Naomi Long will not lose her East Belfast seat in the general election – and may even increase her majority over the DUP, a confident David Ford has predicted.
In an interview with the News Letter ahead of his party’s annual conference on Saturday, the Alliance leader was dismissive of questions about what the East Belfast MP would do if she is not re-elected in May.
Mr Ford initially said that he believed there was “every chance that we will retain East Belfast”, and highlighted that five years ago no one gave the party a chance of defeating Peter Robinson to take the seat.
However, when later pressed on what Mrs Long will do if she loses her seat – given that she now has no other political role – Mr Ford said: “The simple answer is that our focus is on ensuring that she doesn’t lose the seat...”
Asked again if it would be the end of Mrs Long’s political career if she loses, he said: “She isn’t going to lose.”
Mr Ford admitted that he was making a “confident assertion”, but said that was based on being “on the streets of east Belfast in recent times” and added: “I was on the streets of east Belfast five years ago. I see no sign she’s going to do any less well. And perhaps she’s going to do better.”
He acknowledged that if a single unionist candidate is agreed it would “probably be slightly damaging to our position” but said that he did not even think that would be a decisive factor.
Since the last election, Alliance has made two high-profile decisions which have the potential to cost it votes. The party voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag on Belfast City Hall (something which led to thuggish attempts to intimidate the party’s representatives) and then voted to change its policy in support of gay marriage.
When asked what he would say to Alliance supporters disillusioned by either of those decisions, Mr Ford said that he believed more people were “concerned by the behaviour of the flags protesters than by any issue of the flag”.
He insisted that it was recognised that “the compromise of the flag being flown on designated days on the City Hall is just the same as the great majority of councils across the UK”.
He added: “In terms of the issue of equal marriage, there’s no doubt that there are people with concerns, but there are also very many people in this society who recognise that whilst we need to ensure protection for churches to practice their beliefs and hold true to that, there is a different issue when it comes to the state providing services for citizens on an equal basis and we have seen very little of a negative response when that proper explanation is given.”
In South Belfast, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell’s vote is expected to drop, but Alliance’s main figure in the area, Anna Lo, is not standing. Mr Ford said that “almost certainly” Alliance candidate Paula Bradshaw will poll less strongly than Ms Lo, but insisted that voters would not be put off by the fact that five years ago she stood as a Conservative and Unionist candidate, campaigning with Iain Duncan Smith in the constituency.