Sir Oliver Napier, the first leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, is born in Belfast on July 11, 1935. In 1974 he serves as the first and only Legal Minister and head of the Office of Legal Reform in the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive set up by the Sunningdale Agreement.
Napier is educated at St. Malachy’s College, Belfast and Queen’s University Belfast before starting work as a solicitor.
Napier joins the Ulster Liberal Party, rising to become Vice President by 1969. That year, he leads a group of four party members who join the New Ulster Movement, accepting the post of joint Chairman of its political committee. The Liberal Party promptly expels him, but, working with Bob Cooper, he uses his position to establish a new political party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which seeks to become a political force that can command support from across the divided communities of the province, but remain pro-union. This aims to offer an alternative to what he describes as the sectarianism of the Ulster Unionist Party. Despite his faith he is a supporter of the Union.
Napier serves as the party’s joint leader from 1970 until 1972, then as its sole leader from 1973 to 1984. Under his leadership Alliance participates in successive assemblies that seek to solve the debate on the province’s position, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, 1973 in which he is a minister in the power-sharing Executive. In 1979 he comes closer to winning a seat in the Westminster Parliament than any other Alliance candidate up to that point when he is less than a thousand votes behind Peter Robinson‘s winning total in Belfast East in a tight three-way race. This record is beaten in 2010, when Naomi Long ousts Robinson from the same seat. When Napier steps down as leader in 1984 he receives many plaudits for his work. The following year he is knighted and in 1989 he stands down from Belfast City Council, seemingly to retire.
However, in 1995 Napier returns to the political fray when he contests the North Down by-election for the Alliance, standing again in the 1997 United Kingdom general election. In 1996 he is elected to the Northern Ireland Forum for North Down. Prior to his death he is the last prominent member of the Ulster Liberal Party.
Napier serves on the Board of Governors of Lagan College, the first integrated school in Northern Ireland.
Napier dies at the age of 75 on July 2, 2011. He is survived by his wife, Briege, whom he marries in 1961, three sons and five daughters, and 23 grandchildren. A son predeceases him.