Labour must ‘shift the dial’ on Stormont reform if elected, says Alliance leader

Labour must “shift the dial” on reforming Stormont’s devolved structures if it wins the General Election, the leader of the Alliance Party has said.

Naomi Long warned that the powersharing institutions in Belfast remain as fragile now as they were just prior to their last collapse, as she expressed concern that another implosion could herald the end of devolution in Northern Ireland.

She claimed the DUP’s current “backpedalling” on its endorsement of the Government deal on post-Brexit trading barriers, which led to the restoration of devolution in February, could place fresh question marks over Stormont’s stability.

Ms Long’s cross-community party has long campaigned for reform to remove the veto power to collapse the institutions held by the biggest unionist and nationalist parties.

Since 2017, both Sinn Fein and the DUP have pulled the plug on powersharing, meaning Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for five of the last seven years.

Acknowledging that both parties may be reluctant to voluntarily give up that veto, Ms Long said there is a responsibility on the UK Government to take action.

MPs visit Stormont
Naomi Long urged Hilary Benn to make Stormont reform a priority if he becomes Northern Ireland Secretary after the election (Liam McBurney/PA)

In a pre-election interview with the PA news agency, Ms Long also said:

– Alliance remains fully focused on Stormont, despite her as leader, and deputy leader Stephen Farry, both aiming to be Westminster MPs come July.

– The party’s main priority in the election is retaining Dr Farry’s North Down seat. She claimed the party will not be disappointed if that is the only seat it wins, but expressed belief it could secure more, claiming Alliance is in contention in “three to five” other constituencies.

– Sinn Fein’s decision to stand aside in four constituencies, a move that could bolster support for Alliance in those areas, came as a “surprise”.

– Alliance never contemplated stepping aside in any constituencies. Ms Long said the party is committed to giving all voters the opportunity to vote for something “distinctive and different” to traditional orange/green politics.

– She views the expansion of the party in the west of Northern Ireland as a “long-term project”, as she acknowledged its vote could be squeezed in constituencies west of the River Bann where it is not seen as a potential seat-winner.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Stormont has a governance system that incorporates mutual veto powers, enabling blocs of unionist and nationalist MLAs to stop moves that otherwise command majority support and, in extreme circumstances, pull down the institutions and prevent them operating.

The mechanisms were introduced during the peace process as a way to protect minorities in Northern Ireland’s divided society.

However, Alliance insists the structures no longer reflect modern-day Northern Ireland and wants changes to voting systems within both the Assembly chamber and at the Executive table to ensure votes cast by MLAs who consider themselves neither unionist nor nationalist are given the same weight as others.

Buoyed by series of election successes in recent years, Alliance has established itself as the third largest party in Northern Ireland – a rise reflective of the growing middle ground in the region that does not vote on traditional orange and green lines.

Last year, Ms Long, who serves as Justice Minister at Stormont, warned she was prepared to test the legality of the existing devolved structures.

Ahead of the General Election, the party leader told PA she has spoken to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn on the issue of reform.

“Stormont is as stable now as it was the day before it collapsed,” she said.

“People tend to take Stormont for granted. When it’s actually sitting, people assume that everything will be fine. But we know how quickly things can unravel.

“We’re in a honeymoon period at the moment with the Executive, but that is already being tested.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long warned that the powersharing institutions in Belfast remain as fragile now as they were prior to their last collapse (Liam McBurney/PA)
Alliance leader Naomi Long warned that the powersharing institutions in Belfast remain as fragile now as they were prior to their last collapse (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Long said the Ulster Unionists’ decision to vote against the administration’s recent budget showed “all was not well” in the four-party mandatory coalition.

“So Stormont needs reassurance that it’s going to continue because people are optimistic for the future,” she said.

“They want to see us make a difference. They want to see their lives get better. And they believe that Stormont can do that. So we need to make sure that it does and that nobody can detract from it again.”

Turning to the DUP, she added: “Having gone back into Stormont on the strength of their Safeguarding The Union document in their deal with the Conservatives, we now see them backpedalling madly away from a deal that they signed up to.

“What does that mean in the long term? Does that mean if they get into conflict with the Government in the future around the (Northern Ireland) protocol and its implementation and the Windsor Framework, will we be back in a situation where they’re again threatening to pull down the institutions in order to get what they want? Who knows where that thread will eventually lead to if we start to unravel it?

“So, for me, it’s really important that we keep the issue of reform on the agenda.”

Ms Long is running in East Belfast, where she hopes to win the seat from outgoing MP and DUP leader Gavin Robinson.

She said it is important to act on reform before another devolution crisis flares.

“It’s not good enough to say ‘Well, it’s OK, we’re back now’,” she said.

“What trust will the public have in politicians who said that before, and then pulled things down?

“We have never said we would take it off the table simply because devolution was restored. We need that reform to happen so that devolution continues to function.”

Sir Keir Starmer meets an Alliance Party delegation at Stormont in 2023 (Liam McBurney/PA)

She added: “I think what’s happened, generally speaking, is when secretaries of state have left Northern Ireland, they have said with the benefit of hindsight that they should have done more on reform.

“So, what I’ve been saying to Hilary Benn is – don’t wait for hindsight.

“Of course, there will be caution. I have spoken with the Irish Government about this as well, because they are very much a part of the discussion around reform.

“And there will be caution, because the institutions are a delicate balance that were able to sustain us over the last 25 years. And we certainly don’t want to do anything that will upend those institutions.

“But the biggest threat currently to the arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement are these repeated cycles of crisis and collapse. And the best thing we can do is find ways of bringing that to an end and changing the structures so that they reflect the change in society.

“One of the most amazing things that’s happened over the last 25 to 26 years is just how different Northern Ireland is, how much more integrated, how much more free people are in terms of their identity.

“The change in culture in Northern Ireland has been incredible. And yet that’s not reflected in institutions that still see everything very much as black and white, green and orange, unionist and nationalist, and nothing else. Northern Ireland is a very different place and the institutions need to be able to flex to represent that challenge that we have now.”

She added: “It’s something that we’re very ambitious in terms of what we’re able to do. And I’ve had those conversations with Keir Starmer, I’ve had them with Hilary Benn, and I will continue to do that. But I will also continue to passionately advocate with other parties and other MPs because we need to build momentum behind that change.

“I want to do it at a time when there isn’t a crisis. Because if we wait for the next crisis, it will be too late. I don’t believe Stormont will be able to withstand another collapse.”

She suggested that while the DUP and Sinn Fein might agree to some changes, she expressed doubt they will back substantive reform.

“I think there’s some things that we need to do that will require the Government to shift the dial,” she said.

“And I think that that’s just the reality.”

She added: “We’ve got to be willing at certain stages in the process to nudge the process forward. And that’s what we’re asking to do.”