Naomi Long 'honoured' to lead Alliance in East Belfast election dogfight
Former MP Naomi Long has said she would be honoured to become Alliance leader if the opportunity ever arose.
Ms Long was speaking amid speculation that Justice Minister David Ford would step down and pave the way for her to become party chief if she is elected to the Assembly in May.
She was last night selected as one of three Alliance candidates to run in East Belfast in the forthcoming Stormont elections.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Long accused the DUP of running a "nasty and brutal" campaign to unseat her in last year's Westminster poll.
However, she voiced personal admiration for new DUP leader Arlene Foster, and said it was "very positive" that Northern Ireland now had a female First Minister.
But she feared that Mrs Foster's policies would be the same as her predecessors, and that her leadership would mark a change of "style not substance" in DUP politics.
Asked if she wanted to be the next Alliance leader, Mrs Long said: "There is no vacancy. I've a job to do. I'm deputy leader of the party. I work very closely with David as a partnership.
"My focus right now is the next election and Alliance doing as best as we can.
"But the party has given me lots of different jobs over the years. Every one of them has been an honour, and I can't imagine a situation where the party would ask me to do a job and I wouldn't want to do it."
She said she had not discussed the leadership with Mr Ford but added: "David has talked quite publicly about the fact that he doesn't see himself hobbling about the Assembly as an elderly gentleman.
"When David is ready to have that conversation with the rest of us, then that's the conversation we will have."
Mrs Long is running for Alliance in East Belfast along with sitting MLA Chris Lyttle and Castlereagh and Lisburn councillor Tim Morrow.
The former MP denied that the Alliance Party's second East Belfast MLA Judith Cochrane - who has announced that she is retiring from politics - had been pushed aside to make way for her.
She said that Ms Cochrane had announced publicly last May that she wanted a change from the world of politics.
Mrs Long said that, had her party colleague wanted to run for Stormont, she had no doubt that she would have been selected as one of the three Alliance candidates.
She added that she was "very hopeful" Alliance would increase on its eight seats at Stormont and believed the party could make gains in South Belfast, North Down, East Antrim, and North Belfast. The Alliance politician also spoke of her high regard for DUP First Minister Mrs Foster.
"I like Arlene personally," she said. "I get on well with her. She's quite warm to deal with and she's intelligent.
"But I don't see anything in Arlene's past, politically, to suggest she will take a softer line than her predecessors, or that she will be any more flexible or progressive.
"But let's wait and see. I don't want to judge her leadership. She's only in the job weeks and you have to give a person time."
She welcomed recent statements from loyalist Jamie Bryson and Belfast councillor Ruth Patterson distancing themselves from the dwindling protests over the lowering of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on all but designated days, and stressed that politics was the way forward.
But she added: "I think it is too little, too late. That doesn't mean I don't respect the fact that they've changed their minds. Every convert to the democratic process is a win."
Mrs Long accused the DUP of "inflaming the situation" over the flag issue and said she held it more morally responsible than the flag protesters for the intimidation she faced and the violence on the streets.
The Alliance politician claimed the DUP had taken "a very deliberate decision" to make her "a hate figure within unionism and loyalism" in order to win back its East Belfast Westminster seat.
"If it hadn't been the flags issue it would have been something else," she added. "East Belfast had to be won back because egos had been wounded and had to be restored."
But she said the election pact the DUP entered with the UUP for last May's general election - based on unseating her - had massively backfired on the party.
"The price they've paid to ensure I didn't get a second term as an MP is to breathe new life into the Ulster Unionists, who gained two new MPs and are now a reinvigorated party," she said.
"This is of the most bizarre strategies I've seen in political terms.
"Indeed, I think it was drawn up by someone who is all tactics and no strategy."