‘I can’t stand bullies or sectarianism, we need to leave orange and green behind’
Naomi Rachel Johnston, was born December 1971 in Downpatrick Street into a staunchly Presbyterian household to Emily, a Sunday School teacher and her father James, a devoted member of the Orange Order and the Royal Black, who worked as a sheet metal worker in the Shipyard, where so many east Belfast men toiled and sweated. A young Naomi was bookish and interested in drama, but after losing her father aged 10 became the man around the house by taking on the DIY jobs, rewiring plugs, laying carpet tiles, painting and papering. Feisty and fearless, she clearly gets some of this from her mother, who refused to give money to loyalists who shortly after her father’s demise wanted to paint the kerbstones outside their home red, white and blue. The next day there was a giant Union Jack painted on the road outside the house with ‘No surrender’ and ‘Never forget 1690’ emblazoned.
But undaunted, Mrs Johnston went out to clean the windows and polish the brass on the front door as usual, telling her neighbours that in certain dispensations it would be illegal to paint your national flag on the road.
Today Naomi, 49, is leader of the Alliance Party, formed in 1970 by Oliver Napier as a response to sectarianism, promoting liberal values and a unification of political will across the unionist and nationalist divide. It was founded on noble principles, but sadly tribalism and sectarianism politics continues to define our political landscape, something which saddens flame-haired firebrand:
“It frustrates and disappoints and depresses me because I see areas where we should be able to come together and do things from a united perspective. With Covid you feel, well, we are all in this together and we should be able to work together and agree on things that benefit the entire community. So many challenges that we face in politics are issues that affect all of us, yet we depressingly return time and again to this orange and green divide.
“But we are starting to see some signs of people beginning to change how they vote in terms of social or economic issues rather than orange and green identity politics. I would love to see more pragmatic, more modern and more progressive politics. Sometimes you do feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall, and get exasperated that universal issues must always be divided along sectarian lines, but equally to be fair to Sinn Fein and the DUP there are moments when they do rise above it and do what is advantageous for the community as a whole. That gives me the hope to keep going. With Covid, we have all worked together. I just wish we could do that on a broader range of issues. When we get things right the entire community benefits.”
A former MEP, MP, Belfast Lord Mayor and now a passionately egalitarian Justice Minister, she first met her husband Michael Long, a dentist, councillor and fellow Alliance Party member, aged just 14. They had their first kiss outside Belfast City Hall after a cinema date and celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last September.
“I know it’s a cliché but we really are best friends and I think friendship is definitely the secret to a successful relationship. We have been together all of our adult lives. I think patience is another thing that keeps us together, but I’m not saying which of the two of us has most of it!”
Long began her career in civil engineering after qualifying in the subject at Queen’s University, a profession, like politics, known to be predominantly male. She loved the application of knowledge in finding engineering solutions and was unphased by the fact that out of 120 students in her year only 16 were female.
“That was quite a shock after coming from an all-girls school, but I don’t like to say it was male-dominated, because it would take a good man to dominate me,” she quips. Well, indeed.
Long was first elected as a councillor in 2001 and stood for election in 2003, determined despite the fact that the person who encouraged her to put her name on the ballot paper was insistent she couldn’t win. But she did, and her political ascent has been deeply impressive.
Eloquent, endlessly articulate, she feels is an innate need to instantiate change and empower the disenfranchised that first pushed her into politics.
“What motivated me [to get into politics] is that I really genuinely believe that things can get better. I believe in positive change. I saw an opportunity to change things here. There was a real chance to make a difference and I wanted to be a part of that. Allied to that is my complete inability to stand bullies and people being treated unfairly or being abused and intimidated. Unjust power relations really bother me. Where I see this I feel there is so much to be done to stamp it out.”
To that end she has made her chief priority as justice minister to improve the mechanisms of the criminal justice systems for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, the incidence of which has shot up since the beginning of lockdown, according to extremely concerning PSNI statistics. And she is also massively driven, as an instinctive egalitarian, to tackle the predominance of hate crime in our society.
“I want to see sexual abuse victims being better supported and I’ve tried to focus on trying to implement changes that will benefit them. I’d like a more transparent system that is compassionate to victims.”
‘Feminism is not anti-men, it’s about equality’
So as a strong feminist, does Naomi feel we have broken the glass ceiling for women in the political sphere?
“I think gender is still an issue in politics. Just look at the amount of abuse women in positions of political power are receiving on Twitter.
“I love to see other women achieve things and live their lives as they want to.
“I think sometimes feminism is perceived as being anti-men and it’s really not, it’s about the fight for equality.
“Women must be empowered to make the contribution to their family, and to society that they were born to make. I’ve always worked in predominantly male environments but I have to say that in the main most men in those circumstances are fine. I don’t think talented men are intimidated by talented women. I think misogyny creeps in where men feel inadequate or where women are more successful and they try to compensate by meting out abuse. The reason these men pick on you is because you are successful.”
‘Wishes don’t cut if for me, we need to act to make change happen’
If Long was given a magic wand, the one thing she would change most is the “personal relationships between our political leaders. While our political structures are imperfect and ripe for exploitation, things would actually be so much better if people were able to get along better and communicate better.
“But to me there is no point in wishing that things were better, you have to work to make them better. Wishes don’t cut it in my book. We need to act to make change happen. And we need groups of people working together in a united way to implement change.
“I think Northern Ireland can change not so much as a whole, but person by person.”
As Justice Minister she is battling to improve the lot of sexual and domestic abuse victims, victims of stalking and coercive control and victims of hate crime. She is dismayed by the ways in which legislation relating to these matters here in Northern Ireland is leagues behind the rest of the UK and ultimately wishes a appoint a commissioner for victims of crime whose remit would be to improve the ways in which they are treated by the judicial system.
“I have been very inspired by is Sir John Gillen’s review of serious sexual offences. All of us watched the rugby rape trial and things like that with a profound sense of shock in terms of how the courts address sensitive issues. I want to implement as many of Sir Gillen’s recommendations as we can.
I’d also like to see better relationship and sex educations in schools, because a lot of the time pernicious attitudes around gender roles and misogynistic attitudes can be picked up during formative years when we don’t really know any better.
Then, targeting hate crime is a huge priority for me. It’s about societal change but also hate crime legislation here is far behind where we would want it to be.
“Sexual orientation relating to harassment, violence and abuse are areas where we see a significant amount of hate crime that needs to be addressed.
“We want to bring forward a commissioner for victims of crime with the specific remit of standing up for victims and how we can best support them within a flawed system that does not always operate in their favour.
“I think victims deserve a really strong voice in the justice system. We need to fight harder to get reparations for the person who has suffered. Everything we do from the earliest stages of supporting victims in the justice system to rehabilitating prisoners is all to do with minimising the number of people who become victims.”
Q&A: ‘Love is putting someone else’s needs first’
What is your earliest memory?
When the Wizard of Oz came on the TV in my auntie’s house. Back then, TVs were mostly black and white (I’m giving away my age here) but she had a modern colour one. The film started out in black and white but I remember that moment when Dorothy goes to Oz and if transforms into technicolour. It was magical.
School days, the happiest of your life?
I was actually quite bookish at school so I did enjoy it. I loved to read. At primary school I was really into drama and literature, but then at secondary school I turned towards the sciences and studied physics, maths, computing, and my favourite subject was chemistry. I loved the practicals, adding things to beakers and seeing the reactions in live time. This was all before strict health and safety guidelines were introduced, so you could actually blow things up in a chemistry lab. I loved every minute of it.
Your ideal way to spend a day?
With my husband Michael and our Jack Russell cross-breed Daisy on a beach somewhere beautiful in Donegal. Even on a really miserable day I would never say no to a day at the seaside.
Your best friend in the world would have to be...
My husband Michael, I know it’s a cliché but we really are best friends.
Who do you love more, Michael or Daisy?
That’s a tough one. I can’t choose. Daisy was a rescue dog from Assisi Animal Sanctuary. She is just a wee dote and will be five in May.
Who in your life makes you laugh the most?
I have lots of really good friends I met via Facebook. Some of them have done comedy writing. They are genuinely funny people, great craic. At the end of a difficult day they are just the tonic. They help me laugh at myself too.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
Determined, self-reliant and sociable.
What is your favourite book?
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. We studied it at school. It is a brilliant novel about family, injustice and race relations in the US.
What kind of music to you like to listen to?
I am into 80s big hair metal stuff like Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. And a lot of kind of 80s and 90s techno pop like Erasure and Depeche Mode.
Putting someone else first.
The meaning of life is...
Serving out my Christian faith in tandem with others.