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Naomi Long: 'I am not nationalist or unionist - it's not about politics of the border'

Published 14/11/2016

Naomi with dog Daisy
Naomi with dog Daisy
Naomi with former Alliance party leader David Ford
Celebration time: Naomi with husband Michael on the night she was elected as party leader
Shared values: Naomi at home with her husband Michael and dog Daisy in Belfast

New Alliance leader Naomi Long tells Noel McAdam about her vision for the party going forward in Northern Ireland and discusses the rise of women in politics.

Q. You have taken over the leadership from David Ford. How do you intend to differ from him?

A. It's not really about difference. People always look for difference, I look on it as diversity.

David had a different manner. I have my own way of doing things and it is really about complementing each other.

We are both passionate about the same things. But over the next few years it will be for me to put my own mark on things. David has done some really good work, he has moved the party from the centre and not just stabilised it, but achieved electoral success for us.

Q. Are there any specific party policies you want to re-examine ?

A. We probably have the most developed policy platforms of any of the parties.

Our summaries can be as long as other party's entire manifestos (laughs).

Yet there are and will be issues, for example, how we build on the strong base that we have.

Q. And yet the base is Belfast-centric, aren't you really an east of the Bann party ?

A. We have some really good people who have joined in the west, and, absolutely, there are missed opportunities and surprise wins where we want to build.

For us it's not just greater Belfast. We have limited resources as a party and we recognise that is the case. So we have to target those resources in areas where we think the chances of a seat are greatest and that has been in the last five years in the east of the province.

But there is now a break in the electoral cycle which will allow us to look at other areas.

Q. Would your initial focus be on the local government elections in two and a half years and where do you see the potential for Alliance growth beyond Belfast?

A. I am not making a list of predictions at this point, but internally in the party we are looking at those targets.

There are people out there who make a real difference in their local communities and would want to sit on their local councils.

Q. You have made clear on social media and elsewhere that you are not a unionist. What are you?

A. I am not a unionist or a nationalist. People see this as a binary issue. The reality is I do not define myself in those binary terms, because it does not reflect my politics which is about celebrating diversity and it is not about the politics of the border.

Q. Do you have sympathy with Anna Lo's long-held views that she could favour a united Ireland?

A. That's not really news any more, is it? We have known for a very long time that there are people in Alliance holding those views.

It is not what defines Anna's politics or David's politics or mine, it is about building a shared future.

There is a whole diversity of opinion within the party but united around the common core vision of wanting Northern Ireland to be a society in which rights are respected and each person is valued.

Q. Are you happy with your public image?

A. I don't give a lot of thought to my public image, I don't think politics is about image or how people present themselves, but what policies and values drive them. I am not concerned about superficial things.

Q. Do you like your Ginger Ninja nickname?

A. I do. I have never been anything other than happy with my ginger hair, and if I am a ninja I am happy to adopt that too.

Q. Even though it is now being used by senior people routinely throughout the party?

A. It was one of those ones that someone used in a tweet - I can't remember who - so I actually thought the party turned it round and started using it, to our advantage.

Sometimes when people say things on Twitter in bad temper it's very easy for it to escalate, so sometimes a bit of humour is the best thing you can do.

Q. Do you feel there is an attempt by the UUP and the SDLP to freeze Alliance out at Stormont?

A. It depends on the issue, certainly I think the UUP attempt to reach out very publicly to the SDLP at their conference last month may well be motivated by that, but it also comes from commentators saying there needs to be a new message from the opposition.

Opposition parties present their own individual positions, and coalition governments have to withstand that pressure. We have worked with the SDLP and UUP, and indeed with both parties in government, on issues we care about. If it is their aim to freeze Alliance out, the temperature has not dropped sufficiently for it to work.

And it won't work.

Q. After losing your East Belfast seat back to the DUP you spent a long time contemplating your future. Did you come close to thinking of giving politics up?

A. I suppose it was an opportunity I had never really had, I got elected almost by surprise in 2001 and from there it was very rapid in terms of progress. I was in the Assembly within a year and a half of being Lord Mayor.

It all happened very quickly and I wanted to take time to reflect and to be certain I was coming back to politics for the right reasons and because I still had something to say and was still passionate about what we want to do.

So I took the time to really think that through. I did try to take a complete step back but politics is a very addictive thing to be involved in and I decided I wanted to be part of trying to be making things better.

Q. And how difficult do you gauge it is to replace someone who has been leader for 15 years - do you plan that kind of time period?

A. I haven't thought that far ahead. That is not a decision for me, it is for the party.

Although I have been elected I have to be re-elected next year and each year after.

At the moment it is about ensuring whatever changes we make, whatever challenges we face, we can achieve.

I am not thinking beyond getting to that point.

Q. As party leader do you think you will still engage as much as you do on social media?

A. It is an interesting one. My social media is slightly different. It started in my personal area and I guess it's me, it's who I am - the mix of personal and political and I think it's a very useful way to communicate with people and get across ideas, not just when people are agreeing with you but when they are not.

Q. What about the harsh comments you get from time to time?

A. Some of the trolling is horrific and personally abusive, but I have always been respectful with people.

It is still my intention to be very engaged in social media.

Q. We now have a female First Minister, a woman PM, Scottish First Minister - what do you think about the rise of women in politics?

A. It has been a long time in coming. I think it is good to see women in politics but I don't get carried away with that.

When I was growing up we had a female Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) and I shared very few of her views and disagreed about how she went about doing politics.

But having a female Prime Minister was something that shaped my views on whether politics was something that women did.

It is very good that young people see woman working in non-traditional roles - it is just the way of the world.

I still think from the perspective of young people growing up - and having always worked in predominately male environments - having women actually improves politics.

Q. Do you think there is a task in hand in reaching out to men?

A. I don't know, it's not something I have had huge resistance to.

I have had huge support in the party.

A male colleague brought me into the party and a male colleague put my name forward for deputy leader and for running for Lord Mayor.

From my perspective, the gender issue in the party has never been a barrier.

Women in the party tend to do quite well, Anna Lo did the best in the European elections of all our candidates over the years and I did the best in East Belfast.

Most men actually want to see women performing well, engaging in the workforce, they do not see it as a battle or struggle,

That is not to say you don't encounter sexism and gender stereotypes but it is how you address those that really makes a difference.

There are huge opportunities, I don't think it's a competition.

Q. You and your husband Michael have been together a long time -you must have considered the impact being leader of the Alliance party will have on your personal and family life?

A. Yes we have and over the years politics has in different ways impacted very directly on our home life and the time we have with family and friends

But the vision we share comes from even before we were married and we are both very committed to that.

I am very lucky in having a husband who is forgiving when I have another meeting to go to.

We are a bit better at striking the balance and finding ourselves some time to be together.

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