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

By Liam Clarke

The vast majority of Alliance Party activists have come out overwhelmingly in support of East Belfast MP Naomi Long as the next party leader.

She would be members' first choice if David Ford were to stand aside. And they would also be keen to see Ms Long co-opted back to Stormont if she was to lose her Westminster seat in May.

These were among the findings of a survey at the Alliance Party conference in Belfast on Saturday. The Belfast Telegraph interviewed about 50 attendees.

Of these, 50% said that the party should back Labour if its support counted in a hung parliament, compared to one in 10 who backed the Tories. Alliance loosened its links with the Liberal Democrats after they went into coalition with the Tories in 2010.

Of course, they have to get elected before they back any candidate. Their only realistic chance of a seat is in East Belfast, where Ms Long, the deputy leader, defeated Peter Robinson, the DUP leader. It is a grudge match, with latest predictions making Gareth Robinson, the DUP's contender this time round, 55% likely to win.

Ms Long was clearly the conference's darling this year, with 66% saying that if she did not win the Westminster election she should be co-opted to the Assembly. Some of the rest said that she was bound to win, so they weren't considering alternatives.

There was also strong support for David Ford to remain as leader; 92% want him to continue into 2016 with the remaining 8% thinking he should go earlier.

What was clear though is that Ms Long, who is just over 20 years Mr Ford's junior, will be the next choice to lead the party, with 80% saying they would back her if Mr Ford resigned, while 8% preferred Stephen Farry, the DEL minister.

Opinion among Alliance members reflected the widespread criticism of the Assembly's performance. Only 4% rated its performance good or excellent (2%).

Other parties tend to assume Alliance would never leave the Executive ("the worm who never turns" as one rival politician put it) but there are some signs of a rethink.

Nearly half (46%) said the party should consider leaving the Executive if proposals in the Stormont House Agreement for a funded opposition are implemented. Some 42% didn't want to consider it and 12% didn't know. These proposals are due to be unveiled next month.

Even if they were critical of the performance of the Executive - and Mr Ford lashed into all the other parties in his speech - most Alliance members are content that life in Northern Ireland is getting better.

A total of 82% felt it had improved in the last five years and only 12% considered that things had deteriorated.

There was also general satisfaction with the performance of the PSNI, making Alliance supporters perhaps the most pro law and order in the political spectrum, with 74% rating police performance as good or excellent compared to just 2% who thought it was poor. That gives it a net favourability rating of +72%, very high for a police force.

For instance when we surveyed DUP members, they gave PSNI performance a +44.5% approval rating.

The Belfast Telegraph carries out a similar survey at all Executive parties at their conferences; the exception being Sinn Fein, who have refused to co-operate for the past two years.

Our survey results

1. In a hung parliament where Alliance votes counted should the party back a Labour or Conservative led administration?  (Yes Labour, No Conservative,  0 Other/DK)

Labour50%

Conservative10%

Other/Don't Know40%

2. Compared to direct rule from Westminster how would you rate the performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly? (1 excellent, 5 Very bad)

1) 2%

2) 2%

3) 48%

4) 24%

5) 24%

3. The Stormont House Agreement contains provisions for an official opposition. If these are implemented should Alliance consider leaving the Executive?

Yes46%

No42%

Don't Know12%

4. Do you think Northern Ireland has improved as a place to live in the last five years - or got worse? (Y better, N worse, or don't know)

Yes82%

No12%

Don't Know6%

5. The present voting age in 18 Should this be lowered to 16?

Yes60%

No38%

Don't Know2%

6. Should David Ford lead the Alliance Party into 2016?

Yes92%

No8%

Don't Know0%

7. How on a scale of 1-5 with 1 best would you rate the performance of the PSNI?

1) 26%

2) 48%

3) 24%

4) 2%

5) 0%

8. Thinking of schools you or your family have attended most recently, should the Churches have more or less of a role in the running of our education system?

More influence10%

Less influence84%

Don't Know6%

9. Should Naomi Long be co-opted into the Assembly if she is no longer an MP after May?

Yes66%

No24%

Don't Know10%

10. If David Ford stepped down as the leader of Alliance who would you pick to succeed him?

Naomi Long 80%

Stephen Farry 8%

Someone else (Ask for name) 4%

Don't Know 8%

**The survey of 50 party members was carried out on Saturday, March 14 2015 at the Alliance conference in Belfast in association with LucidTalk polling. Interviews were conducted by Nicole-Anna Johnston who is studying Journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College.

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