1. What were you doing when you were my age (21) and how did you get to where you are today?
It’s almost all available on my website and Wikipedia but at the age of 21, I had almost completed a three year course at Queens, a degree in economics. I then spent a year as a staff volunteer with Corrymeela (a peace and reconciliation organisation). Then I had a career in social services as a social worker and a senior social worker for seventeen years in total, including a few years out as Community Services Officer with Carrickfergus Council and then worked for the Alliance Party for eight years in the early 90’s before then being selected in 1998 to stand for election. I won an unexpected gain for the party and the rest is definitely history.
And now you’re here.
Yes, I was one of the six who was elected; I wasn’t necessarily expected to win. Within three days I was Chief Whip, I had to be selected from one of six, one of whom had just become Speaker so the numbers were fairly limited! The then-Chief Whip became Deputy Leader and so I took up the position.
I would say a good choice probably.
Flattery gets you everywhere! Then in October 2001 I was elected leader and frankly two years ago I was the only person, well not that I was not the only person in particular acceptable as Minister of Justice but an Alliance person was the only viable and acceptable option and we took the view that if you are in the Executive, you admit that you’re in the Executive and a job as important as this, the leader took.
Why did you think it was important at the time that you took the role and led the Justice Ministry, you said that there were other people within the Alliance party who may have been suitable. Why you in particular as the party leader?
Partly because of the issue that we had made a virtue of being in opposition, you know the concept of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition makes sense in Westminster but the structures do not allow that here. However we had demonstrated leadership in a way and made the point that we were there to be constructive and to offer alternatives but having gone from that position into the Executive, there was a danger that as at times as the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have been criticised for, that we might be seen as pretending we weren’t in the Executive and carrying on as normal.
2. Who was the most influential person in your life and why?
There is no answer to that; you have to say inevitably your parents are. I wouldn’t have the set of values that got me to where I am if they hadn’t have started off at home. In sheer political terms, I was a student at Queens University when Alliance was founded and I heard Oliver Napier (Founding member and first leader of the Alliance Party) speak at a very early stage. I mean that’s part of the inspiration, it goes beyond that though because you can see a number of people who have influenced me at different stages.
You’ve made me feel old; being Justice Minister in itself makes me feel old!
3. What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland/ Ireland? (Specifically somebody who might want to get involved in frontline politics in the future)?
Do you want to know the really scary thing when you ask that? Sitting down at the end of the General Office is one of my staff who two years ago asked would I mind having a chat with his sister-in-law who was off on the Washington Ireland Program. She came in with two others who she knew and sat around this table and actually took the tea but we’ll not worry about that. Francis’ sister-in-law is Nuala who is now running the Alliance office at Parliament Buildings.
So there’s hope for me yet?
Yes there’s hope for you and I think the answer is go and talk to everybody you can talk to in Washington, read the Washington Post cover to cover. Engage with and keep in touch with those you are on the programme with but make sure you engage with those with who you are working in Congressman Tim Murphy’s office. How long are you there for?
It’s a pretty short period, it feels like forever when you arrive but in terms of your life it’s not very long so absolutely make the most of it. See what you see there, Washington D.C. is not Stormont and yet politics is politics, relating to issues and policies are the same. The issues may be different but how you relate to them and make your judgments, well it doesn’t matter where you are. You wouldn’t have the same level of case work to do if you were working in my constituency office in South Antrim but again it’s the same issue of relating to people.
As General-Secretary of the party I spent a lot of time organizing things, generally for Lower-Sixth school pupils to come and see how a political party operated and my line always was, “You may find yourself in the next room to the Prime Minister or on the other hand you may find me saying, go and make me a cup of tea, I don’t want hassled!” If you can expect that then you’ll survive, if you want to go to a placement where they show you where to hang up your coat, give you your desk and your weeks work schedule then political offices are generally not the places for you. We have had people come in on placement and they have literally found themselves just down the corridor from the Prime Minister and we’ve also had people who have never seen anything more exciting than 88 University Street (Alliance Party Headquarters).
4. Just moving on to something that falls under your remit as Minister for Justice: What success do you think has come from moves such as opening the Alexandra Park gate and do you think now that the IFI funding tap is effectively being switched off, any positive change there has been in grassroots communities in terms of integration for instance will disintegrate and that projects supported by this fund will now be left to wither and die so to speak?
Well I suppose if you look at Alexandra Park, the gate was opened in September because local people wanted the gate opened on both sides. There was very significant work done by Groundwork, basically a charity that combines both social action and environmental issues. They were the perfect sort of group to talk to people on either side of the divide and to set up a group to consider the options and then work with the Department of Justice and the City Council to get the gate opened up. In that instance the IFI funding stream is to assist people in doing that sort of work, so in a sense if you do that kind of work and you achieve a successful outcome, the gate is open so many hours a day, you’ve got a coherent group looking at the implications. I would be reasonably optimistic that the engagement with some of my staff and Groundwork gives the opportunity to continue these moves.
If Groundwork was to step away from the project though, then there would be a complete void and it would no longer move forward, is that a possibility?
If Groundwork were to step away from Alexandra Park and they’re not going to but if they were then there is now a fairly good group of local activists on either side who would be capable of meeting and discussing the ongoing issues with the support that we and the City Council can give.
Would they be the grassroots members that live in the communities themselves?
Yes those are the grassroots members that basically represent and live in the immediate area. I suppose the other thing with Alexandra Park is that we have a number of positive spin offs in that immediate area which shows that there is a slight ripple effect, for instance some of the entries down Duncairn Gardens are being opened.
5. Is it your view that having unionist and nationalist parties running side by side stunts integration on the ground in Northern Ireland? Also do you think it is convenient for Northern Irish politicians from unionist and nationalist backgrounds to ensure that integration does not take place, because if it does then there will be no need for such representation in the future?
I think the second part is a very interesting question, let me come back to it. When we say does it stunt integration, I actually think there’s a fair bit of evidence that society is more integrated than politics wants it to be. I mean look at the demand for integrated education, even though senior officials in the education board are saying that there is no demand, it is obvious that the schools that are almost always oversubscribed are places like Lagan College in the South Eastern area and Ulidia in Carrick.
There are more people expressing a desire to live in mixed neighbourhoods, to send their children to integrated schools than the public estate allows to happen. It’s not necessarily the case that divisive politics is stunting that development, well actually it’s not stopping it but it probably is stunting it because the structures aren’t allowing things to happen as they wish. An example is two primary schools in a small village close to my ancestral home so to speak, I’ve heard local people talk and it’s absolutely clear what they desire; they want some way of the schools coming together so that their children can stay and be educated there. Whether it’s Lagan College style of full integration, whether its two schools working in partnership, sharing resources or whatever, frankly nobody cares particularly the model but what’s absolutely clear is parents don’t want their child going seven or ten miles on a bus to primary school. That’s the best example about where things are!
As for the second part, you could advance a fairly good case, I haven’t yet decided, I’m going to do my PhD thesis on it! I think there’s definitely a case for saying that political parties that draw their support from a large section of one community have a real interest in maintaining the divide. I mean you look at the way every recent election has been conducted apart from us (the Alliance Party); it’s been a super Prod and super Tague contest.
The Ulster Unionists rarely campaign (they almost did in 1998 but didn’t quite manage it), on the basis of “we are the unionists running a partnership arrangement.” Rather it was we are the unionists who are going to stand up to them. I mean this is when they had just signed the Good Friday Agreement and I think in that sense there is clear evidence that is the way people see their candidate. I can remember David Trimble in the elections of 2003 when he said he was calling on people to vote first preferences for the Ulster Unionists and then for other unionist candidates, well strictly speaking in terms of the Assembly voting mechanism the best possible thing for him was to increase the number of SDLP members, not DUP members. It shows that he couldn’t bring himself to do that and he was the one who had signed the agreement.
It does concern me that each of the large parties on either side are more concerned with being the big party of unionism or nationalism than in any genuine sense reaching out. Although it is said that the DUP and Sinn Féin have reached a certain amount of accommodation about some things but it’s mostly a stitch up, it’s rarely anything that is genuinely coming together.
Do you think you could make a similar statement about the Ulster Unionist party and SDLP?
The SDLP are in a slightly different position from the Ulster Unionist party, if you look at Mike Nesbitt’s leadership, he was supposed to be a vision of something different but in fact it appears to me that he is into the same type of thing.
At this point though is it maybe not fair to say that, given Mr. Nesbitt has been in the leadership role for only a few weeks?
I think he’s already managing to establish that level of behaviour in the way he is responding to things. I find it bizarre that an ex-Victims’ Commissioner felt the need to complain about the appointment of Evelyn Glenholmes to the Victims Forum. When those with whom he sat added her because she did represent a particular group and in fact Bertha McDougall who is widely regarded as the DUP nominee was saying that we need to have everybody involved when Mike Nesbitt was just playing party politics.
At times he actually seems to be quite happy lying down with Jim Allister; I don’t think his entire party is though. The 20% of the vote that went to John McAllister in the leadership election was saying that there’s some space on the political spectrum between the DUP and Alliance, the other 80% seemed to be saying we are just trying to pretend that we are a slightly more friendly version of the DUP or in some cases we are happy to lie down with the TUV.
The SDLP have a slightly more subtle approach but for many of them, you scratch them and you get the same nationalist knee jerks. That’s unfair to some of them, there are in general some who are broader minded than the Ulster Unionists are but not a great deal when some of the crunch issues come up but I’m being entirely partisan and not very ministerial.
6. Peter Robinson recently described the Alliance Party’s decision to leave cross-party talks on a shared future as “belligerent and bellicose.” At the time of the Good Friday Agreement the DUP were asked, if you’re not in the discussion, how can you influence it? I would ask the same question of you as the Alliance Party leader, in hindsight, because the shared future talks were a negotiation after all and no party was ever going to get everything they wanted, was it the correct move to make? If so, how do you plan to demonstrate leadership and have an input as a party from the outside looking in?
The answer is, we stuck it for eight months, and we were at every meeting, contrary to the lies that have been told. Every party rearranged meetings at different times for various reasons, we were no worse than others. They originally started off by saying that we were not at meetings which was a complete lie.
What was absolutely clear was that those behind closed doors talks weren’t going anywhere. The reality is that in the last three weeks we’ve seen significantly more discussion amongst members of the public and media commentators, there’s been much more attention to how a decent shared future strategy looks than there were for seven and a bit months during which time there were behind closed doors talks. Frankly we actually justified our decision by saying that we need these discussions out in the open.
We are now continuing to work on our policy because we had a number of policy documents which impinged on it but we haven’t done work on our policies lately because we were trying to make an agreed policy worthwhile. However at the point when for example, one of the key things Chris Lyttle (Alliance Party MLA and WIP Alumni) highlighted was that at the last meeting before he left he asked that there would be a target for integrated education and people wouldn’t have a target! It wasn’t that we were debating over something like a target by 2020, which was one we were using a couple of years ago, I think at the 2010 election. It wasn’t the substance of the target but that there was no target at all. In terms of things like flags, there was acceptance that shared space meant freedom, meant displacement of flags, either illegal or legal display of flags.
Yes I understand that but now that you’re in this situation, not taking part in the negotiations. How do you think that you as a party will be able to lead and influence those discussions as effectively as you would have?
What we have done by not being there is we have got a level of public discussion that wouldn’t have been a part of the debate. We are now out there engaging with some of those who made submissions, remember we had 280 responses to the consultation papers, I think every single one said that it wasn’t good enough. We are now engaging with those people and giving an opportunity for some alternatives and a proper public debate rather than something that is behind closed doors which was effectively a lowest common denominator stitch up.
At the end of the day, had we remained in there having proved we couldn’t get anywhere further on these discussions we would have had no more influence because when it comes down to it, votes will be carried in the Executive. If the DUP and Sinn Féin agree, it’ll be carried on the floor of the Assembly but we have at least got the opportunity to highlight the necessity for action on issues that they’ve been unwilling to talk about.
7. What are your views as Justice Minister and your party’s approach to the recent European Court of Human Rights case surrounding prisoners’ right to vote?
The cheap answer to that is that it is a matter for Westminster and we have no control over it. Without putting it into a formal policy position, Naomi Long (the sole Alliance Westminster M.P.) and I chatted about it before there was a vote in the Westminster Parliament a while ago, is that number one the great majority of prisoners probably didn’t exercise votes when they were in the community anyway so it’s a slightly naïve point.
The concept of getting somebody to vote as part of rehabilitation maybe works, for instance you’re in prison but you’re going out to do a constructive days work and coming back into prison at night because that’s part of your rehabilitation then you might well say that you also get some of your civic rights, such as the vote. Something in that sort of area seems to me appropriate, your then talking about a small number of people towards the end of sentences would have the right to exercise a vote and you would hope that this is probably meeting the spirit of the European decision.
It’s absolutely clear we are not required to give all prisoners the vote nor are we required to give all prisoners the right to vote in prisons, where you could affect the balance of a constituency. For example if 2000 people in Maghaberry Prison voted the same way, it’s unlikely they would oppose Jeffery Donaldson (DUP M.P.) but it might well change one of the six assembly seats in Lagan Valley.
Part of punishment is saying you lose your rights as a citizen and part of rehabilitation says we prepare you for integration into the community and give you back some of your rights in a small way. Voting comes back as a part of being restored as you prepare to go back into the community.