Belfast Telegraph

Alliance Party conference: Naomi Long's plea for party politics to be set aside in effort to solve health crisis

By Noel McAdam

Alliance leader Naomi Long has called for a "cross-party compact" to take politics out of the hard decisions that lie ahead over Northern Ireland's health service.

Addressing her party's annual conference she said that as part of the current negotiations to restore devolution, political campaigning on health reforms should be anathema.

She revealed that, during a private dinner at the confernce, former Executive Press secretary David Gordon had sounded a stern warning over the Bengoa Report, the plan for the future of health services here.

"David Gordon said that if you could read the Bengoa Report and not wake up in a sweat during the night, then you were a braver person than he was," she said.

"Our National Health Service is simply not sustainable without major reform.

"Such are the challenges facing our National Health Service and such is its fundamental importance to each and every one of us, that we need a cross-party compact agreed as part of the negotiations that party political campaigning on health reforms, regardless of who becomes Health Minister, is out of bounds.

"Yes, the decisions will be difficult and some will be unpopular, but our choice is not between the current service we have and a reformed service - but between a reformed service and a service in collapse.

"The choice is between a National Health Service and a notional health service. "

In her first speech to the conference as leader, Mrs Long referred back to her address a year earlier when she warned the "whiff of corruption" around Stormont was becoming a "stench".

At the time it was in the wake of an expenses scandal amid fresh allegations emerging from the probe into Nama and the associated Project Eagle sale.

"This year the whiff of corruption and cronyism rapidly became intolerable, as further allegations emerged about the Social Investment Fund - public money, our money - being used to line the pockets of those who the Chief Constable described as 'community workers by day and paramilitaries by night'," she said.

She received her first sustained applause when she said: "That a self-proclaimed UDA commander (Dee Stitt), who brazenly claims to be 'homeland security' - a direct challenge to the rule of law - can continue as chief executive of an organisation which is in receipt of Government funds would be completely unthinkable elsewhere.

"It is long past time that it was unthinkable here."

Mrs Long then went on to the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which led to the collapse of power-sharing and the current talks.

She criticised "the murky influence of special advisers who in some parties appear to be directing ministers rather than the other way around; the attempts to conceal from public scrutiny the beneficiaries of the scheme".

She slammed "the fact that even when the impact of the lack of cost controls had implications for the budgets of other departments, the extent and cause of the projected overspend were hidden from Executive colleagues".

"The lack of full disclosure to the Assembly about the real reasons for the overspend exposed a systemic failure of Government," she said.

Those problems had been compounded by the fact that "those who had presided over the mess seemed to be happy to take power, but not so happy to accept any responsibility. It seems that history keeps repeating itself but yet nothing is learned".

Mrs Long was then applauded by the more than 500 delegates as she repeated Alliance's demand for complete openness on political donations, which other parties have opposed on security grounds.

"You cannot argue on one hand that Northern Ireland is a safe and stable region for inward investment and tourism, whilst simultaneously arguing on the other that it is so abnormal and dangerous that the same degree of transparency around donors cannot apply here as elsewhere," she said.

Mrs Long said she wanted to recognise the contribution of people like Martin McGuinness, whose funeral she attended last Thursday, Ian Paisley and David Ervine "and others who have chequered pasts".

She said: "(They) contributed in word and deed to the Troubles and to the painful legacy which we have inherited.

"But I acknowledge and appreciate that they also contributed to the peace when they moved from very entrenched positions towards the relative peace that we now enjoy.

"That move allowed progress to be made towards a brighter future, and for that I am grateful."

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