Sam McBride: Ford quietly rebuilt his party, but it now faces challenges

David Ford pictured at Stormont yesterday. 
Picture By: Arthur Allison.
David Ford pictured at Stormont yesterday. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Four months before David Ford became Alliance leader in October 2001, the party polled just 28,999 votes across the Province – a paltry 3.6% of the vote.

To put that awful result into perspective, that year Gerry Adams alone polled 27,096 votes in West Belfast alone.

By last year’s general election, Alliance’s support had risen to 61,156 votes - 8.6% of the Province-wide vote.

While there is a large element of subjectivity about assessing a political leader’s achievements, those numbers make it difficult to argue that Mr Ford’s tenure has been anything other than markedly successful.

In part, the party has been a beneficiary of the sustained decline of its principal rivals, the UUP and SDLP, over that period. But – as demonstrated by the failure of the UUP to make inroads when the DUP was reeling from the Iris Robinson scandal and the expenses controversy in 2010 – it is not merely enough in politics for one’s political rivals to slip up.

Mr Ford ran a fairly tight ship, keeping his smaller party disciplined and presenting it as a coherent alternative to its more established rivals.

That most dramatically manifested itself in 2010, when the voters of East Belfast were convinced that voting for Naomi Long was a more realistic way to topple Peter Robinson than voting for the Ulster Unionist candidate.

That seismic result crystallised in the public consciousness what had been apparent to psephologists – even in a First Past The Post Westminster election, a vote for an Alliance candidate could no longer be described as a ‘wasted vote’.

The loss of that seat last year only came about thanks to a pan-unionist pact – and even then, the result was far narrower than many observers would have anticipated, showing that the 2010 vote was not a freak result caused by the perfect storm surrounding the Robinsons. Due to her profile from that victory, her position as deputy leader and her formidable abilities, Mrs Long is now the overwhelming favourite to succeed to Mr Ford.

If all is as it appears, the veteran South Antrim MLA has been afforded that rare luxury for political leaders – choosing the moment of his departure. That too is a measure of what he had delivered for the party, despite some low rumblings over the last year from some Alliance members about the need for a younger and more forceful leader.

His successor faces immediate challenges – though not an imminent electoral test, unless Theresa May calls a snap general election.

The party had a disappointing Assembly election, holding all of its seats but failing to break through anywhere despite Mr Ford publicly predicting that they would do so.

Alliance also faces a degree of uncertainty now outside an Executive which has the potential to be more harmonious than those which have gone before.

And the party faces the rise of smaller rivals – the Greens, People Before Profit and some independents.

Mr Ford has certainly left the party in far ruder health than he inherited it. But, partly because of that, his successor faces a challenge to make further inroads.