens without outside help, that would be substantial progress.

Q. You used a religious term there, benediction. You've recently made headlines with your decision to resign as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Your faith is important to you?

A. Yes, very. It is. The decision to resign was indeed one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make. I grew up in the Church family. I'd been an elder for 30 years and that was a very central issue for me.

Precisely because of that I think deeply about it and I'm not prepared to go along with things when I don't believe they're right.

I've been unhappy for quite a while about how things were developing in the Presbyterian Church.

The decisions that were made a couple of weeks ago were a Rubicon for me. Because of the decisions themselves - to me, denying baptism to a child because his parents are gay is just obnoxious. And then the decision to break off relations with the Church of Scotland, cutting yourself off from others who manifestly, historically have the same religious perspectives because they've moved to a particular stand on moral questions - to me, that's a disastrous move.

And that's not a thing I could, or wanted to, defend. I think if you're a member, or particularly an elder in the Church, and you feel the Church has got to a place where you can't defend it, because you fundamentally don't agree with the whole direction of things, then I think you have to consider your position. I felt that this was just completely unacceptable and I wasn't prepared to go along with it. I made the decision to resign.

I did think to myself, because Joan and I are moving to live in England in a few months' time: "You could just quietly slip away, you won't have to take responsibility for it." Then I thought: "That's wrong." I've got to be honest to say what I think. If you believe that you have any kind of thought leadership in the community, you want to say: "This is what I believe, and if you do too, it's important that you know that you're not on your own." I'm very sad.

A former very, very senior figure in the Church wrote to me and said: "John, this is no longer the Church that we grew up in." Someone asked me about leaving the Church, but the truth is the Church has left me. It no longer has the same views, it no longer has the same approach to faith as it had.

Absolutely, I'm sure that I have changed too. But it has changed in a way that I don't welcome at all.

Q. Do you feel that there is a lack of leadership being shown?

A. I think the problem is that there is leadership being shown, but the leadership being shown is the kind of leadership of the Inquisition. It's a leadership that is trying to close things down, it is trying to control things.

A professor of Church history at Union College (the Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick) has been suspended because he had the temerity to make a statement that there were a substantial number of people leaving the Church, and that if this went on for another 30 or 40 years there'd be nobody left. For that he is accused of bringing the Church into disrepute.

This is perhaps the most striking example of the crushing of debate and argument. The background of Presbyterianism is that people did engage in debate and argument. What is happening now is a slide into fundamentalism. I do feel it will not be very long before the theology of the Presbyterian Church and the theology of the Free Presbyterian Church are indistinguishable. That is the direction of travel, that is the trajectory - and it's disastrous.

It is not faithful to the educated, thoughtful element in Presbyterianism that has been a long-standing part of our culture.

Q. You've played a major role in Northern Ireland's history and continue to contribute, both through your work in the House of Lords and through your Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford. What would you see as your greatest achievement?

A. Oh, I don't know. (He laughs). Keeping sane. Or relatively so. Whether or not my psychiatry helped other people, I think it's helped me. More seriously, I think in Northern Ireland we have actually learned things. I've had the good fortune to travel all round the world to places where all sorts of things are still happening.

Across the world, people look at us and say: "Whatever problems you have in Northern Ireland you're a lot better off than you were. And you're a lot better off than we are in terms of dealing with violence."

We've learned a lot of things. And we need to not just benefit from that ourselves, but to pass it on to the next generation, in order to make the world a better place.

I think we really do have a responsibility - those of us who are older - to ensure that the next generation survives and thrives.

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