Video: I don't fear the future says Ginger Ninja Naomi Long
Elected Alliance leader last month – only the third woman to lead a major political party in the north – Naomi Long is very much back in the game. The Ginger Ninja talks to Joanne Sweeney about that bruising battle with the DUP, taking time out and how her faith in God keeps her right
IT WAS the simple act of coming upon her first party membership card that helped reignite new Alliance leader Naomi Long's passion of politics after she lost her East Belfast seat to the DUP's Gavin Robinson in last year's general election.
The card sparked off memories of why she came into politics in the first place during the months where she dropped out of public view following the bruising but anticipated loss of her seat as MP.
The reasons why she came into politics in the first place, combined with her strongly-held Christian faith, spurred the 44-year-old east Belfast native and Queen's graduate to throw herself back into the political ring.
And look at how Naomi Long is back. Neither the visceral political contest of May 2015 that she came through, nor the campaign of hate and intimidation that she and her team were subjected to during the loyalist flag protests of 2014 has diminished her.
Long scored first blood against Arlene Foster in a skirmish just days after taking over her party's leadership from David Ford, criticising Mrs Foster for her "childish" comments on how online troll comments about same-sex marriage would only harden the first minister's resolve to maintain the ban on allowing it to happen in the north, in line with the Republic and Britain.
Not that East Belfast MLA and former engineer would ever describe her comments as 'first blood' –but if ever someone conjured up an image of 'an iron hand in a velvet glove', it's Long. She is friendly, focused and could talk for Europe, never mind Ireland, as I discover when we chat in her office at Stormont as she settles into her new role.
"It feels a bit odd, if I'm honest," she says of taking the helm of that rarity in Northern Ireland, a liberal, non-partisan political party. "It still doesn't feel 100 per cent real yet. It feels quite strange but it is very enjoyable."
Long joined Alliance in 1996 and was a party worker until she found herself in the position of being asked to stand for a council seat for Belfast's Victoria ward in 2001, which she won. Five years later she became deputy leader and in 2009 she became the second woman to become Belfast lord mayor. She stood down as a city councillor in 2010 after taking a stand against double-jobbing, opting to concentrate on role as an MP in Westminster, where she served until 2015.
Seemingly unflappable, Long was the victim of a serious and concerted campaign of intimidation against her in east Belfast for months in 2014 when her party voted against flying the Union flag year-round at Belfast City Hall.
Bomb attacks and security alerts at her constituency office on the Newtownards Road, along with upfront threats and online abuse that she and her staff had to endure for most of the year, were followed by a nasty 'Get Long Out' campaign in east Belfast when she stood against Gavin Robinson in 2015.
The DUP had never forgiven her for sensationally ousting then party leader Peter Robinson from his long-held seat in the 2010 general election.
"I have no doubt that on [the DUP's] to-do list, that was top, there's no question of that," she says of the political pact that saw current MP Gavin Robinson fielded as the only unionist candidate last year. "I knew I wasn't fighting on an even playing field: it was me against all the unionist parties effectively."
Perhaps unsurprisingly she took a sabbatical after her defeat to the DUP and the other Mr Robinson but, typically, chose to make the best of it – and took heart in the knowledge that, despite losing her seat, she had secured her biggest personal poll to date.
"It was difficult to lose the seat, of course it was," says Long, "But the pain for me was really for the staff, the people who had given so much – and the effort that they put into campaign was enormous. You can let it become a negative, to become bitter and let it eat away at you, but it's not just who I am."
She continues: "I took the opportunity to do things that I didn't have the chance to do, like travel, look after our new dog Daisy and just spend time with friends and family in a way that I hadn't been able to do so for a long time."
It was her first break from politics in 15 years and Long says it gave her the opportunity to seriously take stock of a career that she hadn't really even set out to pursue – though if achieving political office wasn't an original motivator, principles clearly were.
"I came across my first membership card when I was tidying up around the house one day," she recalls. "It kind of reminded me of how strongly I felt when I joined the party, why I joined Alliance and the reasons why I chose Alliance and not another party. All of those things were exactly the same as the reasons I came back because I felt that genuinely Northern Ireland needed a liberal, progressive party that's not defined around unionism or nationalism but more around the kinds of society we want to build.
"I still feel as passionately about that as I've ever had and that's what brought me back."
But it is above all Naomi Long's faith as a member of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church and the love and support of her husband Michael, who is also an Alliance councillor in Belfast, that raise her up and sustains her in difficult times, she says.
"I have a very strong faith and so – for better or for worse – I don't fear the future or what it holds. I don't fear change; I don't fear what's going around me in that sense. I rely heavily on that confidence that I have in God and that does make a difference in terms of how I view my own life and what I do with it."
Long is known as tenacious in politics and determined to do her job as well as for being as fiesty in person as her red hair would suggest. She famously takes on her online trolls with her quick wit and self-deprecating humour.
She and her team took the online insults of 'Ginger Ninja' and 'Onionhead' and used them in her assembly election campaign for East Belfast in May; in her Mean Tweets video she reads out the best of the jibes aimed at her with a wry smile on her face.
As the first woman leader of the Alliance Party, and only the third woman to lead a major political party in Northern Ireland (Margaret Ritchie led the SDLP in 2010-2011, while Arlene Foster became DUP leader last year), Long is a fervent supporter of women, particularly in political life.
She tweeted her support for Hillary Clinton throughout the US presidential election campaign and although she has no time for Donald Trump, she made it clear that she won't be taking a similar stance to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to boycott a Trump-run White House.
"Trump is by far the worst choice for the role," she says. "I found most of what he said during his campaign to be bigoted, misogynistic, insulting and racist. He is an individual that I would never wish to spend any time with. But as a politician I have a duty to respect the democratic choices that are made by people right across the globe.
"I respect the office that he holds, although I may not respect the holder. But I'm under no illusion that Donald Trump would know much about Northern Ireland... or would care. And that's just to be blunt about it."