Belfast Telegraph

If Theresa May refuses to take part in talks during Northern Ireland visit it'll show just how little she cares: Naomi Long

By Noel McAdam

It would be bizarre for Prime Minister Theresa May to fly into Northern Ireland but avoid becoming involved in the talks to save Stormont, Alliance leader Naomi Long has warned.

On the eve of her party's annual conference tomorrow - which will be her first as party leader - Mrs Long also said a botched Brexit could boost the prospects for moves towards a united Ireland.

Mrs May's imminent arrival is part of a UK-wide tour aimed at providing reassurances about the potential impact of EU withdrawal.

But the Northern Ireland Office has been unable to confirm if she will take any part in the negotiations with a deadline to appoint a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister just three days away.

"It is quite surreal to think Theresa May would visit at a time when the very future of power-sharing hangs in the balance, yet not feel compelled to actively participate in the current talks process," Mrs Long said.

"It suggests a Prime Minister who is either oblivious to the perilous state of devolution, or simply doesn't care.

"At what is a critical time in the negotiations and in the Brexit process, I think it is important the Prime Minister considers carefully the message such non-engagement will send to the people of Northern Ireland regarding the importance of devolution and Northern Ireland's interests to her Government.

"Otherwise, what is intended to reassure people of her interest could spectacularly backfire."

In a theme she will return to in her keynote speech, Mrs Long said failing to listen to the concerns of both nationalists and unionists about the impact of Brexit could lead to increased support for Irish reunification.

"I think a botched Brexit could potentially make that prospect greater," she said.

"Our needs are very different from the south-east of England yet what I think we are having is a Brexit tailored around the demands and needs of the conservative south-east, which is not paying heed to the needs and demands of Northern Ireland.

"The Prime Minister ought, therefore, to seek to discuss the matter with the devolved regions and be sensitive in seeking to represent their concerns.

"However, this whistle-stop tour, far from demonstrating a willingness to engage and listen, seems to typify the lack of sensitivity to the particular challenges facing Northern Ireland, not least by the collapse of devolution."

At tomorrow's gathering in Belfast Mrs Long is expected to laud her party's performance in the recent Assembly election - after it was revealed Alliance had the biggest increase in first preference votes.

It is thought she will tell the conference of her plans to build on the apparent growth in popularity, with Alliance now just two seats behind the Ulster Unionists in the Assembly.

The examination by the Assembly's research unit confirmed Alliance benefited from a 50% increase in the number of first preference votes in the March 2 poll.

Its voter share also rose by over 2%, with the party retaining its eight seats despite the Assembly shrinking from 108 to 90 MLAs.

And the research showed most of Alliance's transfers came from the SDLP (20%) and UUP (11%), along with other Alliance Party candidates (11%) and the Green Party (11%).

As deputy leader at the conference a year ago, Mrs Long said the whiff of corruption in Northern Ireland politics was turning into a "stench".

She was speaking against the backdrop of a new Stormont expenses scandal and ongoing revelations around the Nama affair, but before the revelations around Stormont's Renewable Heat Incentive scheme began to come to light.

Mrs Long was elected the new leader of the Alliance Party last October.

She was the only member to put her name forward to succeed retiring David Ford.

The former East Belfast MP had served as deputy leader for 10 years.

Mr Ford stepped down after leading the Alliance Party for 15 years.

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