Naomi Long slams 'arrogant DUP' and says she no regrets over Union flag protests
Naomi Long will today announce that she is putting her name forward to be the next Alliance Party leader. She is likely to be elected unopposed as every Alliance MLA - bar David Ford who has stood aside from the contest - is supporting her.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Long said she had "absolutely no regrets" about her party's position on flying the Union flag at City Hall which led to the flag protests and loyalist intimidation of her party members.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would," she said defiantly.
Mrs Long was severely critical of Arlene Foster's style of leadership as First Minister, accusing the DUP of sometimes now being "even more arrogant and petulant" than it was under Peter Robinson.
She also signalled that she would be leading the party "robustly" and taking it in a strongly liberal direction. Her personal position on abortion is markedly more radical than David Ford's.
During the flag protests, Mrs Long received death threats and was unable to use the front room of her house for three years. Her party's offices were also attacked. "It was both the lowest and highest point in politics for me," she said.
"Sheer hatred was unleashed. There was chaos on the streets, pressure on the police, and Alliance members suffered personal vitriol and physical attacks. But our party made the right decision on the flying of the Union flag.
"We stood over that decision in very painful circumstances, and at a high personal price. We showed unity, dignity and integrity, and I'm so proud of that. We were told we would be punished by the electorate but we weren't. The public stood with us and our vote increased."
Mrs Long continued: "I have absolutely no regrets about our party's position on the flag. If I had to do it all again, I would. The flag protests are gone, and Alliance is still here. I feel sympathy, more than animosity, towards the protesters. Many ended up with criminal records. They were used and abused by certain politicians in a wider political game."
When Arlene Foster became First Minister in January, Mrs Long praised her ability and said they got on well. However, the future Alliance leader is now highly critical of Mrs Foster's leadership style.
"A female DUP leader did not usher in a new way of doing politics at Stormont," she said. "The DUP shows nothing but disrespect to those of us who aren't in government.
"They are sneering and contemptuous of the Assembly as a whole. They seem to be offended that members of opposition parties even ask questions. The DUP today are more arrogant and petulant than I've seen them be in a long time - and that includes even under Peter Robinson's leadership."
Mrs Long singled out the appointment of journalist David Gordon as Stormont's spin-doctor. "They secretly changed the law to do that and the press statement put out was more like an ill-tempered midnight tweet than serious government communication," she said.
"Any hope that things would change with the passing of Peter Robinson and Arlene's ascendancy have been blown out of the water. Arlene's approach during debate and discussion in the Assembly is hardly progressive. When she is under pressure in the despatch box, you regularly see her temper fray."
Mrs Long said that the UUP and SDLP hadn't "stepped up to the mark" in terms of providing an opposition. She described 'opposition day' at Stormont as "disastrous" with the issues debated irrelevant to the Executive's business. The absence of SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood - who instead attended the British Labour Party conference - was "a total abdication of responsibility", she said.
However, Mrs Long said that she would work with the UUP, SDLP, Greens and People Before Profit to help provide a more effective opposition. When asked if Alliance was a unionist party, she said: "We don't define ourselves as a unionist party.
"Our position is that the Good Friday Agreement settled the constitutional question - that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK so long as a majority decides. Sovereignty lies with the people, and any future decision is for them to take via a referendum. It is now up to us all to make Northern Ireland work."
Mrs Long disclosed that equal marriage and abortion reform would be high on her political agenda. She supports the availability of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality but also - unlike her predecessor - in cases of rape and incest. Abortion is a matter of individual conscience for Alliance members.
The future party leader said that abortion law reform was needed here. "I'm not in favour of extending the 1967 British Abortion Act to Northern Ireland but we clearly do need to reform our laws," she said.
"Women are procuring abortions through pills they buy online. I see no public interest in arresting and charging these women. If we criminalise them, they are unlikely to seek medical assistance if, for instance, they start haemorrhaging. We need a compassionate approach. It must be remembered that banning abortion in Northern Ireland, doesn't stop it. We either transport the problem to Britain or we shroud it in secrecy at home."
Nominations for the Alliance leadership close tomorrow. The party will then hold an annual general meeting in a fortnight where Mrs Long will need 50% plus one vote to become leader.