Belfast Telegraph

Retaining East Belfast remains top priority for Alliance Party, says Ford

By Liam Clarke

Keeping the DUP out of East Belfast and retaining it for Naomi Long is Alliance's number one priority in the upcoming general election, David Ford has said.

Speaking on the eve of his party's annual conference, the Alliance leader also laid the blame for the current political crisis firmly at the door Sinn Fein - but said it cannot be solved unless people start voting for different parties.

Mrs Long, the Alliance deputy leader, caused a major upset when she took the East Belfast seat from DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010.

Defending her seat is clearly Alliance's chief concern for the May 7 general election.

This time she is defending it against Gavin Robinson, a DUP candidate who is not related to the party leader.

"The key issue for us will be retaining the East Belfast seat," Mr Ford said.

The Justice Minister said he had been heartened by recent LucidTalk polling for the Belfast Telegraph.

In January the survey found that Mr Robinson was likely to get 65% of the votes.

In a more recent survey of trends we found that Mr Robinson is now 55% likely to win the seat, reflecting a narrowing gap.

"Your recent polling demonstrates that it is a two-horse race. We think Naomi's hard work in the area has built on the basic party vote. She was not doing as well as this five years ago just before she won the seat," he said.

Mr Ford also warned that his Justice Department could not balance its budget unless the Executive approves a substantial cut in legal aid payments.

While it is being considered, solicitors are threatening to go on strike.

"We have a degree of protection for policing but we are seeing cuts of up to 10% on some frontline services," Mr Ford said. "In simple terms we cannot provide the same level of protection to the public in the probation or youth justice while implementing cuts on this scale.

"That affects the supervision of offenders, the management of prisons and the work being done in prisons to reform people, as opposed to just keeping them locked up," he stated.

He added that "quite simply it is impossible to balance my budget without cuts in legal aid".

"The budget for legal aid is in the region of £65m and the anticipated expenditure is in the region of £103m," he said.

"Although we have allocated some extra money we still have a gap close on £20m for 2015-16."

Turning to the current political crisis, Mr Ford was gloomy about the future of the Assembly but determined to give it one last try.

The impasse came about when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein dramatically withdrew his support for the welfare reform bill on Monday and its passage through Stormont had to be postponed.

Failure to implement the reforms, which will reduce the rate of increase in benefit spending, will result in Northern Ireland's entire budget being thrown into chaos. Government loans and flexibilities totalling £2bn could be withdrawn and the devolution of corporation tax would be delayed or abandoned.

Sinn Fein is claiming the DUP withheld papers from it, effectively duping them about the Executive's ability to protect claimants from cuts. Funds have been set up to relieve hardship but they will not mitigate all cuts unless they are topped up by £200m (Sinn Fein's figure) to £400m (the DUP's figure.)

"It is hard to see how this circle can be squared given that Sinn Fein have reneged on the deal and dug themselves in further," Mr Ford said. "On the other hand we have faced difficult issues in the past and we shall look forward to seeing what happens."

He added the the Secretary of State had been made aware of the need for her to take a lead in bringing the parties together "and I am glad that is happening".

Ms Villiers met representatives of the five parties yesterday evening to go through the welfare reform proposals. Her hopes is that if she explains it fully it will meet with more agreement - but she insists there is no extra money.

What he said on...

THE LEADERSHIP

Parties change leaders much more frequently when they are going down than when they are going up. Since I took over (in 2001) we have been going through a period of success. The day I got the job I told people that they didn’t need to send for the men in grey suits when it was time for me to move on, just tell me. Nobody has told me yet.

ALLIANCE’S MESSAGE

We are concentrating on the positive work we have been doing, the good work that Naomi has done in Westminster, that the team has done in the Assembly, that Stephen and I have done as ministers. We think that is what people want to hear, positive news, not negative sniping.

FLAG-FLYING

Our policy of flags on civic headquarters on designated days is a reasonable recognition of the realities of this society. It is what happens in government departments and it is reasonable for councils as well.

REDUCTION IN ASSEMBLY MINISTRIES

Unless we have a fairly significant vote increase at the next Stormont election it is likely that we will loose a ministry. Given that it was a proposal that we put forward we can’t object. When I look at the work that Stephen and I have done I think we have been as successful as other ministers.

TARGET IN THE ELECTION

Every election I go into we seek to put up the votes and, generally speaking, in recent years we have managed that. Now the key issue for us will be retaining the East Belfast seat, building on Naomi’s good work.

HOPES FOR THE CONFERENCE

I had hoped that at this conference we would be reviewing progress since the Stormont House Agreement but unfortunately Sinn Fein reneging on the welfare deal has put us is a far worse position than we believed was the case. Despite that, Alliance is committed to building on the Agreement.

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