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Gavin Robinson: Naomi Long refuses to talk to me...but MP insists she’s spoken to East Belfast rival many times

By Deborah McAleese

The East Belfast parliamentary race has descended into a bitter personality clash, with DUP candidate Gavin Robinson claiming that his Alliance rival has refused to speak to him in over three years.

Mr Robinson, who is hoping to unseat the Alliance MP Naomi Long in the parliamentary election, said she has ignored all of his attempts to reach out to her.

But last night Ms Long hit back, accusing the DUP man of launching a personal attack on her character.

"I will not let such personal attacks characterise my campaign. How others conduct themselves is a matter for them," Ms Long said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the former Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson claimed that Ms Long stopped acknowledging him at the height of the flag protests.

Months of disruptive and often violent protests were launched after Alliance voted against unionist wishes to change Belfast City Council flag policy and only fly the Union flag on designated days.

During that time, Ms Long and other members of the Alliance Party received death threats from loyalist paramilitaries and her constituency office was attacked on a number of occasions.

Mr Robinson said he wrote to the MP and her husband to offer his support, but she never responded.

"At the time of the flag protests I sent a letter and a Christmas card to Naomi and Michael (her husband).

"In the letter, I said I recognised how difficult a time it was and that I hoped it would be resolved soon. I didn't get a response," Mr Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph.

He added: "For three years she has gone out of her way to ignore me. She has even changed seats so that she didn't have to sit beside me.

"That's not the way I am. Even when I have fundamental differences with someone I still have a civil relationship with them. I always try to say hello and be civil with Naomi but she has not acknowledged me in three years. I think it is sad."

The DUP man said that he found it "uneasy" when members of the Alliance Party found themselves under attack during the flag protests.

"I don't think in standing up for your beliefs anyone should feel under threat or fear of attack," he said.

However, Ms Long rejected Mr Robinson's claims and said his "personal attack" on her character was disappointing, but not surprising, despite his claims that he wanted a positive campaign."

"I have, by contrast, never sought to personalise political differences.

"Despite the DUP deliberately targeting me and heightening tensions through their bogus flag leaflet, I have continued to engage not just professionally, but in good humour, with those members of the party who are willing to talk to me," said the Alliance deputy leader.

She added: "Only this week, even a casual observer would have seen me in Westminster, having a number of light-hearted as well as more serious exchanges with DUP MPs, whilst I have continued to chat with their elected representatives at events, as I do with members of all parties."

Ms Long said she has met and spoken to Mr Robinson "many times since his role in the flag leaflet, which he still defends, including sitting with him at a dinner for a community group and most recently at the reception for former Lord Mayors in City Hall."

She also claimed she received the traditional Lord Mayoral card during the flag protests but did not receive a letter or other personal contact from him during that period or since.

"I will not let such personal attacks characterise my campaign. How others conduct themselves is a matter for them," she added.

The DUP and UUP have held talks about a pact in a number of key areas across Northern Ireland, including East Belfast, which the party is determined to win back from Alliance.

Mr Robinson said he has not been involved in the discussions and added that he does not believe one is needed in East Belfast as he is confident in how the DUP has been polling.

A recent Belfast Telegraph poll showed that the DUP was on course to win the seat back in May.

However, our exclusive survey, carried out by polling partners LucidTalk, also found that the Alliance Party is close enough to close the gap.

Earlier this month Mrs Long told the Belfast Telegraph she was determined to hold on to her East Belfast seat, which she won from Peter Robinson in 2010.

Read more:

Gavin Robinson: 'I wasn't joining flag protests but working to end them...' 

Naomi Long is the popular favourite to succeed David Ford as Alliance leader 

Flag issue may yet be costly to Alliance in bitter East Belfast election fight

'People want change, voting for us will bring that change closer' 

How Belfast City Council's row over flying flag sparked months of protests and violence

The decision by Belfast City Council to only fly the Union flag on designated days sparked weeks of unrest across Northern Ireland.

Nationalists wanted the flag taken down altogether, but in the end voted on a compromise from the Alliance Party.

Unionists claimed the move was an attack on their cultural identity.

The vote was taken at the City Hall on Monday, December 3, 2012. Outside, a loyalist protest erupted into violence minutes after the motion was passed. It marked the start of weeks of unrest.

Dozens of police officers were injured and scores of people arrested. The protests spread beyond Belfast, with disorder in towns such as Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Ballymena.

The Alliance Party was also targeted, including a death threat against East Belfast MP Naomi Long and attacks on councillors' homes.

In the weeks before the vote, up to 40,000 leaflets criticising Alliance were distributed in a joint operation carried out by DUP and UUP activists.

Alliance said it was a blatant attempt to ramp up tensions over the flag issue.

Last month, DUP MLA Sammy Douglas hinted at a sense of regret over the episode.

In an interview with this newspaper, he said: "Could we have done things differently? I would say yes, if I look back, we probably could have done."

The Alliance Party was the target of unionist ire because it holds the balance of power on Belfast City Council.

It could have voted down the original motion to remove the flag, but instead proposed the designated days compromise.

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