Long ‘driven’ to keep growing Alliance after six years in charge

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she feels “very driven” to remain at the head of her party.

Ms Long has led Alliance for six years, taking over from David Ford in 2016.

Under her leadership, the party has surged from eight Assembly seats to overtaking the UUP and SDLP to become the third largest at Stormont with 17 MLAs.

Ms Long said she wants to see further gains at this year’s local government election, particularly in council areas in the west of Northern Ireland.

2022 NI Assembly election
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with her party’s newly-elected MLAs in 2022 (Liam McBurney/PA)

She said her party has selected more than 100 council candidates, and wants to see the team grow from the 53 elected in 2019.

“I am very driven at the moment, and I think the point where I would no longer want to be the leader of Alliance is where I no longer have ambitions for the party,” she said.

“But at this point in time I absolutely do. I can see where there are opportunities for us to grow further, whether in the local government elections to strengthen our showing in the west of the province, being able, for example, we’ve only one council area in Mid Ulster where we have any Alliance elected representatives, I would like to see that change.

“There are other things I can see that I want to do and want to develop, and hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be opening an Alliance office in the north-west to supplement our headquarters.

“I am ambitious for Alliance, I see lots of opportunities. I never imagined when I took over as leader, and even in the time that I was deputy leader, that we would have gone from where we were at eight (in 2017) to 17 in one election.

“But I never doubted we could get to 17, and indeed exceed 17 in the right circumstances.

“If I reach a point where I feel I have done all I can do in taking the party as far as I can take it, obviously that’s a conversation that I will have with the party.”

The party suffered a blow last month with the announcement by North Antrim MLA Patricia O’Loan that she intends to step down to take up another job.

Ms Long expressed regret at the decision, but said a number of “good people” have been lost to the Assembly during suspensions, including the DUP’s Simon Hamilton, Steven Agnew of the Green Party and Sinn Fein’s Emma Fearon.

“When you get involved in politics to deliver and make a difference, and you feel you’re trying to do that and your hands are tied behind your back, it’s incredibly frustrating and I understand why MLAs are uncomfortable with the current hiatus, and I just hope we see an end to it very quickly… because if we feel frustrated in this current suspension, you can only start to imagine how frustrated the public feel,” she said.

Ms Long said her party’s neutral stance on the constitutional question is what is attracting more and more voters.

“Those who pour scorn on Alliance because we don’t take a unionist or nationalist position need to step back and consider that actually that’s what attracts people to vote for Alliance in the first place,” she said.

“They may be unionist or nationalist, they may not, but they like the fact Alliance is not following an ideologically-driven path on the constitutional question, and that that isn’t what the foundation of our politics is, and so rather than criticise what we are, I think others could watch and learn from the fact that that is the fastest growing movement in Northern Ireland politics right now.”