Top Alliance man says party needs to discuss whether it would have government role

The chief whip of the Alliance Party has refused to be drawn on what ministry – if any – the party might actually take up in the new Stormont Assembly.

Stewart Dickson, who easily won back his East Antrim seat on Saturday during the second day of a mammoth vote-counting session, also denied that the party’s failure to win any extra seats was in any sense a defeat.

Stewart Dickson

Stewart Dickson

Last month, the BBC quoted David Ford, the party leader, as saying he expected to gain perhaps three seats.

Instead, they have eight out of 108 seats – the same as last time.

The corporation quoted him as saying: “I believe we will certainly win the numbers we need, which will be something like eleven, to guarantee that will be in the D’Hondt lucky dip (to qualify for a ministry).”

The party held the justice ministry last time around.

But David Ford had indicated he will not seek to be reappointed to the role of justice minister after the election.

There are currently moves afoot to trim down the number of Stormont departments from 12 to nine.

It is looking highly uncertain whether Alliance, with eight seats, would definitely be big enough to qualify to hold a ministry.

When asked who might take up the post of justice minister in Mr Ford’s absence (assuming Alliance remains entitled to a ministerial seat at all), Stewart Dickson said: “That’ll be a matter not only for the Alliance Party, but for the other parties as well. And we will see how that works out under the next few days and weeks.”

Asked if they definitely aim to have some Alliance MLA as justice minister, he said: “That’s a matter for the party to decide over the next few days.”

Pressed on whether there were perhaps other ministries they may wish to take on he said: “Those are all issues we’ll consider; whether we will even be in a government come next week.”

Asked, finally, if he was saying they might not take up seats in the executive, he replied that this was a question for the party leader, adding that it is “a discussion we will be having”.

Mr Dickson was re-elected with an increased number of first preference votes: going from 2,889 to 3,115 this time.

His running mate, Danny Donnelly, stayed in the race until the late stages but did not have enough votes to win a seat.

David Ford appeared to be in trouble in the early stages of the count, and was in seventh place in South Antrim by the second count on Friday – although later recovered.

Mr Dickson said the total number of seats they had won was “not disappointing” because it provided a “solid base” for the party, adding: “People are slow to make changes here in Northern Ireland.

“But we are the party that will deliver that change over time.”

Asked whether the failure to grow their number of MLAs was a defeat or a setback, he said: “It’s certainly not a defeat for Alliance. I think when you start to analyse what has happened to the other parties, even those that might have gained one seat overall, the reality is it’d be much more disappointing for them than any disappointment that we might have.

“The reality is we have produced a very solid return of all of our candidates.”