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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 19:39 GMT 20:39 UK
Alliance Party faces uphill battle
Alliance Party members
Alliance: A party struggling with internal division
The Alliance Party has been left in a state of flux after the sudden resignation of leader Sean Neeson, and a damaging internal row.

BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Mark Simpson examines the party's difficulties.

The cross-community Alliance Party was established to try to bring people together, but it now has the appearance of a party falling apart.

Two leaders have resigned in the past four years, electoral support has dipped and a number of internal disputes have dented party morale.

The latest row came just before Sean Neeson announced at the start of this month that he intended resigning as party leader.

The difficulties began when Mr Neeson offered the deputy leadership of the party to David Ford, the chief whip at the Assembly and a former general secretary of the party.

Within 24 hours of the offer being made - it was withdrawn.

Accusations and recriminations

The reason was an accusation that Mr Ford had been helping organise for the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland.

Mr Ford argued that he had done nothing wrong, given that the Lib Dems are a sister party of Alliance, and have a specific policy of not contesting elections in Northern Ireland against Alliance.

But the offer of the new job was still withdrawn, and Mr Ford later resigned as chief whip.

The deputy leadership was subsequently given to the North Down Assembly member Eileen Bell.

The episode caused bad feeling in party ranks. Indeed, the night before Mr Neeson resigned, there was a meeting of the party executive which was described by one insider as 'hot and heavy'.

Odds-on

In spite of the turbulent events in the run-up to Mr Neeson's resignation, party spokesmen have insisted that the leader had been considering his position for a number of months, and no one incident convinced him to go.

Alliance will elect a new leader at a meeting on Saturday 6 October.

Only assembly members can apply for the job.

That means the new leader will be one of the following: Seamus Close, David Ford, Eileen Bell or Kieran McCarthy.

Whoever wins the internal contest faces a difficult task in halting the party's downward slide at the polls.

Election trauma

In the 1973 Council Election, Alliance polled 14% of the vote; in this year's local government poll it achieved only 5%.

In spite of the problems afflicting the party, it is premature to write it off. After all, it is not the only party in Northern Ireland with internal difficulties - just ask David Trimble.

Alliance general secretary Stephen Farry believes the instability in the peace process has had a knock-on effect.

"The uncertainty does not do us any favours, " he says.

"In elections, some people may feel they need to prop up moderate unionism and moderate nationalism rather than us."

Nonetheless, he is positive about the future.

"While we may have our internal difficulties, there's a clear need for a non-unionist, non-nationalist alternative," said Mr Farry.

If you click onto the home-page of the Alliance Party's website, you find a flashing logo with the words 'It's time for tomorrow'.

The party certainly has a vision of a better tomorrow, but at the moment, it is struggling to cope with today.

See also:

06 Sep 01 | Northern Ireland
Alliance leader to resign
14 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
NI society still 'deeply divided'
08 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Premiers needed to revive talks
12 Mar 01 | Parties
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
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