Long tipped to become next Alliance leader as Ford decides to step down
Naomi Long is being strongly tipped to be the next leader of the Alliance Party following David Ford's resignation.
The East Belfast MLA appears to be the most likely candidate to be elected at a special meeting of the party's ruling council later this month.
Now back in the Assembly after the DUP took back the East Belfast parliamentary seat she won in 2010, Mrs Long did not want to fuel speculation yesterday. She is the party's deputy leader, however, and is to act as interim leader until the council meeting on October 26.
A spokesman pointed out any of the party's other seven MLAs are eligible to become leader.
"Nominations for the position will be open until 5pm on October 12. Any serving Alliance MLA is able to be nominated," he said. "To be elected leader, a candidate must receive 50% plus one of the available votes."
Mr Ford's departure after 15 years as leader had been anticipated since he stood down after almost six years as Justice Minister in February.
He said the 15th anniversary of his succession as Alliance leader after Sean Neeson stood down was the most appropriate time "to step aside and pass the reins to a new generation of leadership for the party".
"Alliance has a well-established new Assembly team, which has hit the ground running by successfully submitting a number of private member's bills and continuing to provide the effective scrutiny of the Executive others have so far failed to do," he said.
"I am proud to represent the people of South Antrim, who most recently re-elected me for my fifth Assembly term in May, and I will continue to do that in Stormont and in the constituency. Whoever succeeds me as Alliance leader will be taking over a party on the rise. I am confident they will continue that upwards trend of growing the party, while providing leadership for everyone in our community."
Under Mr Ford's leadership Alliance twice prevented the Assembly from collapsing - when he agreed to become Justice Minister in 2010 and when the party temporarily redesignated from 'other' to 'unionist' in 2001.
Married with three daughters and one son, he has also campaigned at a personal level to improve the province's rail network and on environmental issues including nature conservation, the protection of hares, planning and waste management.
Paying tribute to Mr Ford yesterday, Mrs Long said: "Today is the end of an era. David has served the Alliance Party in so many roles over the years, as a councillor, Assembly Member, negotiator, Justice Minister, general secretary and chief whip; however, his leadership over the last 15 years has transformed the Alliance Party and made a huge contribution to peace and stability in Northern Ireland."
Former Alliance leader John Cushnahan said: "David was a safe pair of hands and discharged his responsibilities with consummate skill, greatly strengthening the credibility and standing of the power sharing Executive itself and underpinning the peace process at a critical and sensitive time."
Other parties also paid tribute to Mr Ford, who will remain an MLA for South Antrim.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "Over many years David has made a significant contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. His work as Minister of Justice following the devolution of policing and justice powers to the province was pivotal in securing the new justice arrangements.
"On many of the major public policy issues David and I have taken opposing views but I respect the fact that he always advanced those causes which he espoused with diligence and tenacity. I wish him and his family well for the future."
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt congratulated Mr Ford on sticking the pace for 15 years as party leader. "That's quite a shift in what can be a very lonely and exposed position," he said. "He led his party during some very challenging times both for Northern Ireland and for these institutions and I am sure he will be remembered for his contribution."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said David Ford "led his party with composure and resilience, particularly in the face of violence following the flag protests.
"While I'm glad that David will continue in the Assembly, I am also glad that he will now enjoy more time with family and friends," he added.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire MP said: "Over the past 20 years, David has been at the heart of Northern Ireland politics, not only as leader of the Alliance Party, but also as Northern Ireland's first Justice Minister since the devolution of Policing and Justice in 2010. We should be extremely thankful to him for his work to help secure peace and stability in Northern Ireland."