Alliance leader Naomi Long upbeat on non-sectarian centre

Gains made in local elections suggest breakthrough, says East Belfast MEP candidate

Alliance candidate Naomi Long during the party’s manifesto launch for the European Election 2019 at CIYMS in Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Alliance candidate Naomi Long during the party’s manifesto launch for the European Election 2019 at CIYMS in Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

 

Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party has seen false dawns before, moments when it believed that long-rigid tectonic plates could finally be beginning to move. Yet, again, it believes that such a moment lies within grasp.

Two weeks ago, Alliance won 53 seats in the local elections – a gain of 21, taking 11.5 per cent of the vote; a result that saw it fall just half-a-percentage-point behind the SDLP.

This time, Alliance believes its support is sustainable and that the local elections mark a genuine growth in middle-ground politics; notwithstanding that the two big beasts remain, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Last week, talks of the “Alliance surge” was put aside as the party gathered to mourn a friend and colleague, Seamus Close, a former Alliance deputy leader who saw the best and worst of times.

In the mid-1970s, Close was there to see Alliance rise to be a serious political player, taking 14 per cent of the vote in the 1977 local elections. By 1981, and the hunger strikes, polarised tribal politics had returned.

Before he died, it would have been a comfort for Close that after the long lean years Alliance again had put on political muscle: “Building a shared future was in Seamus’s DNA.

“The fact that ourselves, the Green party and People Before Profit all managed to make gains shows that it is not just a matter of the centre ground competing with itself.”

‘Non-sectarian centre’

The number of people “who don’t necessarily see in local elections they need to be voting unionist or nationalist” is rising: “That is a very positive message in how we grow the non-sectarian centre.”

Today, Long has high hopes that such movements in political opinion can put her in a position to win a European Parliament seat, especially because of the retirement of the Ulster Unionist Party’s long-standing Jim Nicholson.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are virtually certain of two of the three seats, while former UUP Minister Danny Kennedy is seeking to hold onto the place so long occupied by Nicholson.

However, the UUP had a disappointing local election. If that is repeated on May 24th then both Long and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood could pose a real threat to Kennedy.

Transfers will decide. If Kennedy is to be defeated then Eastwood’s transfers must get Long elected, or Long’s transfers must elect Eastwood. Both are seeking votes from those infuriated by Brexit.

‘What is at stake’

Long, who holds a seat in East Belfast in the dormant Stomont Assembly, believes the New IRA murder of Lyra McKee has “reminded people of what is at stake when politics is failing”.

“When there is a vacuum the risk is that violence will fill it. That in itself – that stark reminder of how awful things were and can be – did challenge people,” she told The Irish Times.

However, change was happening, even before McKee’s death. Following her election as party leader in 2016, Long set out a plan to grow Alliance outside of Belfast, and to develop strongly within it.

That worked. Alliance broke out of its greater Belfast area base and won seats in ten of the North’s eleven councils. Mid-Ulster was the only local authority not to submit.

Alliance is using the Sinn Féin playbook, where solid work on the ground creates a foothold in a constituency that can be built upon by more and more work on the ground.

“We have that structure,” says Long, “No one would doubt that we have people who are articulate and competent and are grassroots campaigners. We have a strong base and we will bring it all together.”

Extra seat

Seats in a restored Assembly could come in South Down, North Belfast, an extra seat in South Belfast. Even West Tyrone could bear fruit; perhaps even a Westminster House of Commons seat in South Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s public wants the Assembly and Northern Executive back, she is convinced: “On the doors there was a real sense of frustration with the chaos surrounding Brexit and the stagnation at Stormont. ”

“Quite a number of people raised at the doors with us that they don’t want the Assembly held up over Irish language and LGBT rights,” adds Long, even though these are the big hurdles in the talks.

Same-sex marriage differences can be fixed, Long points to the election of Alison Bennington, the DUP’s first openly gay councillor: “People are not interested in people’s private lives, in their sexuality; they are interested in whether or not they can do the job.”

On recognition of the Irish language, the Alliance Party leader says: “I think Sinn Féin wants the DUP to acknowledge the rights of Irish people to be fully Irish. The same is true with LGBT rights. It is not so much about equal marriage, it is about a wider acceptance of LGBT people in our society, of being part of our society and being welcomed and included.”

‘Kneejerk reaction’

However, the manner in which Sinn Féin has played its hand “ irked the SDLP and Irish speakers in the Alliance party and many others” and led to “ a kneejerk reaction” common in Northern Ireland politics.

Too often, if Sinn Féin “is for something then unionism is against it, and vice versa”, says Long, pointing out that it was the Presbyterian Church that “kept the Irish language going when others were trying to drive it to extinction”.

Unionists and others must be convinced that a returned Stormont is going to be “robust” and cannot be taken down again “on a whim” by Sinn Féin: “While the gaps look quite small the issues run very, very deep. They have become totemic representations of more fundamental issues. I don’t underestimate the challenges but I have always believed they could be resolved. We need some trust and respect back into the process.”