On Saturday afternoon I caught up with the MP for East Belfast and Deputy Leader of the Alliance party, Naomi Long. We discussed a range of issues from her background growing up in East Belfast to her future as an MP and a possible leader of the Alliance party. The full audio of the interview is at the bottom of the post but here are some noteworthy quotes that I found interesting.
I began by asking her about how much growing up in East Belfast in a Unionist family influenced her politics;
Growing up in that place really did shape who I am today but it didn’t shape me in the way that people might have expected. I grew up in a working class loyalist community that’s where my roots are and where my family are from and I’m proud of that that’s my heritage and I don’t deny it or hide it or shy away from it. And in fact it’s been abused against me where people try to say well I must be a Unionist and that’s what I am saying I’m not going to be labelled.
I then pressed on to ask Naomi about communal tensions in East Belfast;
There is no doubt there is mistrust, there is no doubt that there is suspicion that they’re getting something that we are not, do you know what that is? How many people in that area have been able to go into Short Strand and see the same problems? I have, I’ve been there, I have been on the lower Newtownards Road, I have seen people with their housing problems, with their benefits problems, I have seen the people with their anti-social behaviour problems.
Long pointed out that in some respects good cross community work is going on at interfaces led by churches and other community groups that are helping to ease tensions within the community but she believes that ultimately the only long term solution to the problems facing East Belfast is developing more shared solutions to remove seeds of doubt that people within these communities have about one another.
I wondered though who did she think was to blame for tensions within the community?
There is no political leadership around it, people inflame tensions, they seek out ways to try and play up the orange and green card all the time, their primary interest is looking over their shoulder to the rump of their own constituency and that is what controls their decisions and that’s what is wrong. Because it’s not about going down and supporting people in difficult times, it’s about articulating these poisonous views because people who believe that those on the other side of the interface are better off because personal experience, they believe it because they are told it. And they are told it by their political leader’s day in and day out. If you keep telling people that they’re losers and the other lot are winners or vice versa, you are stoking up tensions for the future.
We then moved on to talk about the attacks on Alliance party offices in the aftermath of the flags protests; Long told me about the pride she had in her staff for getting on with the job despite the difficulties but also said that she felt angry that people who needed the help of the Alliance party couldn’t get it, but she believes that the failure of other politicians to step forward and say that it was wrong was also made her angry.
But, that was enough of the past, what about her future? I posed the question to her that she is likely to lose her seat at the next election and what if it becomes a nasty campaign?
Well I think the flag protest has prepared me for anything and it doesn’t get much more brutal than that and I’m not broken yet. If people think that by turning it into a nasty campaign or a brutal campaign it will damage me I think they’re wrong but secondly I don’t think the public like nasty campaigns, I ran purely positive campaign, I could’ve run a nasty campaign in the last election there was plenty of material around for me to exploit and I didn’t, because it’s not my style and it’s not who I am…and as far as commentators are concerned, there were no commentators Alex Kane or anybody else who predicted my win in 2010 and if we were sitting this far out from the 2010 election they would’ve all predict not just that I would’ve won but that I would’ve been third. So, I take lightly what commentators say because they’re not with me on the doors in East Belfast…and do you know what if I’m not elected it’s not the end of the world, not for me and not for anybody else.
I wondered what she thought about her likely opponent, Gavin Robinson;
When I’ve met him he seemed reasonable and all the rest, but then I see another side to him. I saw him the middle of the leafleting campaign around the flags stuff. I have seen his behaviour during that when he didn’t really step forward and say what he should’ve said, we have seen him rally round Ruth Patterson and grinning in the background of the photograph when she had just admitted that she had done something that was really wrong that kind of give a lie to the idea that in some way there is a moderate DUP. I don’t think there is, I think when the mask slips the DUP are the DUP and I don’t really think it’s about personalities.
Concluding we talked about the possibility of her leading the Alliance party at some point in the future which naturally she said that she had no intention of seeking the leadership and that personal ambition was ‘not on her radar.’
Overall, I found Naomi a really interesting person to chat with and make no mistake she intends to fight to keep that seat-can she hold it? I don’t know but she won’t go down easily.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs