Alliance popularity soars as Long takes the lead

Leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long PIC:Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long PIC:Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Naomi Long is a formidable, fearless woman and since her election as leader of the Alliance Party last month carries her natural air of easy authority with smiling, down-to-earth purpose when we meet at her constituency office on the Upper Newtownards Road.

The office is busy: clearly constituents feel this is an open and welcoming space where their voices and queries will be heard.

Naomi is approachable and friendly, no matter how high her political ambitions have taken her, from Stormont to Westminster, most memorably, when she surprised everyone by being elected MP for Belfast east in an area that had been historically easily held by former First Minister and DUP bulwark Peter Robinson.

After a year off to take stock after five years as a busy MP, she has taken over from David Ford as leader of a party she has been a proud member of since 2001.

Sitting down to chat, Long is a joy to listen to, hyper-articulate and clearly enthusiastic about virtually every subject matter she touches upon.

“I love what I do and I’m so lucky that I get to do something I enjoy so much, something that I feel I can make a difference in - at least some of the time. I very much see what I do as a privilege.

I still get nervous. I met with some Guides and Brownies recently and at the end one of the girls asked me if I ever got nervous and I said ‘yes I do’. The key is learning to manage it, You know you care about something when you really care about getting it right. It’s all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I’m passionate about getting things right.”

She grew up in east Belfast, not far from Dee Street which boasts the Harland & Wolff Welder’s Club. Long knows what it is to struggle to make ends meet: her mother raised Naomi on a part-time wage after the death of her father when she was 10 years old and from a young age the would-be politician had a sense that life was a struggle for a lot of people in her community and beyond.

She didn’t grow up with political aspirations; Long studied civil engineering at Queen’s University, where she met her now husband Michael, who was then qualifying as a dentist and now also works as a councillor.

Long delighted in engineering and practiced for 10 years, loving the problem-solving and logic of construction and being able to see tangible results for all her hard work at the end of each project.

She remembers clearly the sense of tentative optimism filling the air in 1994 when she and her partner were weighing up the option of remaining in Belfast or moving to pursue a future elsewhere.

“It was the time of the ceasefires. It was the first time in our lives that for once there was this palpable sense of hope that the Troubles were really coming to an end and that suddenly there was this new opportunity of things truly changing and I suppose we wanted to be part of that change and new optimism and doing out bit to help create what the ceasefires promised - the chance of new Northern Ireland and a place to call home that was no longer known around the world for the outrages of the conflict.

“It was a hopeful time and I am very glad we stayed to be a part of the beginning of this new chapter in Northern Ireland’s history.”

Long was still living with her mother off the Newtownards Road when a man came to their door canvassing for the Alliance Party. Naomi liked what she heard and joined up. She never saw herself as a natural politician but then leader John Alderdice clearly did. Long had asked him for help as a student over a problem with her grant and he had solved it for her, making it clear to her that politics is not just a talking shop; politicians can and frequently do get things done, even here in Northern Ireland where sectarian grandstanding can so often eradicate the space that should be occupied by pragmatic decision-making.

“John {Alderdice) kept on asking me to stand for Belfast City Council and I ran thinking it was very unlikely I would get a seat. I was surprised when I did, actually. And I found I really enjoyed it. Belfast City Council was just a joyous place to work and I can’t praise the work that is done there enough.

“My year as Lord Mayor was one of the best years of my life actually. I think a lot of the time we are tired hearing about Belfast in terms of negativity. But when you act as Mayor you get to see all the best bits of the city and all the many reasons we have to really believe in the brilliance of so many projects and initiatives that are going on, you visit parts of the city you haven’t been to before, you see creativity and people really coming together to make things happen for the greater good.

“I made one of the main agendas for my mayoral year all about diversity - which is very important to me, and so I met a lot of people from ethnic minorities here and that was such a positive thing to be able to do, to draw attention to the fact that really people on either side of the unionist and nationalist divide have far more that unites rather than divides them.”

While Naomi was Lord Mayor City Hall was re-opened after major refurbishment by Hillary Clinton. Prince Charles visited. Her theme for the year was ‘Belfast without barriers’; she opened new LGBT offices and over-saw re-imaging of paramilitary murals.”

Long acted as deputy leader beside David Ford for a decade and is clearly a consummate political player.

Without question she is one of Northern Ireland’s most tenaciously diplomatic, fearless and passionately eloquent politicians.

And her career has not been without serious challenges. She received death threats from the UVF’s Red Hand Commando when supported Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey’s bid to become mayor of the city on the understanding that her support would only be granted if the party concurred with decommissioning procedures. When Sinn Fein did so Long kept her promise and Maskey became the city’s first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor.

“I think a lot of the time what people seem to most dislike and even fear is change,” she reflects. “People tend to want things to stay the same because change can make them feel as though they might be losing out in some way. But, actually, change is exciting and change is full of hope, and if we take control of change and make sure it is carried out in ways that are fair and correct, then change is the only way to build a society we can be proud of.

“Alliance has always championed the vision of a shared society and the idea of politics that is not always firstly determined by orange or green agendas but by the issue itself first - the bread and butter issues being considered in a pragmatic and diplomatic way that is not always just decided upon the idea of what suits unionists or nationalists best.

“You have to remember that this is a shared city and therefore Belfast City Council is a shared space. You have to remember that Alban Magennis was the first nationalist Lord Mayor in 1998 - that’s not even that long ago and before that we had never even had a non-unionist Lord Mayor.

“So while I am a unionist I don’t feel that my unionism is threatened in any way by acknowledging that there are two main traditions here who definitely both deserve representation”.

This has always been the major grace of the Alliance Party that while so much time on the Assembly Floor is wasted in sectarian backbiting, the party has been able to analyse an issue in terms of its internal logic first so that the question of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain is not the only issue any of its representatives are able to speak about any time a microphone or TV camera is in the vicinity.

I put it to Naomi that the problem in Alliance’s significant but not overwhelming mandate is not a problem of any flaw in the dissemination of the party’s political message, but rather reflects the sad truth that the majority here in Northern Ireland continue to vote according to tribal allegiances.

Long feels that there is actually much more of a public will towards this new dawn of assessing political parties in terms of their approach to bread and butter issues rather than whether they toast the Queen. The age-old problem here in retrograde Ulster is that we can’t ever seem to get past our divisions long enough.

“I think the onus is on us as political representatives to not keep returning to the issue of a sectarian divide and then making that the core thing that defines any party’s appeal.

“I think part of the problem is that people prefer incremental change. Why is it that people here in Northern Ireland will so often tell you that they are fed-up with politicians here but yet continue to put all their support behind the parties who were in power when the problems arose in the first place?”

Indeed: why do we have a majoritarian DUP and Sinn Fein inclined electorate that always leads us to the same position of limited progress, entrenched division along unionist and nationalist lines and an apparent inability to talk about anything without mentioning the Troubles or engaging in populist bigotry?

“Our political discourse is one that always tends to make change sound like a negative thing. It always paints this as a loss or a threat or something to be feared. We seem to only very rarely talk about the hopefulness in change. There is so much hope and opportunity in change that I think we really need to emphasise and bring back into our political discourse.

We shouldn’t have to pretend that we don’t have anxieties about integration - that is natural in a post-conflict society. However, it is key to remain positive about the importance of building a diverse society of people from different ethnic backgrounds as the predominant traditions.”