Belfast Telegraph

Alliance Party conference: Naomi fights flu, but Alliance in good health

By Noel McAdam

"This is real flu," said Naomi Long, "not man flu."

Her first speech as party leader to Alliance's annual conference and she is choked, with a bit of a cough, and is in need of sips of water.

She was referring of course to the flu sustained during the recent election campaign, not just by DUP leader Arlene Foster and SDLP chief Colum Eastwood, but also by herself.

But if Naomi was again suffering slightly, her party appears to be in rude good health.

The party is on a roll after its best election performance in 20 years when it secured a 50pc increase in first preference votes.

Along with Sinn Fein, it was the only party whose vote went up across all 18 constituencies.

Though the headlines went to the DUP and Sinn Fein, it was in many ways Alliance's election.

The result, if and when we get to that point, will be Alliance holding the balance of power between the almost equal unionist and nationalist blocs in the new Assembly - a mirror image, in fact, of the delicate set-up in Belfast City Hall.

And, under the new leadership of Long, the party isn't finished yet.

It has just two seats fewer than the Ulster Unionists, and has that party in its sights in the next Assembly election, after coming runner-up in both North Belfast and South Down.

This air of celebration and new-found confidence at the gathering on Saturday means the party can afford to shrug off controversies such as urging supporters to bombard BBC radio phone-in programmes with calls, and accusations of ageism voiced by veteran members like Geraldine Rice.

Alliance under Long gives every impression of a sleeker, more professional, better organised and energised party that is focused on its priorities, which could, in the right circumstances, even include rejoining the Executive.

Thus through the conference, which took up most of Saturday morning and afternoon, the party was in touch with the devolution talks that were happening just a mile away at Stormont Castle, with deputy leader Stephen Farry leaving at one point to take part in meetings.

Alliance has picked up on an apparent increased willingness among a section of the electorate to consider changing their vote.

Other female figures in the party, incuding South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw and Tara Doyle from Upper Bann, point to a 'Naomi factor' in the election held earlier this month.

For Mrs Long, this means even her dog Daisy has apparently become a celebrity.

"I have a sneaking suspicion that quite a few people who came up to us to chat were at least as interested in meeting the dog as discussing our manifesto pledges," she said.

"And that was only the candidates."

But that wasn't her best joke. She confessed that just a few weeks after replacing David Ford she was listening to the radio and heard that the Alliance boss was being interviewed next.

"For a second," she said, "I wondered what David was being interviewed about before hearing my own voice being broadcast."

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