Oliver Napier: A catharsis for Northern Ireland politics

[What follows is my original posting for an interview with Oliver Napier. I republish in my fond memory of him. http://www.mrulster.org/1999/08/ucd-ma-thesis-interview-oliver-napier.html]

For my Master’s thesis at the University College of Dublin, I interviewed Sir Oliver Napier. (Time markings below.)


One could argue that the genesis for the creation of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland lay with Oliver Napier, and his decision while he was a member of the Ulster Liberals (for which he served as Secretary), that it would take more than fine policy documents to affect real change in Northern Ireland’s deeply divided society.

Napier was the driving force behind the New Ulster Movement, set up in early 1969 to urge moderation and non-sectarianism in politics. For Napier, the NUM was “the midwife of the Alliance Party”. (1:00) This was not without dissent, as Brian Walker was opposed; there were those who preferred to have NUM serve as a pressure point on the moderate, reforming faction of the Official Unionist Party.

It wasn’t long before Napier and his new party colleagues were busy recruiting members and candidates, because he had learned from British Prime Minister, Ted Health, that Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner’s days were numbered; Stormont would be suspended; and only those parties with elected representatives will be listened to. (16:45)

Alliance got its three elected representatives, through defections, and were duly invited to talks. Napier argued that what Alliance proposed at the Darlington Conference (25-27 September 1972) more closely resembles what was agreed at the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That is, Napier was opposed to a voluntary coalition, on the grounds that it excluded democratically elected representatives. Instead, he argued for an all-inclusive Executive and legislative committees, determined by proportional representation. (33:30) Furthermore, he reckoned that in this case the DUP would take up their posts and be inside the system, but without having to agree any government programme in advance. (34:35) It is worth noting that this was well before the political ascent of Sinn Fein.

However, as we all know, the 1973 Act that led to the Sunningdale Agreement was one between three parties that happened to secure over 50% of the vote. Napier’s concern was that there was no failsafe; what would happen if the next election result returned less than 50% of the vote? (41:40)

Many attach partial blame for the failure of Sunningdale on the inclusion of a Council of Ireland. For Napier, this was actually a Nationalist figleaf — first, any Council decisions would have to be unanimous among the Ministers; second, even Nationalist politicians such as Gerry Fitt were opposed to surrendering any powers away from Stormont. (45:48) Indeed, Napier recalled that Hume wanted an all-Ireland police service, but the relevant Irish minister said no way. (51:40)

Instead, Napier reasons that the Council of Ireland was included at the insistence of John Hume and Garret FitzGerald (who was Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time).

In regards to the 1980-82 hunger strikes, Napier was not sympathetic to the demands of the hunger strikers, but added that British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s “stridency was unfortunate”. For him, the effect of the hunger strikes “totally radicalised” the urban nationalist constituency and especially Protestant unionist opinion. (54:00)

Napier said that the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly was “a mess”; with the boycott of the SDLP, it was going nowhere. Unionists would have to concede far more than they had ever considered. He argues that their learning process began with the failure of the “Prior Assembly”. (58:30) “What Faulkner learned at Darlington, it took David Trimble, Reg Empey and John Taylor 25 years to learn.” (43:45)

For Napier, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement had minimal effect on the nationalist community, but a huge, traumatic effect on the unionist community. His view was that the British government should have consulted the unionist community, if only to tell it what they were going to do.

More controversial was the way that Alliance consent for the Anglo-Irish Agreement was handled. On the day of the agreement’s announcement, there was an emergency meeting of Alliance Party Executive and Assembly representatives. Party Leader, John Cushnahan, told them, “We must give this a try. We are not going to criticise it.” But some in attendance had learned that Cushnahan had already briefed the press that this would be the party’s position. For the record, Napier was opposed to supporting the agreement, on the grounds that it was dishonourable to the unionist community for them to not have been consulted by the British government. (1:03:50)

As an interesting aside, he also mentions that Mary Robinson resigned from the Irish Labour Party on this basis of non-consultation with the unionist community. (1:01:30)

Then for the 1987 Westminster by-election (caused by the mass resignations of Unionist MPs), Napier had no intention of standing as a candidate in the East Belfast constituency, but ended up doing so “under great reluctance”, so as not to look like “stabbing the party leader [Cushnahan] in the back”. (1:07:20)

Like other Alliance representatives, Napier was “absolutely convinced” that the reason the 1991-92 Brooke-Mayhew Talks did not succeed was “two words: John Hume”; that as soon as Hume heard about a tentative agreement, he swooshed down to defeat it. (1:14:28)

He does credit Hume for convincing Gerry Adams to convince the IRA to declare a ceasefire. (1:15:10)

In the ensuing Multi-Party Talks, Napier stressed the importance of getting the guidelines down before the negotiations get underway. He supported the indictments that the Alliance Party levied to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, for breaches of the Mitchell Principles. Napier objected to the notion that a ceasefire is a ceasefire “if we’re not shooting the other side, but acceptable to shoot our own”. (1:19:35)

Napier viewed the achievement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as “a miracle”, as an agreement on fundamental principles: (1) Sinn Fein bought into a partitionist status; and (2) unionists accepted power sharing with Sinn Fein under certain circumstances. (1:23:25)

Napier is less convincing when it comes to how the “sectarian carve up” that the communal designations codified in Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement will be transcended. He believes that the designation system was inevitable, in order to get the Assembly off the ground, but hopes they will go. “It offends me.” He argues that the designation system will disappear once the Assembly is working very well, where parties learn to trust each other. But I counter-argued that the system doesn’t require trust; it is the type of Executive appointment sans cabinet responsibility that he argued for at the 1972 Darlington Conference. (1:26:05)

But he replies, “Inevitably, when people work together, it grows up, [trust] happens.”

He understands the rationale why some who are ordinarily sympathetic and/or vote for Alliance plump for Unionist/Nationalist candidates, such as the 1999 European election, with electors choosing UUP candidate Jim Nicholson in order to beat Sinn Fein and ensure the peace process (i.e. give David Trimble political cover). (1:34:15)

Yet Napier added, “If I’m around in 20 years, I do not want to see a sectarian carve up between Nationalists and Unionists.”

I asked Napier what he thought Alliance’s role is, for now and the future. He replied Alliance’s job is to convince the electorate for a liberal democracy in Northern Ireland. (1:37:30)

I followed up by asking him how he saw this coming about.

He said, “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 whinging 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.” (1:39:00)

“Alliance will be the party hopefully leading into the new, radical liberal democracy of the future.”


  • Dewi

    Very good – than you.

  • Brian Walker

    A good review of a career and a reminder than decency is not a dirty word.for weakness. Sad to to note that with Oliver’s death the three most prmoinent founders of thr Alliance party have all departed – Bob Cooper, Basil Glass and now Oliver.

    It must have been heartening for Oliver to see voters turning to Alliance in droves when decency was required to rebuke Peter Robinson and both the DUP and SF turned to them when they cancelled each other out as P&J minister.

    I last met Oliver when I was walking up Victoria St in London on the way to Gerry Fitt’s funeral. A car stopped and someone shouted ” hallo!” It was Oliver and Briege looking for the way to Westminster cathedral. A flurry of reminsence followed.

    Originally Alliance attracted some cross sommunity voters on the margins where it counted, as in Derry council. It would be an asset to poltiics if they widened their base again. Where else can a catalyst come from from within the poltiical system? It’s the old middle ground problem. People even in NI might vote for them in greater numbers if they think they can win.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d forgotten Glass, but I remember Bob well (I used to clean his windows when I was still at school). He and Oliver both settled in Holywood.

    IIRC, Oliver came from west Belfast or at least had family connections. A quiet, devout man is the only way I could describe him. That he came so close to become an MP in East Belfast (one of the least Catholic constituencies in Northern Ireland) was a powerful testimony to both his work and the strength of the liberal impulse within that constituency even then.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Bit off topic but I’ll go anyway. I’m sure Oliver wouldn’t mind.

    Alliance’s problem is really about trying to get critical mass. That mass exists in a big way in East Belfast (and as Mick said, has done for a long time – from Oliver’s time, through to Alderdice who had the highest personal vote in NI, through to Long) but not at all west of the Bann. The core problem is that if you’re a small party most of your volunteers have careers or day jobs and taking the time out to build up a campaign becomes problematic. If you’re a large party, you have the resources to raise funds and employ a few of the best and brightest on the membership list doing party jobs or staff jobs for elected representatives – grooming them for greater things later, in an environment where they can have a career that incorporates the flexibility to do electoral politics when it is appropriate.

    The success of Kieran Deeney in West Tyrone shows that when there is a good enough candidate, people even in those most entrenched constituencies will vote for a third-way candidate; Deeney was re-elected despite throwing his lot in with Alliance in the assembly. To me that shows that the gap that Alliance has to bridge is not really about policy, even in strongly republican or unionist constituencies, but about getting the right local candidate who is on a level with the constituents.

  • SDLP supporter

    May he Rest in Peace. Someone who made a positive contribution though I could never empathise with his enthusiatic support of unionism. Unusual among lawyers from his community in being political ‘engage’ and had great self-confidence.

    He had an idiosyncratic way of curling his lower lip when emphasising a point, generally expressing a sentiment of inoffensive decency like “I have a tremendous respect for the Protestant people of Northern Ireland”. In my younger days, was amused by Eamonn McCann picking up on this by referring to Oliver as “the duck-billed platitude”. In fairness, Oliver’s activities and associations in those awful days of the seventies bear comparison with Eamonn’s.

    Oliver had at least one other equally remarkable brother who died a few years ago, James Christopher (‘Kit’) Napier (Seamus de Napier), who was a solicitor and Taxing Master. Though I knew him reasonably well, he never disclosed his political views but was devoted to Irish language and culture and was a driving force in Ballymurphy Enterprises and the re-building of Bombay Street, destroyed by loyalist mobs in August 1969. Was someone of the highest ideals.

    Sad too to note the death of Andy Boyd. Great obituary of him on the BBC site by David McKittrick:


    For the record (and I’ve checked this with an SDLP Founding Father), Andy Boyd lost out in the election for first chair of the SDLP to Eddie McGrady (my recollection is by one vote).

    No future historian will ever better Andy Boyd’s judgement on the Provisional IRA, that they had decided:

    “to kill thousands of decent, inoffensive people and innocent children, destroy commercial and private property to the value of billions of pounds, and incite the bloodlust of the most brutal loyalists”.