Ahead of Alliance’s annual conference this weekend, Suzanne Breen talks to Naomi Long and finds the leader bullish at prospects for electoral success in May
Naomi Long says she can “lay the foundations” in May’s Assembly election for Alliance to become Northern Ireland’s largest party.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of its annual conference this weekend, Mrs Long said she “wouldn’t rule out” her party breaking through the 20% support barrier in future.
She said the current “soap opera” regarding Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s talks with Doug Beattie about joining the UUP suggested there was “a paper-thin line between their parties on core issues”.
She branded Colum Eastwood’s trenchant criticism of Alliance for not taking a position on the constitutional issue as disrespectful and “hardly a great electoral strategy” given that “the fastest growing section of voters are those who don’t identify as either nationalist or unionist”.
She said 300 new members were recruited last year and the total now stood at 1,300.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mrs Long said the DUP effectively collapsing the Executive made it difficult to coordinate Northern Ireland’s role in taking Ukrainian refugees and offering humanitarian aid.
The Justice Minister said she was closely working with London to strengthen unexplained wealth orders and forfeiture and seizure powers in a bid to block “Russian dark money” and stop “kleptocrats and oligarchs funding and supporting aggression”.
Just three years ago Alliance aimed to break through the magic 10% barrier in the 2019 council and EU elections.
She said while she didn’t “expect” her party to breach the 20% barrier in May’s Assembly poll, she wouldn’t rule it out,
Alliance currently has seven Stormont seats and she believes it is on course to return a “double digit number” of MLAs this time.
“I’m not putting a cap on our ambitions, I rule nothing out,” she said.
The Alliance leader cited Nuala McAllister in North Belfast and Paddy Brown in South Down as her party’s best chances of winning new seats.
She said that in Upper Bann at the last Westminster election, young Alliance councillor Eoin Tennyson had outpolled new Ulster Unionist leader Mr Beattie, and stood a strong chance of securing a seat.
“I believe we have a potential second seat in South Belfast, where Kate NIcholl is joining Paula Bradshaw on the ticket,” Mrs Long said.
“Kate is having a wonderful term as Lord Mayor. She has been a breath of fresh air in politics and vocalises a positive and hopeful message that people yearn for.
“Sorcha Eastwood should poll very strongly in Lagan Valley, and our second candidate David Honeyford will be in a battle for the last seat.”
If Alliance emerged as the largest Assembly party, it would secure the position of First Minister.
But current rules mean that, if it finishes second, Mrs Long would be barred from becoming Deputy First Minister because her party designates as ‘other’ and not ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’.
Sinn Fein is favourite to emerge as the largest party in May, but the Alliance leader categorically ruled out her party designating as unionist to enable her to become Deputy First Minister.
“Under no circumstance would we redesignate to manage a crisis. We have flagged this up. We have given the government and the other parties ample warning that this is an issue,” she said.
“They have seen that the Alliance vote is growing rapidly and they’ve had more than enough time to resolve the matter. No other party would be expected to redesignate as something they’re not in order to work around the system.”
Asked if she really would be prepared to give up being Deputy First Minister rather than redesignate, she said: “If that was the situation, so be it.
“The only meaningful way for me to be Deputy First Minister would be as leader of a party which represents a united community.
“I’m not willing to resile from that simply to take up a position.
“I’m not in politics for myself but because I believe in the values and vision of the Alliance Party.
“I will defend the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as they choose and not to be pigeon-holed.
“Those who don’t identify as either unionist or nationalist are the fastest growing group in society. It is important that our institutions are modernised to reflect that reality and to ensure that our voters count as much as everybody else’s.”
Mr Eastwood last month said he found it “bizarre” Alliance “doesn’t even talk about” the constitutional issue.
She said: “I respect that Colum is a nationalist.
“But he must respect that not everyone sees the issue as defining as he does. Colum says he can work well with Alliance. We work well with the SDLP, but it must be on the basis of respect.
“If I made a statement like Colum’s about nationalists, it would go down like a bucket of cold sick.”
Asked if she would be surprised if an increasing number of her party’s representatives supported Irish unity, Mrs Long said: “From engagements with our representatives, I don’t know if that’s the case.
“Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised or concerned because it’s not our priority.
“There has always been a spectrum of views in the party — some people are slightly more unionist, others slightly more nationalist.
“But it’s not what gets them out of bed of morning. It’s integrated education, climate change, the cost of living crisis, and health service reform which drives them, not the constitutional issue.”
Asked if a citizens’ assembly should be set up to examine the potential for Irish unity, she said: “My preference would be for more academic work on the pros and cons of Irish unity and maintaining the Union. There may be a role for a citizens’ assembly on the constitutional issue after that.”
Asked if she believed a border poll would be held within the next 10 years, she replied the DUP’s actions were increasing the chances of that happening.
“The DUP playing fast and loose with the Assembly makes a border poll much more likely. They are playing footsie with Jim Allister and the TUV, who always opposed the institutions,” she said.
“They are relying on Boris Johnson, who you wouldn’t trust to run a bath. They just can’t seem to grasp that a destabilised Northern Ireland doesn’t strengthen the Union.”
Asked if Mr Beattie’s party represented an electoral threat to Alliance, Mrs Long said: “Doug represents a dynamism and freshness that wasn’t previously there in unionism.
“A new leader always has a bounce and it’s been very positive for him. I have a good relationship with Doug, he’s very likeable. But it’s hard to see if what he stands for really permeates down through the party.
“Just this week UUP councillors on Armagh, Banbridge, and Craigavon Council joined forces with the DUP to stop the flying of the trans flag on trans day of remembrance. This was in Doug’s own patch.”
Mrs Long claimed UUP candidates had “very disparate and conflicting views” on the Brexit protocol.
“It’s hard to distinguish Steve Aiken’s position on Twitter from the DUP’s. Some party candidates are sitting on platforms with Jim Allister, so the party is very confused,” she said.
“The latest soap opera involving meetings between Doug and Jeffrey suggests there’s a paper-thin line between their parties on core issues. Otherwise, why would one have thought of joining the other’s party?”
Asked who she would recommend Alliance voters transferring to, she said: “That’s entirely a matter for them and their conscience. We humbly ask people to vote for us; what they do after that is their call. The most we would suggest is that they vote for parties who wish for a progressive and stable future for Northern Ireland.”