Naomi Long: Nationalism holds no appeal for me

Alliance leader Naomi Long has hit back at claims that her party is increasingly aligning itself with nationalism, stating that nationalism “does not appeal” to her.

Friday, 1st March 2019, 6:31 am
Updated Friday, 1st March 2019, 7:40 am
Alliance Party Leader Naomi Long speaks to the News Letter ahead of the Alliance Party conference at Stormont Hotel at the weekend

In an interview with the News Letter at her office in Stormont on an unusually warm February afternoon, the East Belfast MLA urged her critics to “take the blinders off”, adding: “We do not approach politics through the lens of sectarianism”.

It has become a commonly-held view among unionists that Alliance is now a nationalist party in all but name.

To many, this theory was supported by the party standing shoulder to shoulder with Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Green Party to present a united front against Brexit, or sidling up to these parties in a bid to drum up support for the introduction of an Irish language act.

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There has also been concern over Alliance’s voting pattern on Belfast City Council, with claims that the party has tended to side with Sinn Fein much more frequently than the DUP.

Elsewhere, the website Unionist Voice has claimed that Alliance was more than three times as likely to issue press statements attacking unionism than they are to issue criticism of the nationalist community.

It is for these reasons that some unionists refer to Alliance being part of a pan-nationalist coalition.

When these points were put to Mrs Long, she vehemently dismissed them as a “completely false premise”.

Speaking to the News Letter ahead of Alliance’s annual party conference tomorrow, Mrs Long proclaimed: “Nationalism does not appeal to me. That is not how I see my politics as a liberal person.

“If we were a nationalist party it would be very simple for us to come out and say so and reap the rewards of that.

“Anyone who wants to go and look at my Twitter feed will see that I robustly challenge republicans and nationalists and get accused of being a closet unionist.

“The truth of the matter is that if you look at where Alliance representatives are elected it is demonstrably clear that it is generally areas where there are predominantly unionist voters.”

Mrs Long also asserted that the religious make up of her party was “very balanced in its mix”, adding that Alliance party policy is not driven by sectarianism.

“We approach politics on what is right for the people of Northern Ireland and we vote for that,” she insisted. “If unionism is worthy of criticism we will criticise, and the same goes for nationalism.”

Regarding Alliance’s voting record on Belfast City Council, Mrs Long stated that over the past number of months, Alliance has voted more frequently with unionism, but said that it has been “reasonably balanced” overall.

However, some unionists on the council have accused Alliance of strategically shifting its policy in the run up to the local government elections in May.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds told the News Letter: “In the early years of this council term, Alliance were more than twice as likely to vote with Sinn Fein than the DUP.

“But in this past year, they seem to want to find fights with Sinn Fein. Why have these disagreements come in the year before the election?

“Is Alliance trying to portray equal distance between itself and the two main parties, when that has not been the case?”

In response Mrs Long highlighted Alliance’s attempt this week to ‘call in’ a decision by the council to allocate money to groups and organisations in the west and east Belfast.

Alliance described the decision as “the latest financial carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Fein at City Hall over thousands of pounds of arts funding”.

The ‘call in’ mechanism allows councillors to request an issue be revisited if they feel the original decision was handled incorrectly.

However the party was forced to withdraw its request after two councillors – one independent and one UUP – removed their names, meaning there were not enough councillors to let the call in progress.

Mrs Long told the News Letter: “Unionists are quite happy to vote with nationalism to carve up money and resources on a sectarian basis, but not willing to vote with us when we call for openness and transparency and integrity.

“We have said consistently that we don’t believe the LIF (Local Investment Fund) and the BIF (Belfast Investment Fund) is being properly administered and we reported that to the local government auditor.

“We called that out four years ago and we have been working on that ever since.

“The DUP and SF have continued to carve up that money between them and we continue to stand against it.

“The fact that no one on the council is willing to challenge this speaks volumes about why Alliance is required on that council to ensure openness and transparency.”