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Naomi Long: 'When I got the first death threat I wasn't worried for myself, I was scared for mum, who was very sick'

By Suzanne Breen

Published 29/01/2016

Naomi Long with husband Michael and their dog Daisy
Naomi Long with husband Michael and their dog Daisy
Naomi Long meeting Peter Robinson after ousting him in the Westminster election
Naomi Long as a four-year-old
Naomi Long as a one-year-old with parents Emily and James
Naomi Long on her wedding day

The front room of Naomi Long's handsome east Belfast home is immaculate. The big, comfortable sofas, the walnut floor, the purple and grey walls - all are in an unsettlingly pristine condition. The candles dotted around have never been lit.

"We haven't used this room for three years," Naomi says.

"Even with bulletproof glass and security cameras, the front of the property was too dangerous to live in.

"When the flag protests started, the police told me I'd be shot in the house or in my office. It was as blunt as that.

"I didn't want to move out of my home, so we decided to confine ourselves to the back rooms."

It wasn't the first time Naomi's life was at risk. "I got my first death threat in 2002, just a year after I entered electoral politics. It followed Alliance voting for Alex Maskey to become the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast," she says.

"I wasn't worried for myself but I was really scared for my mum, who lived in east Belfast. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was very ill. I was petrified that someone would attack her." Naomi still isn't blasé about her own security but, with the demise of the flag protests, she believes the risks have subsided and it's now safe to return to the front room.

CDs, which have lain unplayed since December 2012, line the shelves. "The Abba, Aerosmiths, Bon Jovi, and all the 'Big Eighties, Big Hair' stuff is mine," she says. "The Garth Brooks ones are Michael's!"

She has been married to dentist and Alliance councillor Michael Long for 20 years. The latest addition to the family - eight-month-old Daisy - comes bounding into the room.

"My dog Molly died three years ago but I hadn't got another one because of how hectic life was as an MP," she explains. "The first thing I did when I lost my Westminster seat was look for another dog.

"I went to the Assisi animal shelter and saw Daisy. She was the smallest in a litter of eight abandoned puppies. It was love at first sight. She sleeps at the foot of the bed. There's no point in having a dog unless you totally spoil her."

Naomi Johnston was born in Downpatrick Street, just off Mersey Street, into a strongly Christian household. Her mother Emily was a Sunday school teacher and her father worked in the shipyard.

"My dad was in the Orange Order and the Royal Black," Naomi says. "He was master of his lodge and parades started from our house. He always put the flag out for the Twelfth. We were a very typical east Belfast family.

"I'd be out on the Twelfth watching my uncles, my cousins and everybody else marching. My parents voted unionist, although my mum's politics changed in later years after the Good Friday Agreement, and she worked for Alliance at election time."

The Johnstons certainly weren't well off. Naomi's father was made redundant due to ill-health when she was eight.

Two years later he died of a massive heart attack and stroke on the street outside their home.

Her mother tried to shield her from the frantic attempts of paramedics to resuscitate him. "I was very close to my dad and I looked like him.

"The red hair came from his side of the family. Losing him was devastating.

"When you're 10 you never think your parents won't be there."

On a visit to the shipyard as East Belfast MP, she was presented with copies of her father's work records - from his apprentice papers through to his last sick lines and redundancy note. "It was incredibly moving," she says.

"It brought back memories of waiting on the corner of Downpatrick Street every night for the men coming home over the bridge from the shipyard, as all the kids did. But I don't want to romanticise those times either.

"You had to be a tough man then. My dad was a sheet metal worker. It was dirty, heavy work. He lost an eye when a piece of metal flew off and hit him. I remember him coming home from work, soaked to the skin, having been out all day in the pouring rain.

"The harsh conditions took its toll on his generation. Many ended up with chest and lung complaints, or in awful pain with arthritis."

And Naomi believes that "an over-reliance" on shipyard jobs negatively influenced the working-class Protestant community's attitude to education.

"Education wasn't taken seriously enough," she says. "A lot of eggs were put in one basket - the shipyard. So when there were fewer jobs there, it hit the community hard."

After her father's death Naomi assumed greater responsibilities at home. "My mum wasn't one for giving it a go with DIY. So I took on the role of man of the house. I rewired plugs, laid carpet tiles, and painted and papered," she recalls.

But Naomi reckons her toughness and outspoken nature are inherited from her mother. "Not long after dad died the Housing Executive hired workers from the South to build flats in our street," she says.

"Loyalists asked mum for money to paint the kerbs red, white and blue. She said no. Flags and bunting were different, as they could be taken down after the Twelfth, but painting the kerbs was to intimidate the Southern workers.

"A few mornings later we awoke to a massive Union flag painted on the road outside our house with 'No Surrender' and 'Remember 1690'. My mum was a woman on her own but she wouldn't let them bully her.

"She went out to clean the window sills and the brass on the door as usual, and she told the neighbours that in some countries putting your flag on the road for people to drive over was a criminal offence."

In 2009 Emily Johnston's breast cancer spread to her brain and her bones and she passed away shortly before her daughter became Belfast Lord Mayor.

"I'd have loved her to have been there for that," Naomi says. "Mum died in this house. She moved in with Michael and I when she got sick and we nursed her until the end."

Naomi and Michael are childhood sweethearts who met at 14. Their first kiss was outside Belfast City Hall after a cinema date. They joined the Alliance Party completely independently in 1993. "I rang Michael to tell him what I'd done and he said he'd signed up too. It was one of these moments where, if we'd joined rival parties, it might have all ended up differently," Naomi jokes.

They sometimes argue over policy details, she says, "but I don't mind so long as I win"!

Regarding housework, "Michael turns his hand to anything but, as a perfectionist, I turn my hand to going around finishing it after him".

Reading is one of the Alliance politician's favourite ways of relaxing. "From serious political biographies to trashy novels, I'll pick up anything. My problem is that I hoard books.

"William Crawley says he gives his dinner guests a book on leaving to try to clear his shelves. Given his choice of reading material that might work, but I'd be too embarrassed to pass on some of the rubbish I have!"

Naomi's big addiction is crime thrillers.

"I'd love to have been a forensic scientist," she says. "I have a fascination with that stuff. So you know, if politics doesn't work out, it may be 'CSI East Belfast' for me!"

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