Last week Naomi Long MP featured in The House Magazine, Parliament’s own weekly magazine. You can read the article below or access it online at www.politicshome.com/uk/article/74888/naomi_long_going_solo.html
By TONY GREW
There were many unexpected moments during election night 2010, none more so than the defeat of Peter Robinson by a young woman from one of Northern Ireland’s smaller parties.
The leader of the DUP and the province’s First Minister saw his 31-year Westminster career effectively ended at the hands of Naomi Long, who became the first ever Alliance MP.
That party, with its emphasis on cross-community politics and liberal values, often finds itself being knocked about by both sides, buffeted by the conservative forces of both unionism and nationalism.
It was Alliance councillors on Belfast City Council that took a decision over the flying of the Union flag from the City Hall that caused serious civil disorder on the streets of the city, much of it in Long’s East Belfast constituency.
Long explains the complex situation with a calmness that belies the fact that she faced death threats and that, at the height of the violence, masked men surrounded an unmarked police car outside her constituency office and threw a petrol bomb into the vehicle with two officers still inside it.
The PSNI said it was a serious attempt to murder their officers. Long’s defiance in the face of such actions has impressed fellow MPs from all sides, and she has no regrets.
“It would have been wrong for us to make our decisions based on the threat of violence,” she explains to The House.
“Once you do that you have given up on democracy completely and you have handed the country over to mob rule. We resisted that for 40 years during the Troubles.
“We are not going to do it now.”
Alliance’s December compromise to fly the Union flag on designated days, as happens in Britain, set off furious rioting and disorder from a small but persistent group of hardcore so-called Loyalists.
They attacked police and property, blocked roads, and threatened Alliance councillors and MLAs. The protests may have dropped from the national news but they are still ongoing: there was more rioting in Belfast on St Patrick’s Day. A police officer was injured and scores have been hospitalised during the violence.
“It is not just about flags, in fact it is not mainly about flags, it is about other issues,” explains Long. “It was a politically concerted campaign against me personally. When you take the seat of the First Minister and the leader of the DUP you can expect that there will be a certain anger, from at least those quarters if not others. That is the reality of Northern Ireland politics, and it can often spill over with unforeseen consequences. That is what happened with the flags issue. Flags are not trivial things anywhere but particularly not in Northern Ireland where they go to the core of the conflict, where they represent people’s identity and sense of place.
“The decision was right but the reaction to it has been hugely damaging to the city, its reputation and to individual businesses and householders. Even the people who have been involved in the rioting will pay a price – when society suffers, when there are fewer jobs, fewer opportunities, less inward investment, they will feel the knock-on effect.”
Long admits she was scared when she received three death threats in December.
“I am old enough to have lived through the Troubles and have seen Northern Ireland at its absolute worst. I have seen the massive transformation that there has been in terms of how much more vibrant and diverse a city Belfast is compared to the one I grew up in. Was I scared?
“Not so much for me, but for going back to where we were in the 1970s and 1980s. That worried me. That disturbed me.
“I don’t want another generation of young people to grow up with that kind of hatred and that kind of scarring experience that many of us just took for granted.
“The rule of law felt the most fragile it has felt for a very long time and people’s sense of safety and security was being challenged daily. I think we need to be very precious in terms of guarding the peace that we have, it should not be taken for granted.”
Long was born in 1971 at the height of the Troubles.
“I came from a working class background in inner East Belfast, my father worked in the shipyard and my mother worked in the Belfast rope works. I went to the local primary school and then to grammar school.”
She graduated from Queen’s University Belfast as a civil engineer in 1994, and worked in that profession while she was elected to the city council in 2001 and the Northern Ireland Assembly two years later.
The creation of the Assembly allowed the Alliance party to flourish, an opportunity to showcase their policies away from the traditional divides of Orange and Green.
“I was in the Assembly from 2003 and for the first four years I spent all my time in the constituency office, because the Assembly was suspended. I was working in my constituency for four solid years and there was a massive increase in our vote during that time,” Long says.
“I suppose we developed the vote from our core vote, out beyond that to people who had never experienced Alliance but got to when we were doing the work for them.
“In the run up to the election I had a very prominent and I think a very positive time as Lord Mayor of Belfast and people felt that change could happen, and it is not all the time that people feel that way.
“The number of times when I was canvassing in East Belfast that people would say to me ‘well I would like to vote for you but I don’t think you can win’. That is not what they were saying in 2010, when there was a chance and they wanted change. The secret now is how you keep that momentum going.”
After her sensational win in East Belfast, Long found herself at Westminster as the sole representative of her party. The first decision was whether or not to sit with the MPs from her sister party the Lib Dems.
“I chose to sit on the opposition benches because I felt that was the best place to be, and my colleagues in the party agreed. That does not mean I oppose the Government on everything. I agree with some of the things the Coalition is doing, but it gives me the freedom to make that choice and I am not tied with a government whip or an opposition whip.”
It also means that Alliance, new to Westminster, can build bridges with Labour and the Tories.
As for her fellow Northern Irish MPs, “we are political opponents not friends, and it takes time to find that out how people work at Westminster as opposed to how they behave in the Assembly – the two are often at odds with each other”.
Alliance is certainly more liberal than the Unionists on issues like same-sex marriage, which it supports.
“I actually think if you are a liberal you are cross-community by nature,” says Long.
“What you are recognising is people’s right to define themselves along more than one axis. Northern Ireland politics is sometimes very illiberal because people expect that you have to be a unionist or a nationalist. Even our Assembly is very rigid. It says you are unionist, nationalist or other, and if you are other you are slightly less.
“What motivated me to get involved in politics was dealing with the fundamental divides in Northern Ireland, dealing with sectarianism and segregation, wanting to build a more united community.
“I believe the approach to that is a very liberal approach, to recognise that every individual has value and is respected and has a role to play in society.”
With her background as a civil engineer, Long has taken a keen interest in infrastructure issues since her arrival at Westminster, and serves as vice-chair of the APPG. She calls it the “Cinderella of investment”.
“Often the four or five year Parliamentary cycle does not work in that industry because you are planning with a 20-year horizon.
Getting political consensus on certainty for funding is really important, turning the tap on and off on infrastructure financing can be just as damaging as underfunding it. In my constituency we have had a huge amount of difficulty with flooding. Working here in Westminster on those issues gives me an opportunity to keep abreast of all the good ideas here.”
There is a rumour that Long turned down a St Patrick’s Day invitation to the White House this year, the golden ticket for politicians north and south of Ireland.
“I was invited but unfortunately I was not able to go. I can assure you it was not in any sense a snub,” she reveals, laughing.”I didn’t have my visa and would not have been able to get it arranged in time and I had to decline. I wouldn’t be so glib as to just turn down opportunities to go to Washington.”