Belfast Telegraph

Learn from Reg, Naomi: don't get pally with Nick

Alliance's Naomi Long should keep her distance from the Lib-Dems to avoid the fate of the Ulster Unionists' link with the Tories, says Henry McDonald

At the start of this year, I posed the question that perhaps the Alliance Party could end up having the most influential set of chums in the House of Commons after the General Election.

While the Ulster Unionists, at the time, were trumpeting their New Force alliance with the Conservatives, I suggested that, in fact, it might be David Ford who emerges as the local politician with more friends in Cabinet than Sir Reg Empey.

As 2010 began, the polls were indicating that British politics was entering hung Parliament territory and thus the Liberal Democrats would be the king-makers post-election.

In those circumstances, it would be Alliance - more than any of the unionists or the SDLP - who would have powerful allies at Westminster. However, that scenario was based on a crucial working assumption: that the Liberal Democrats would enter a progressive, centre-Left coalition with Labour.

Following May 6 we have had two unthinkable outcomes, one local, the other national. The local outcome is that Alliance has elected its first ever MP with Naomi Long's triumph in East Belfast, while the national result produced a once unthinkable government between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Naomi Long now joins her Liberal Democrat colleagues on the green benches - still reeling, no doubt, from the resignation at the weekend of David Laws, the former First Secretary to the Treasury. The East Belfast MP will also undoubtedly use her influence with the sister party not only to promote the interests of East Belfast, but also try to lessen the impact of cost-cutting on Northern Ireland.

However, Alliance's long standing relationship with the Liberal Democrats now poses a potential trap both for the Northern Ireland party and its sole MP.

One of the lessons locally regarding the General Election was that Northern Ireland is not natural Tory territory. As with Scotland, the Cameron rebranded Conservatives cut little or no ice with the local electorate.

Cameron's lightning visit to the La Mon hotel to rally the UUP troops just days before the vote had no tangible effect. With more than 70,000 people working in the Civil Service, for example, there was not - and still is not - much enthusiasm out there for the kind of aggressive cuts in public services Cameron and Osborne have flagged up.

During the General Election campaign, the UUP was extremely vulnerable to charges that they had sold their independence to the Tories whose cuts threatened vulnerable sectors of Ulster society - including those in working class unionist areas.

How, their DUP critics wondered, would UUP councillors on the Shankill or Newtownards Roads explain to cleaners and ancillary staff who lost their jobs in the health service that the cuts that put them on the dole were necessary for the national interest?

Naomi Long should draw some lessons from the UUP's disastrous link-up with the Tories which has left the one time dominant force in Ulster politics without a single MP.

A series of harsh budgets lie ahead and, in spite of the assurances from the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State, the pain will be felt here in Northern Ireland - particularly in the public sector.

Labour activists in Scotland are already salivating at the prospect of taking on the Scottish Liberal Democrats whom they believe will be severely punished in the country because their national leadership is propping up an English Tory Government.

The last thing the Alliance Party needs is its MP to get tarred with the same brush as the Scottish Lib Dems. As well as having a reputation for being a hard worker and a 'people's' politician, Long is also a wily operator. She must surely know that her best strategy in the Commons is to put some critical distance between herself and the Liberal Democrats.

The East Belfast MP would be better stressing her independence from national political machines because, after all, such a stance did Lady Sylvia Hermon no harm in North Down.

Even though Lady Hermon voted consistently with Labour at Westminster, the public's perception of her in the constituency was that she was a feisty, fearless independent.

Naomi Long has the ability to hold on to her East Belfast seat as much as Lady Hermon has consolidated her base in neighbouring North Down. The former will do that if she emphasises her own independence from one of the two UK parties in power.

Finally, Long only needs to look at the mess the UUP still finds itself in following the failed link-up with the Tories. There are still lone voices within the Ulster Unionists arguing that, because David Cameron is Prime Minister, that the UUP-Conservative New Force project could still be beneficial.

That kind of thinking suggests a party that is currently suffering from collective psychological denial. That alone should tell the first 'liberal' MP from East Belfast to create some space between herself and the big Liberals over in London.

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