Alliance Party leader Naomi Long says she is hopeful next week's Assembly elections will mark a "turning point" in Northern Ireland politics.
Launching the party's manifesto on Wednesday in Belfast, Ms Long said the message from the doorsteps while out canvassing was "really clear", with people more concerned about paying their bills and NHS waiting lists than constitutional change.
She warned, however, that polling day on May 5th was not just about how the North would be governed, but “whether or not we will have a government”, following the Executive’s collapse earlier this year when the DUP quit in protest over the Northern Ireland protocol.
According to latest opinion polls, Alliance is on course to become Stormont’s third biggest political party in the elections, overtaking the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. Declining to be drawn on ratings, Ms Long said she believed election gains would be a “step change”.
“Up until now, the presumption has always been that the largest parties would always be unionist or nationalist. That doesn’t reflect a changed Northern Ireland, a modern Northern Ireland. People no longer identify along those very polarised lines.”
She added: “It isn’t good enough any more to wrap yourself in a flag, rock up at somebody’s door and think they’re going to vote. I think people are making it really clear when you’re out canvassing at the moment.
“They want to know what you’re going to do about the health service, they don’t just want tea and sympathy. They want to know what you’re going to do about the fact they’re struggling to pay their bills. They want to know what you’re going to do about the state of education . . . about crime in their area . . .”
One of Alliance’s main manifesto pledges is to end the Assembly’s designation system – whereby parties must declare whether they are unionist, nationalist or “other”.
Ms Long also wants the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister scrapped and renamed “joint first minister”, saying the system was a “pantomime” that must be “brought to an end”.
“It is a co-equal office with co-equal partners in government that cannot sign a piece of paper, they cannot change the photo on the wall, without having the permission of their counterpart. They are joint and equal ministers.”
A home-heating voucher scheme for low-income households is proposed in the party’s manifesto, along with a weekly £20 child payment to tackle childhood poverty. Implementing the recommendations of the Bengoa health reform review is also included in the document. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have pledged household payments of £230 and £200 in their manifestos to address the current cost-of-living crisis. The Alliance leader said her party wanted to make contributions which were “sustainable for the future” as opposed to “handouts”.
She added: “I hope this election will be a turning point. I think if Alliance significantly grows its share of the vote, that is an indication that the public are changing.
“I think there are those who of course would still like to have this election based around the protocol or a Border poll; but I think it’s telling that so many of them now are focusing on the day-to-day issues because they’re getting a very strong message on the doorstep as to what really matters to the public.”