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Suzanne Breen

Naomi Long's absence only blip at Alliance gathering oozing with optimism

Suzanne Breen


Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry at the party’s annual conference

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry at the party’s annual conference

Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry at the party’s annual conference

Alliance may be more than a one-woman band, but Naomi Long was still massively missed at its annual conference on Saturday.

The party leader had to stay away due to a severe lung infection, and it was left to Stephen Farry to fill the top spot.

He delivered a comprehensive keynote address in his customary cerebral style. Delegates certainly were not disappointed - affection for Farry runs deep in the party - but the fire and ferocity that Long alone brings to conference were absent.

She did keep a watchful eye on proceedings from her sick bed, and the tweets came thick and fast all day from the indefatigable Alliance leader.

"She's fuming she can't be here," explained husband Michael. "This conference is such a celebration of our election victories.

"Naomi wanted to be able to say a big thank you to all the people who contributed to that success. She is so frustrated that hasn't been possible today."

Party press officer Scott Jamison said Long had no choice but to miss the gathering in Belfast's Stormont Hotel. "Naomi took ill on Thursday. She called her GP on Friday and was sent immediately to A&E," he said.

"She was diagnosed with a severe lung infection. When the hospital doctors heard she was due to address conference the next day, they weren't amused. Antibiotics and bed rest were ordered.

"Plan A might not have happened, but we had an excellent Plan B. People love seeing Naomi, but Stephen's the go-to man at the moment after his win in North Down. He's more popular than ever and he's stepped up to the plate today."

Mr Farry walked to the podium to Something Good Can Work by Two Door Cinema Club, who hail from the constituency he now represents at Westminster.

"First of all, you will have noticed I'm not Naomi Long," he told cheering delegates. "But I'm sure she's tuning in and watching with huge interest - and making sure I don't say anything I shouldn't be saying! I want to pay tribute to all she's done over the past months and years to get the party to where it is today."

Back in her sick bed, the Alliance leader did have to respond to some tweeters - under the impression that she had the coronavirus - who asked if she would be self-isolating for 14 days.

Long reassured them that she did not have "that respiratory infection" and would soon be back fighting fit as her "old disobedient self".

Despite its leader's absence, Alliance's 50th anniversary conference was most definitely not a flat event. The party positively oozed optimism and confidence. For the first time that I remember, there was standing room only in the hall.

Up-and-coming talent was given a chance to shine during a panel debate. Lisburn and Castlereagh councillor Sorcha Eastwood, and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon councillor Eoin Tennyson, in particular are ones to watch.

The vim and vigour that is now sweeping the party was reflected in the sartorial style of many delegates. There was no shortage of ties, bow-ties, scarves and shirts all of a certain colour.

Yellow is the new orange (and green) for more people than ever before in Northern Ireland.

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