When David Ford took over as Alliance leader in 2001, journalists tended to refer to the ‘big four’ political parties – the UUP, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein.
Over the course of Mr Ford’s 15 years as leader, Alliance has broken through to rename that phrase as the ‘big five’, taking its place in what are now more unwieldy televised debates alongside the others.
In last year’s General Election, Alliance made another increase in its vote, polled 61,156 votes – while the SDLP saw its vote drop yet again, to 99,809.
Mr Ford personally held the sensitive position of Justice Minister in the Executive, party colleague Stephen Farry was employment and learning minister, while Naomi Long stunned the political establishment when she defeated the then First Minister Peter Robinson in the 2010 General Election by taking his East Belfast seat in the House of Commons.
On Wednesday, Mr Ford announced that he would be standing down as leader the following day, bringing to an end a 15-year tenure at the helm of the cross-community party.
Speaking to the News Letter, Mr Ford recalled the state of the party (which in the 2001 General Election had polled just 28,999 votes) when he began as leader.
“When I took over we were in a difficult phase. We’d had some difficult elections, and particularly the post-1998 image that the SDLP and Ulster Unionists were in charge and were managing things and all is well and there’s really no need for the Alliance Party.
“That certainly wasn’t the case and we saw the difficulties that were around when those two parties were in charge; I think we have now established that there is a party separate from the other four with a distinct vision and a distinct record.”
During his period at the helm, the party has become more socially liberal, changing party policy to support gay marriage, and – although abortion remains a matter of conscience for Alliance members – prominent Alliance MLAs bringing forward legislative proposals to relax the Province’s strict laws against abortion.
He said that the party’s stance on social issues was “part of being a distinct and liberal voice, as opposed to merely sitting in between other people” and added: “We have taken a particular stance on some social issues, on the general issues of building a united community rather than managing a divided one, and that’s what distinguishes us completely.”
Stressing that the party has no policy on abortion and leaves the issue to members’ consciences, the veteran former minister said: “I believe a majority of my colleagues in the Assembly would support abortion at least as far as fatal foetal abnormality is concerned”.
He said that the challenge for his successor was to “grow the party”. Mr Ford added: “Clearly a very large number of people in this society want to get away from orange and green politics – we just haven’t persuaded them to vote for us, I believe, in the numbers which we deserve.”
When asked if anyone had put him under any pressure to step aside, he said: “Absolutely not. This was entirely my decision, entirely my timing and 15 round years is a nice way of doing it.”
For more than a year, there have been rumours that Mr Ford was considering standing said. But the South Antrim MLA – who will remain in the Assembly as a backbencher – said he decided to step aside “more or less when I saw the new Assembly team was established” after May’s election.
Mr Ford declined to anoint a successor, saying that “there are seven people who are qualified [the other MLAs” to stand for the leadership and that he would not be endorsing any candidate.
And he said that he had been fortunate to be at the head of a party which enjoyed consistent “modest growth”.
“When a party is doing well, there is very little pressure for it to change leadership”.
When asked if he was committing to serve out a full term as South Antrim MLA, Mr Ford said: “Well, nobody can predict years ahead; all I’m saying at this stage is that I have a job to do in South Antrim...”