Rare voice of moderation during worst of Troubles


OLIVER NAPIER:OLIVER NAPIER, who has died aged 75, was a rare voice of political moderation during some of the worst years of the recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.

As a founder and, from 1972 to 1984, leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, he sought to break the stranglehold that sectarian politics had on the North’s governance since its foundation in 1921.

The Alliance Party was founded in 1970, shortly after the start of the Troubles, and sought to build a moderate political force with appeal to voters on either side of the sectarian divide – among Catholic voters who were otherwise mainly nationalist in their outlook, and Protestant voters, who almost invariably supported unionist parties.

The party grew from the New Ulster Movement, a pressure group that tried to be a moderating influence on the then dominant Ulster Unionist Party. Within the NUM, Napier, then a member of the Ulster Liberal Party, and Bob Cooper, formerly of the UUP, worked as joint chairmen of its political committee.

They sought to establish a new political party, a position that was strongly opposed by others in the NUM, which Napier saw as midwife to the Alliance. Following a good showing in a South Antrim byelection by an NUM member, David Corkery (he achieved 25.7 per cent of the vote on a non-sectarian platform), Napier and Cooper launched the Alliance Party in April 1970.

At the time, Napier had no doubt as to the magnitude of the task. He said: “We are creating an alternative reform political programme to push through and continue reformation in Northern Ireland.”

To that end, the party’s constitution defined its task as “to heal the bitter divisions in our community and to promote the policies of the party as determined by the [ruling] council”.

While Napier and his successors, who included John Cushnahan and John Alderdice, had to endure years of seeming irrelevancy in the face of entrenched sectarian politics fought by and between, on the one side, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, and, on the other, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin, the party survived to enjoy some of the fruits of peace in the years following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Oliver Napier was born in Belfast in 1935, the eldest son of Belfast solicitor James Napier and Sheila Bready. He was raised a Catholic and educated at St Malachy’s College Belfast and later at Queen’s University where he obtained his law degree before entering his father’s practice, Napier and Sons solicitors.

The party was boosted in 1972 when three Stormont MPs (one from the Nationalist Party, one from the Ulster Unionist Party and one Independent) defected to it. Napier had learned from the then British prime minister, Ted Heath, that Stormont’s days were numbered, Heath having lost faith in the unionist leader, Brian Faulkner, but that only parties with elected leaders would be invited to the subsequent talks at Sunningdale.

The powersharing executive set up by the Sunningdale agreement saw Napier serve as legal minister and head of the office of law reform. The Alliance deputy leader, Robert Cooper, was minister for manpower services (though without a seat on the executive proper). Sunningdale collapsed in the face of the Loyalist Workers’ strike, direct rule from Westminster returned and, with it, entrenched sectarian politics.

Napier felt that the collapse of the executive was a major setback which later cost thousands of people their lives. In this, history was to prove him correct.

His greatest electoral achievement was one which, ironically perhaps, was a contest he lost.

In 1979 he stood in the general election in the predominantly Protestant East Belfast constituency. He took almost 30 per cent of the vote and almost prevented Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party from winning the Westminster seat. In the event, the DUP man took it just 64 votes ahead of William Craig of the UUP.

Thirty-one years later, Napier had the satisfaction of seeing his party colleague Naomi Long win the Alliance’s first House of Commons seat, taking East Belfast from Robinson. In 1985 he was knighted in Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honours list.

Tributes this week were many and heartfelt. Lord Alderdice said: “Oliver Napier was possessed of a steely courage, sharp political acumen, unflinching integrity and an absolute commitment to liberal values and the cause of peace in Ireland . . .

“Northern Ireland was fortunate indeed to have had Oliver Napier, especially in the darkest days of the Troubles, when he pointed the way to a better future, and gave real leadership along that difficult road.”

The current Alliance leader, Northern Ireland Minister for Justice David Ford, said his legacy could be seen at the heart of the party. “Oliver embodied the spirit of Alliance and he was the man who inspired me to join the party. [He] was a statesman and a visionary. His vision was of a united Northern Ireland and he put his heart and soul into bringing that about. He was ahead of his time but the vision he had is demonstrated in all the excellent work being done to improve community relations in Northern Ireland.”

Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said Sir Oliver had a vision of a society in Northern Ireland that is reconciled and integrated – a vision only now being realised.

Interviewed in 1999 by Allan Leonard, an MA student at University College Dublin and former general secretary of the Alliance Party who is now director of Northern Ireland Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation based in Belfast, Sir Oliver said he saw the Alliance Party helping create a liberal democracy in Northern Ireland. Asked how this might come about, he replied: “Ireland, North and South, is going through a catharsis from a peasant society on the fringe of Europe to one more at the heart of Europe and becoming a liberal democracy . . . One that stops whingeing and solves its own problems . . .

“Northern Ireland is on the verge of changes that are as dramatic – the old shibboleths will be shouted louder and louder by fewer and fewer people. Alliance will be the party hopefully leading into the new, radical liberal democracy of the future.”

Oliver Napier is survived by his wife Briege, nine children and 23 grandchildren.

Oliver Napier: born July 11th, 1935, died July 2nd, 2011