Seán Neeson

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Seán Neeson
MLA
Leader of the Northern Ireland Alliance Party
In office
1998–2001
Preceded by John Alderdice
Succeeded by David Ford
Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly
for Antrim East
In office
25 June 1998 – 2011
Preceded by New Creation
Personal details
Born (1946-02-09) 9 February 1946 (age 69)
Political party Alliance
Alma mater Queen's University Belfast
Profession Teacher
Religion Roman Catholicism
Website Alliance webpage

Seán Neeson (born February 9, 1946) is a politician in Northern Ireland who served as leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland between 1998 and 2001.

Education and early life[edit]

Neeson was educated at St. Malachy's College and then the Queen's University of Belfast before working as a teacher for many years. In the 1970s he joined the Alliance and in 1977 he was first elected to Carrickfergus council and has remained a member ever since, serving as Mayor in 1993-1994.

Political career[edit]

In 1982 Neeson was elected to the Prior Assembly for Northern Ireland for the constituency of North Antrim. The following year he first contested the new constituency of East Antrim in the 1983 general election and subsequently fought it in the 1986 by-election called on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 1987 general election, the 1992 general election and the 1997 general election.

He was also elected from the constituency to the Northern Ireland Peace Forum in 1996 and the Northern Ireland Assembly in both the 1998 and 2003 elections. On several occasions Neeson has been at the head of the single highest vote for Alliance in a province wide election. During this period Neeson emerged as one of the leading Alliance spokespersons, often participating in their delegation to successive talks about the future of the province.

In 1998 Neeson stood for the leadership of Alliance upon the resignation of John Alderdice. Neeson's election represented a notable geographic shift as his three predecessors (Alderdice, John Cushnahan and Oliver Napier) had all had political bases in the strip incorporating the East Belfast and North Down constituencies, whereas Neeson's political base was in County Antrim, to the north of Belfast. This was continued by Neeson's successor, David Ford, whose political base is in South Antrim.

Neeson's leadership came at a time of crisis for the Alliance. The negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent strong endorsement by a referendum had given Alliance much to hope for, as the party whose longstanding position on the province's future most closely matched that negotiated. However the first Assembly elections had seen Alliance win a mere 6.5% of the vote and just six Assembly seats. The decision by the party's leader, John Alderdice, to resign and take up the position of the Assembly's Speaker deprived Alliance of their most well known figure. Alliance was also in danger of losing further support to the cross-community Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. The political arrangements of the Assembly placed great stress on the need for a "majority in both communities" and a party that refused to identify as being a part of either found its influence diminished. Under Neeson's leadership Alliance sought to enhance its credentials as a party that was unambiguously in favour of the Agreement.

The first major electoral test came in the South Antrim by-election in 2000. With both the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party fielding candidates hostile to the Agreement, Alliance sought to gain votes from those unionists who supported it. In a fierce contest that was clearly always going to be between the two main unionist parties, Alliance instead found its vote squeezed.

The following year the 2001 general election saw a number of misfortunes for Alliance and Neeson personally. He failed to be selected to fight his own constituency by his local association. An attempt to negotiate an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists, with the hope of Alliance winning the East Belfast seat broke down in negotiations. Subsequently Alliance took the controversial decision to withdraw from several constituencies which looked likely to be fierce contests between the Ulster Unionists and/or the SDLP against the Democratic Unionists and/or Sinn Féin, instead urging voters to support the pro Agreement candidate best placed for peace[1] (although Sinn Féin were pro-Agreement, its main rival for votes, the SDLP, was ideologically closer to the Alliance Party). The extent to which this strategy worked is debated, however many commentators and some former prominent Alliance activists were left asking publicly whether there was a point to the continuation of Alliance. The party also lost a number of council seats in the local elections held on the same day. Shortly after the election the party's deputy leader, Seamus Close, resigned citing differences over direction with the leadership.

Subsequently in September 2001 Neeson chose to resign from the leadership, being succeeded by David Ford,[2] though he remained a member of the Assembly. In the 2003 Assembly election he held his seat and was subsequently selected by his local association to fight East Antrim in the 2005 general election. Having increased the party's vote at that election, Neeson was re-elected to the Assembly comfortably at the 2007 election, on a party vote share of 16%.

Seán Neeson stepped down from the assembly to spend more time with his family, saying "It has been an honour and a privilege to serve the people of East Antrim at the Assembly. It has been very rewarding and at time extremely challenging trying to build peace in Northern Ireland. I want to pay tribute to all those who, during the darkest days of the Troubles, worked hard from the centre ground to bring this society forward towards a peaceful and shared future."[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Alliance withdraws from five seats". BBC News Online. 2001-04-02. Retrieved 2010-03-24. 
  2. ^ "Northern Ireland chronology: 2001". BBC News Online. 2003-04-09. Retrieved 2010-03-24. 
  3. ^ "The Belfast Telegraph - Latest: 21:22 Hugo no-go?_ Ex-Alliance leader Neeson to quit". The Belfast Telegraph. The Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved August 30, 2012. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Stewart Dickson
Mayor of Carrickfergus
1993 - 1994
Succeeded by
J. Crowe
Northern Ireland Assembly
Preceded by
New creation
MLA for Antrim East
1998 - 2011
Succeeded by
Stewart Dickson
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Alderdice
Leader of the Alliance Party (NI)
1998 - 2001
Succeeded by
David Ford