In the second of the six planned interviews, on Tuesday 20 October I talked to Naomi Long, Alliance party MLA for East Belfast as well as councillor for Victoria ward and – this year – Lord Mayor of Belfast.
Confident, professional, warm and with so much to say! Naomi gave wide ranging answers that were peppered with very specific examples to illustrate her points. There is no way I can reproduce the full half hour interview on the blog! A few snippets are embedded as video clips. The post length is probably my fault for going in with very open questions.
This post will deal with the questions around the Alliance Party and public engagement with politics and how Naomi got into politics in the first place. And I’ve split the remaining section of the interview that deals with East Belfast issues into a second post that will appear online tomorrow.
Given that we’re in the last straights before a general election, I asked Naomi about the future of the Alliance party and how it was changing and adapting.
(Naomi) Well next year we’ll be forty years old, so it’s a milestone for us and I think our core message in many ways hasn’t changed in that our core message was ultimately we all need to be pulling in the same direction if we’re going to make a difference in society and we’ve kind of had that as our core theme throughout the years.
Now obviously it adapts because circumstances change so where in the 1970s the issue of inward migration was a fairly peripheral issue it’s now a more significant portion of the work that we do.
Religious and cultural diversity again in the 1970s was less of an issue than it is now but the central theme is that if you want society to function well everyone has to have a stake in society, everyone has to have influence over what happens, and everybody needs to be engaged and treated with respect and dignity and that has been our underlying principle right through.
Clearly we’re still very focussed on issues around sectarian division and I think it is right that we should be because those sectarian divisions and indeed the levels of sectarianism, there is no evidence that that has changed.
The peace process has brought a political accommodation and to some degree that has spilled over into a community accommodation. What it hasn’t really brought is a resolution so there is still a lot of division and a lot of hatred in the community, and we need to support people who are working around those issues to allow them to make progress on the ground ...
But Naomi doesn’t believe that it’ll be solved just by “throwing money at the problem”. Central government has to be listening and have a vision.
(Naomi) We do need to look at how we spend government money if we’re serious with the belt tightening we’re going to be making cuts then we can’t ignore the money that is spent on segregation. We just can’t. It’s a billion pounds a year, so it’s not money that we can afford to ignore. I’m not saying you can unlock it tomorrow, you need to start looking at it in the same way you look at every part of the system and challenge it and say why are we doing … why are we providing two of this, why do we have to provide different bus services for schools that are on the same road and on the same route simply because they are wearing different uniforms or go to different churches on a Sunday, so we need to start challenging how we do business as a community and start to challenge the underlying prejudice that goes with it.
Post-primary education and the devolution of policing and justice are two big issues that Alliance have been talking about. So I asked which was a greater priority? To be honest, I expected the answer to be that the two issues couldn’t be crudely compared. But ...
(Naomi) I think that in terms of the community I would be in no doubt that education is the biggest priority out of the two. And I mean the evidence for that is fairly clear. I sit as vice chair of the OFMDFM committee in Stormont and we had a public consultation on the Policing and Justice Bill and we had no public responses. In a situation like that it is clear that you wouldn’t get that level of nil response to education. You just wouldn’t.
So for the community, what matters around policing is how it is delivered on the ground. Not who runs it at the top. So I would say without doubt priority number one in terms of the community out of the two would be education.
She felt that the reasons for devolving policing and justice were “not well articulated”.
(Naomi) It is important first of all from my perspective that it is devolved because if we’re going to have difficult decisions to make, and everybody’s fear is that they’re going to be cuts and money’s going to be tight, if we’re going to have to make those difficult decisions then I want them made by somebody that when they are in trouble phone 999 and get a local response. I don’t want it made by somebody who is living in England and it doesn’t really matter whether our police service functions or doesn’t function. I mean in the same way I want the health minister to go to the Royal or the City or whatever other hospital it might be. I want a local person who is invested in this community to be taking decisions on how to take it forward. Because I believe that’s a good way of ensuring they’re putting the same priority on things that other people in the community would. ...
It’s also important, very important, politically. Despite everything that’s said about policing and justice, it was always understood if not written down at St Andrews that this was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It was always very clear that to the SDLP and Sinn Fein this was a very important key issue and particularly for Sinn Fein that it was a make or break issue. Now you can walk away from those negotiations and say well we didn’t give them a date or a timeline so we’re not tied, but the reality is that you knew it was a make or break issue at that point in time. And there is a degree to which you’ve got to then deliver on an issue when you know that it’s that important to somebody who is your partner in government.
I wondered whether the Conservative and Unionist linkup (UCUNF) was in a sense trying to mimic Alliance’s cross-community support and whether it would steal votes? She’s not convinced!
(Naomi) ... there’s no evidence that the Tory/Unionist linkup has actually even in its sights a less sectarianised form of politics in Northern Ireland. I mean the bottom line for unionism is that it’s unionists first and everything is about unionists first. And that’s true of the Conservatives as well. And I think they are slightly deluded if they think that people who previously voted republican or nationalist are suddenly going to see David Cameron posing in front of a Union Jack as a more attractive prospect.
... in the debate around policing and justice recently there was some discussion as to whether or David Ford was a unionist. And Reg Empey came out very strongly and said that if there’s any question that he’s not a unionist how could he be minister for policing and justice. So the unionist party hasn’t changed. They still see being a unionist as a prerequisite for being Minster for Policing and Justice and indeed I suspect a lot of other things.
The Alliance Party doesn’t hold that view. We believe that those with a nationalist perspective and a unionist perspective have equal rights to hold those posts and the issue - indeed those with neither perspective have a right in politics.
To be blunt I see it as a cynical move to deal with what was a large budgetary deficit within the party, to try to benefit I suppose from the management that the Conservatives would have. I suspect that it will enter its most difficult phase from this point on with candidate selection because the particular process that’s been chosen there is bound to end with blood on the carpet.
... The Alliance Party has forty years of commitment to cross community politics that runs right throughout the core of everything we do and if you look at the evidence it points very fairly and squarely to us continuing to do that so people will have a direct choice at the election and we’ll see how it pans out. But based on the European election results I’m not too worried.
Having mentioned the European election results, I couldn’t resist asking about the defection of their young talent, Ian Parsley.
(Naomi) They have picked up a young talent like Ian Parsley. I don’t think he could do well in North Down. I think Sylvia Hermon would wipe the him out to be blunt. I think that she is a force of nature in North Down and I think it has a history of going for independents and she’s certainly not a Conservative. But I don’t think the North Down seat is winnable for them. In fact the only seat that the Ulster Unionists really had an opportunity of retaining I think was North Down and by losing her support I suspect they’ve lost their only potential Westminster seat.
Yes he was a young talent in the party. No one would deny that. He’s one of a number. And there would have been a time in the Alliance Party where to lose a young person who was articulate and talented would have been devastating, but we have a lot of articulate and talented young people in the party of equal and higher calibre who we would be quite happy to put in front of the electorate. So I mean yes it’s disappointing when you lose a member, but it’s not irretrievable.
The last area of questioning was around the current level of public engagement with politics and how that could be changed. Are there barriers to engagement or just public disinterest? Would it be a good thing if the public were more engaged with politics?
(Naomi) I think people are actually interested in politics. It’s how you define politics that will affect their response. If you say to people are you interested in politics they’ll say no. If you ask them if they’re interested in the planning development at the end of their road, are they interested in the state of the health service, or do they have views on the education system, then they’ll say yes they do and they’ll be very strong about it, but they don’t see that as politics, they see that as life.
So I think that it’s about trying to make the connections that those things are in the hands of politicians. And I think part of the problem is that for the past thirty odd years they hadn’t been in the hands of local politicians, so who you voted for didn’t influence, how the health service was run and how education was delivered or any of the other big questions. So I think there is a reconnection that needs to happen and it is happening in some places.
It was noticeable during the interview that Naomi kept coming back to constituents – talking to them, listening to them, serving them.
(Naomi) In terms of keeping connected, I think it’s hugely important. I just don’t think it’s something you only do during elections. It’s something you’ve got to do all year around, all the time. So through the constituency office we would have regular contact with local people who would as you say tend to come in response to problems or issues that they’re facing which is a large part of what we do. Sometimes out of that you’ll get a theme emerge where a number of people are having an issue with something and you can them take it up.
Naomi quoted two examples – dangerous dogs and high hedges – that had come up in constituency work and had now been pursued with the DARD and DOE ministers.
(Naomi) ... I don’t sit back and wait for people to come to the constituency office in that I go out and I survey people in the local community, I ask them what their issues are, I ask them are there things we can help them with. We give them the opportunity to comment on policy ...
But I do think we want to encourage people to feel connected enough that they feel it’s worth casting their vote. Because I actually do think that voting makes a difference, the big problem is whether you vote or don’t vote, you’re still making a difference. You either actively make the choice, or passively let someone else make it on your behalf. So I think we need to get that message out to people that if you want to have a say over these things then you really need to actively use your vote. If all the people who didn’t vote in the last election had voted the results could be very different because they’re the majority unfortunately so we need to kind of get people connected in.
Nearly at the end! The last question was to ask what attracted Naomi to the world of politics?
(Naomi) I didn’t really ever sit down and make a decision that I was kind of going to be a politician. I went off and graduated as a civil engineer and I was doing that for ten years. But in 1994 when I graduated obviously the ceasefires had just happened, everything was a bit uncertain, no one knew what the future held, prospects of an Assembly were quite bleak.
So it wasn’t really a good time politically, but we were making the decision - my husband and I - about what we were going to do with our future, stay in Belfast or go away. And we decided we wanted to stay here, but that we wanted to make a difference. We didn’t want the community to be divided the way it is, and that we wanted to make a contribution to changing that.
And we ended up joining Alliance because we saw in Alliance a kind of microcosm of what society could be like and that you had people from all different backgrounds, different social backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, different religious and cultural backgrounds, in the same party, locked in around the same ideals and vision and for us that was kind of a hopeful thing. So we got involved there, and I suppose we got involved behind the scenes initially helping other people who were elected, and assisting them with some of the work that they did, but then in 2001 I stood for council and in 2003 stood for the Assembly.
And when I was elected to the Assembly, I really felt that I needed then to make the move and to make it full time, because when I’d given people the commitment, that I was going to represent them, I felt that I had to follow through and make it full time. So difficult choice to make given that the Assembly was suspended at that point and wasn’t put back in place actually until 2007, so it was a long time to be in the wilderness to some degree, but during that time I was able to really focus on dealing with my constituents problems, on doing the constituency work that really needed to be done and actually, that’s the bit of the job I still enjoy most because it’s the bit that makes I suppose the most tangible difference to people who come through the door of the office. If you can get the problems solved, if you can cut down the bureaucracy, get between them and some of the statutory agencies, and deal with the issues quickly for them, it makes a huge difference. And that’s the bit that I enjoy still as the most rewarding part of the job.
Check back later for the second (shorter) part focussing on East Belfast.