SDLP’s link with Fianna Fail can help Alliance increase vote share, Long believes
Alliance leader Naomi Long has said she believes her party will win support in May's council elections from SDLP voters disillusioned with its new partnership with Fianna Fail.
Mrs Long also told the Belfast Telegraph she hopes Alliance can break through the 10% vote barrier in the poll.
She was speaking ahead of Alliance's annual conference in Belfast this weekend. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is due to address a dinner to open the conference tomorrow night.
The Alliance leader said an independent chair must be immediately brought in to drive talks to restore devolution and if it became clear that no progress was possible, then the government must pull the plug on Stormont.
She said the pay of MLAs in parties which didn't positively engage in a fresh round of dialogue should be stopped. An independent chair was needed more than ever because the parties were "running rings" around Secretary of State Karen Bradley (below), she added.
Alliance secured a 7% vote and had 32 councillors elected in the 2014 local government poll.
Mrs Long said she believed it would improve on that performance and also increase its vote west of the Bann.
"This election offers an opportunity for us to break through the 10% barrier," she said. "While I'm certainly not taking it for granted, it is entirely possible.
"We face the challenges of a quite polarised community, yet I do detect a mood for change out there with people willing to countenance doing something different and voting Alliance."
Mrs Long believed her party could benefit from the SDLP's new partnership with Fianna Fail which is opposed by some of its councillors and by high-profile south Belfast MLA Claire Hanna. "I don't fully understand what benefit - apart from resources - that the link up with Fianna Fail brings to the SDLP," she said.
"The two parties ethos seems quite different. They don't share the same values and vision. The new arrangement means the SDLP are losing a senior councillor in Tim Attwood, and one of their most effective MLAs opposes it. Alliance could pick up votes from disillusioned SDLP voters, particularly in urban constituencies."
Alliance currently has no councillors in Derry and Strabane, Fermanagh and Omagh, and Mid-Ulster district councils. Mrs Long said: "Since becoming leader, I've put a lot of energy into focussing on developing the party west of the Bann.
"For the first time in 20 years, we are running candidates in every DEA (District Electoral Area) in Derry and Strabane. They are credible candidates who live and work locally.
"I am hopeful that our work will result in an increased vote share outside the Greater Belfast area and that we will take a seat in Omagh."
Mrs Long said her party's candidates shared the public's "frustration and anger" at the political stalemate at Stormont.
It's understood the Alliance leader had a "robust exchange" with Sinn Fein during roundtable discussions convened by Secretary of State Karen Bradley a fortnight ago to try to kickstart the talks. Mrs Long was reportedly critical of preconditions aired by Mary Lou McDonald's party.
She said: "There is no point harking back to what happened or didn't happen with a deal last February. That is past and gone, and finger-pointing gets us nowhere. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP must move forward with an open mind intent on finding solutions."
The Alliance leader said an independent chair for the talks was desperately needed. "They could judge whether all the parties were genuinely engaging in the process and if they believe that they're not, then the salaries of MLAs of the parties not constructively engaging could be stopped.
"If the parties just end up talking round the houses, the independent chair could present them with what they believe is a fair accommodation.
"If the parties don't agree to that accommodation then the chair would be able to make the call that there was no realistic chance of getting Stormont up and running again, and we could end this political drift."
Mrs Long added: "We clearly need somebody to drive the process forward. Karen Bradley's hands are tied due to parliamentary arithmetic. The big parties are running rings around her and the people of northern Ireland are suffering because of it."