Interview with David Ford: “don’t bother summoning the men in grey suits, just tell me”

David Ford - February 2016 - sidewaysTalking to the Belfast Telegraph’s Noel McAdam, the Alliance leader David Ford indicated that he won’t be back as Justice Minister after the May election.

I think it is likely that after six years doing one of the most difficult jobs in the Executive, it would be inappropriate for me to put my name forward to remain as Justice Minister.

[Ed – Stephen Farry must be the most likely candidate?]

I interviewed David Ford that same day (Thursday) last week – one day after his 65th birthday – and we talked about his continued leadership, Alliance’s electoral appeal, new parties, switching to use council areas for Assembly constituencies, taking Executive meetings out on the road, the balance of funding between prison and community/probation services, joined up working across the Executive, Alliance’s approach to the Justice Ministry after May’s election, public and political support for refugees and asylum seekers in NI, and his thoughts on the Irish election and the impact of the EU referendum on the Assembly campaign.

Assuming he’s re-elected in May, I asked whether he expected to remain party leader for long?

When I became the leader of this party I said [within days or weeks] “when you lot think it’s time for me, don’t bother summoning the men in grey suits, just tell me”. Nobody has yet told me and I think that’s because Alliance has had a degree of stabilisation and then growth in that period of time. Parties are much more inclined to change their leaders when they’re going through bad times – look at the British Tories a few years ago, the SDLP, look at Labour now except they don’t quite know how to get the next leader … Because we have been seen to be in a good position nobody has yet knocked my door but rest assured at the point when my senior colleagues tell me “thanks very much, go” I will not need to be dragged out kicking and struggling.

[A coronation for Naomi Long on her return to the Assembly is the most talked about option. But party stalwart Stewart Dickson might also be happy to lead the party. And Trevor Lunn didn’t rule himself out on Friday night’s Inside Politics programme.]

Does David Ford plan to serve a full Assembly term, or will a succession plan kick in earlier?

Ford admits that given that he has “just passed a relatively significant birthday” there are issues of succession planning in the department, party leadership and constituency.

Frankly at the moment I’m concentrating on doing everything that needs to be done in the Department [of Justice] before we get the heave ho … In terms of the party I’m absolutely committed to leading the party into the election and it may well be that after the election some of my colleagues may come and knock the door.

I think there are dangers in this place when people stay on too long past their sell by date. On the other hand if the people of South Antrim want me back there will be a certain satisfaction in being one of very few people who by that stage will have been elected five times in a row.

Between his upcoming party conference, the Assembly elections and his birthday, I wondered if this was a time of reflection for the man who has been leader of Alliance for 15 years and Justice Minister for the last six years.

When I became party leader we’d been through a difficult time. The focus immediately after the Good Friday Agreement seemed to be all about propping up the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP and we [Alliance] were an annoyance to some people who didn’t want us there.

I remember the first round of elections when I was party leader when every journalist’s question seemed to be “How bad are you going to do this time?”; the last few years a number of journalists’ questions have been “How good are you going to do this time?”

I think that’s an indication that we have established a role and a particular niche; we are seen as reasonably significant players in Stormont even though we are currently only the fifth of five parties but that’s better than being the fifth in a four party system.

Alliance’s electoral appeal seems capped at under 10%.

On the one hand you can say that’s a disappointing position to be in. On the other when you look at the history of violence and division in this society, and look at other societies that have been through similar types of processes, it’s hard to see anywhere where a party like ours – specifically based with a different agenda, the fact that our designation is not unionist or nationalist but is united community – is anything more than that 10%. Certainly I hope we’ll continue to grow a little bit … but in the kind of society that we are we’re not going to expect that we’re going to get 30% in an election this year.

Other post-conflict societies have seen the birth and growth of new parties. Perhaps unusually, Northern Ireland kept our existing parties with very little space for others to emerge (NI21 being an unsuccessful attempt). By occupying the middle ground for so long, are Alliance preventing the rejuvenation of centrist politics in NI?

Ford questions whether a new party would necessarily bring rejuvenation.

[NI21] came, they didn’t have any philosophy which was significantly different from Alliance. The significant difference I suppose was that they chose to designate as unionist, slightly ironic given that their former deputy has just joined the SDLP! That’s an indication that there are limited opportunities to grow differently in this society for whatever reason.

The fact that we’re settled down to effectively two parties and some fringes around unionism, two parties around nationalism with very minimal fringes, and one party occupying the somewhat smaller centre ground [with] the Greens there at a certain level is probably not entirely surprising in a society like this.

If I thought there was an opportunity to make a dynamic change I am not wedded to the concept of Alliance as ‘Alliance forever in perpetuity’. I think Alliance has done a significant amount of stabilising and ensuring the growth [of] a different type of approach than would have been the case if it had been solely unionists and nationalists.

What are the opportunities for Alliance to morph and transform? David Ford pointed to the strengthened youthfulness of Alliance activists and public representatives.

I’m probably about the last survivor of those who were around in the early days, though I was around at a very low level. We’re moving to a party which is now seeing itself as not just a bridge builder between others but a party which is showing a clear alternative vision that gets away from the old divisions and builds a different type of community. And I think that resonates with a lot of people in the way they live their lives. It doesn’t necessarily resonate with enough in the way they cast their votes … though the way that the media reports politics tends to be reporting around orange/green ding dongs and that’s probably why the kind of vision we are putting forward resonates rather more with those who don’t vote because they’re put off by that than by those who actually do vote.

He added:

I think that people who are sitting back waiting for the world to change, before they deign to get involved almost in a self fulfilling impossible prophecy, they need to come out and engage at some stage. And if they want to see a fundamental shift in society then frankly we are the vehicle that is currently available … By refusing to support those with whom they more or less agree on the key fundamentals because they are annoyed with other people and structures will do nothing to change those structures.

NI21’s only publicly elected representative, Councillor Johnny McCarthy, for a year the party’s deputy leader, went independent and recently joined the SDLP. Could a nationalist-leaning councillor join Alliance?

Ford cited the example of Ards and North Down Councillor Andrew Muir who was an Alliance candidate in the 2015 General Election and used to chair his local SDLP constituency branch.

There have been people who have come in from both political sides, but it’s been much more a matter of people who simply never felt comfortable with either side of the divide who got active in recent years: that’s been where our growth is.

Alliance’s opportunities for growth in the 2016 Assembly election are “in areas where we’re already established … predominantly Belfast and suburbia” (including Larne). A longer shot would be somewhere like East Londonderry where a fracturing of the votes could lead to success. The gain of a council seat in North Belfast – “third elected from having been no where near winning any of the six seats previously” – is another potential win on Alliance’s radar.

While the Assembly will reduce the number of MLAs per constituency, it will not happen until after May’s election. Five is the most talked about option, but four or even three is a possibility. Where do Alliance stand?

I’ve suggested in the past though it’s got no traction that we should simply have Assembly constituencies based on the eleven local councils or ten councils plus Belfast in two halves. And then you allocate the number of MLAs per constituency depending on electorate … which would mean you have some five or six and up to potentially eight or nine in the biggest.

I certainly have friends who say that 60 AMs in Wales is not adequate to staff all the committees they need to have. You can make a case that something in the region of 75-80 is a reasonably number. You might take it down a little bit below that. We certainly don’t need 108. But we need to find a way that does it that avoids disrupting constituencies every five years.

The Executive went out on the road and met in Enniskillen last Thursday. Is that important practically or symbolically? Does it change the nature of debate and decision-making?

You realise I wouldn’t breach the secrecy of any Executive meeting … I’m not sure that the decisions such as they were that were taken felt any different. There’s a degree of symbolism but the most important thing – is what I’ve tried to be as a minister – is to be out and about in different places engaging with people. On Tuesday before I came in here for a normal day’s business I was out with the Lough Neagh Rescue Service at Kinnego because we have policy responsibility for that. I then called in Maghaberry Prison to speak to some of the staff as well as the governor, and then I came in here. That kind of thing, being out and about and meeting people, rather than just saying Executive Ministers turned up in Enniskillen town hall where frankly because of other commitments here I didn’t have any engagement in Fermanagh beyond going into the meeting.

Last week’s inspection report suggests that Maghaberry is moving in the right direction but should it ever have been in such a bad state?

You do need to distinguish between what the formal inspection report said and one particular individual even if he was the just-about-to-retire Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons going a bit over the top in some of the language he used at a press conference. There is no suggestion that Maghaberry ever was “the most dangerous prison in Europe”. That was complete nonsense, and frankly I’ve seen records of other prisons which show significantly more than that.

It was clearly disappointing. It was clearly not doing anything like as well at the point of the inspection in May last year than both Magilligan and Hyde Bank would have been doing. We’ve seen massive movement forward at Hyde Bank Wood, significant changes in Magilligan, Maghaberry in some areas but there clearly is a cultural shift there and this is to be fair to them even what yesterday’s report described as the most complex prison in the United Kingdom.

In England and Wales, and even Scotland, they have the opportunity to disperse some of the most serious category A prisoners around different establishments. We can’t do that. In England and Wales they don’t have two sets of separated politically motivated prisoners. Maghaberry has to do that at the same time it has to deal with a large number of run-of-the-mill offenders.

I’ve seen very good work being done in different parts of Maghaberry around rehabilitation, work in the Braille Unit. I was there when books were handed over to a church group to take out to a school for the blind in Malawi, all done on a voluntary basis by prisoners.

Should policy not shift away from ploughing money into prisons to more emphasis on probation and trying to reduce recidivism and getting reoffending rates down? A small investment could have a huge saving in the prison infrastructure?

If you have the prison you don’t save a lot of money by keeping ten or twenty prisoners out. But none the less that [reducing reoffending] is the direction of travel.

You could mothball wings?

You need to get to the point that you can actually mothball. We are doing some capital investment in Maghaberry starting this year which will see the ability to mothball some of the older houses which are really not what they should be.

We seem to talk a lot more about prisons than probation? Ford suggests that inspection reports of probation services don’t make the news, but “probation and youth justice community services [in NI] are at the top of the tree in terms of UK services.”

Progress comes down to money.

Although we have made significant progress wen you haven’t got the money to expand the community services which you need to spend in order to remove money from the custodial services it’s very difficult to do that. We had a difficult budget settlement for the first years of devolution in which Justice was cut more than the Northern Ireland block. In the fourth year we got an even bigger cut when we were absorbed into the normal Executive funding system, and we continue to have difficulties with only protection for policing (particularly around security matters). Justice has taken significant sums of money out of the Prison Service but we haven’t been able to put as much as we would have hoped into community services.

In speeches at party conferences, Alliance’s ministers often refer to joined up working between the DEL and DOJ. But is there much evidence of joined-up government outside each party’s set of ministries? Justice consult on abortion, a case is running through the courts while Health brought abortion guidelines to the most recent Executive meeting.

It’s over two and a half years since I couldn’t get the then Health minister to agree to a joint consultation around abortion. because it is an issue which lies between the two of us. That followed a somewhat dubious attempt at the last possible minute of the further consideration stage to tighten up the premises where abortions could be offered, even the narrow number that are lawful in Northern Ireland at the moment. [Justice] did our consultation when we could get that. The issue is still featuring in discussions in terms of comments that were passed in the Assembly around amendments to the Justice Bill.

I’m proud that in particular that we have seen some very solid joined-up work between DEL and DOJ. If you go to what we now call Hyde Bank Wood College, the plaque at the front door records that its transformation from the Young Offenders Centre to the College was done by Stephen Farry and David Ford … I think the fact that Stephen and I have a shared philosophy in which we recognise the value of what the college ethos could bring.

This contrasts with the Domestic and Sexual Violence Strategy signed off by the Justice Minister but “apparently there were problems within Health that they wouldn’t sign off on it”.

If Executive ministers mostly stick to cooperating amongst other ministers from their own party, is it not time for Alliance to move into Opposition and no longer prop up the system? Leaving the DUP and Sinn Féin to find a compromise candidate for Justice might do more for the cause of sharing and cohesion than presenting an Alliance minister on a plate to prevent them having to make a difficult decision?

Hold on, we didn’t give it to them on a plate. In 2010 … the letter [I got] paraphrases as “Dear David, thank you for the suggestions you put forward. We believe they could usefully form the Justice addition to the Programme for Government. Yours Peter and Martin.”

They were desperate to have Alliance on board?

You’ll have to talk to them about how desperate they were? … But that is actually what you would do again. I could have been Justice Minister I suspect about a year earlier than I was, because they were looking for somebody to effectively run errands on their behalf. We made it clear that if there was an Alliance Justice Minister they were going to be carrying out an Alliance programme and that was going to be about fundamental reform of the justice system [laid out in that letter].

In fairness to them there has been virtually nothing which has created a problem that was covered by that [letter]. The problems came up when the Home Secretary dreamt up the National Crime Agency and didn’t consult Sinn Féin in advance.

I think what that showed is that it’s entirely reasonable to say that if [DUP and Sinn Féin] want Alliance to provide a Justice minister in the next mandate – and I think it is reasonable to say that the evidence is that they will be unlikely to trust each other or be willing to allow somebody else on their own side of the divide to take it on – if that is the case then we’ve gone fairly well through the last six years and we have further ambition for reform to keep the justice system moving on and we will be putting forward our proposals. And clearly if we qualify for a ministry anyway, it doesn’t have to be Justice if they don’t want to sign up to what we think needs to be done in Justice.

One of the stories in the news over the last six months has been around refugees and asylum seekers. The first batch of Syrian refugees have been welcomed to Northern Ireland under the resettlement programme. It’s not a new issue, but previously a very small number of people cared about it and politics generally ignored it.

Politics generally ignored it. I do think there was a slight wake up call when the people of South Belfast in 2007 decided to send Anna Lo here. I think that was a statement of diversity in this society that hadn’t been recognised. I can remember going with Anna to Botanic Primary School some years ago … they were used to children from different backgrounds but the ones they were used to were the children of university lecturers at Queen’s and doctors from the City Hospital. And then they got used to the illegal Romanian taxi driver also having his family there …

We do have in most parts of Northern Ireland a very significant fund of good will. I visited a Syrian family on the 6th of January when they were celebrating as Orthodox Christians their Christmas festivities with a group from Hyde Bank Wood who took them a gift. And if you want to know about the diversity of this society, the Islamic Centre providing translation between the presumably at least nominally Catholics and Protestants who had come with a present to the Orthodox Christians who were receiving it was an interesting example of positive and constructive outreach.

And yet we do know that there are small numbers of people in this society who are intent on making life difficult for anybody they perceive as different. In some cases that’s the traditional old difference, and in other cases it’s people because of their skin colour or because they’re newcomers from central Europe as well as people who are refugees and asylum seekers from further afield.

I think Northern Ireland has a reasonably good tale to tell in terms of our openness but it’s not as good as it ought to be.

Are our politicians providing leadership on the issue?

I think at Executive level, to be fair to other departments who have more responsibility, there has been a fairly strong lead. Whether that has always percolated through to more junior public representatives of some of those parties showing the same level of openness is not entirely clear to me.

As Minister of Justice, David Ford has worked with four separate Irish Justice Ministers. Has he a bet on the results of the Irish election? [Interview recorded on afternoon of Thursday 25 February while polling stations were still open.]

I’ve never placed a bet on an election … I’ve no particular punt on it. I think there are real issues facing the Irish political class in what still seems to be a fairly consistently high level of support for independents, almost on “a plague on all your houses” basis. It’s very difficult to see how a coherent government is formed if the polls are correct.

Is the EU referendum a good distraction for the Assembly campaigns? Will that lift our heads up from orange and green issues?

I would hope it would. What I suspect we’re going to get is a bit of the referendum campaign now. Then our local media will turn to the Assembly inevitably, and after we get the Assembly over, we will turn back to being about part of the Assembly wide issue. The general suggestion from polls at the moment is that Northern Ireland – unlike 1975 – could be amongst the most pro-European areas of the UK. That’s clear when you look at the issues of cross-border concerns, which some people would have about the economy and I would also have about the dangers of losing the justice cooperation which is based on European legislation (things like the European Arrest Warrant have completely taken the toxicity out of extradition) and I have real concerns that the Secretary of State in particular appears to be acting like an MP from England South East rather than a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in some of what she’s saying … I certainly will be campaigning hard for us to remain in Europe.

The annual Alliance Party conference is this weekend (Saturday 5 March). Slugger will be there.

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