Northern Ireland news

Alliance leader tells conference of need for Stormont reform

Alliance leader Noami Long said the executive's collapse was disappointing but predictable 

STORMONT needs to address the causes of the crisis that led to its collapse or risk the same thing happening again, Alliance leader Naomi Long has said.

Addressing her first party conference since succeeding David Ford as party leader last autumn, the East Belfast MLA said the executive needed to change how it does business "in terms of openness and accountability".

Mrs Long said she was "delighted" with an election result that saw Alliance hold its ground in an assembly that had been cut from 108 MLAs to 90 but she said the poll had been brought about by "political failure".

"Unless the difficulties which brought about that collapse can be resolved, then the future of devolution looks bleak," she said.

The Alliance leader said the collapse of the executive in January was disappointing yet predictable. She said that ahead of last May's election her party had identified the need for reform but that its recommendations were spurned, leaving Alliance outside the executive.

"Walking away from government is not a choice that any party makes lightly but our priority was how and where we could make most progress on the manifesto pledges we had made during the elections," she said.

Mrs Long said the decision to go into opposition was not without risk but that the party's position was vindicated within eight months.

She criticised the failure of the last DUP-Sinn Féin-led executive to put a budget in place or to finalise its programme for government.

The Alliance leader said the scandal around the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) that precipitated the crisis in the devolved institutions was caused by the executive's inability "to deal maturely, competently and transparently" with the crisis.

"The murky influence of special advisers who in some parties appear to be directing ministers rather than the other way around; the attempts to conceal from public scrutiny the beneficiaries of the scheme; the fact that even when the impact of the lack of cost controls had implications for the budgets of other departments, the extent and cause of the projected overspend were hidden from executive colleagues; the lack of full disclosure to the assembly about the real reasons for the overspend exposed a systemic failure of government," she said.

She said those who presided over the RHI were "happy to take power, but not so happy to accept any responsibility".

"It seems that history keeps repeating itself but yet nothing is learned from the repetition," Mrs Long said.

She highlighted Alliance's long-held view that there should be greater transparency around political donations, as the continued secrecy would "further fuel the public's mistrust and suspicion".

"The time has long since passed where the security situation can be used to justify such a lack of transparency," she said.

"You cannot argue on one hand that Northern Ireland is a safe and stable region for inward investment and tourism whilst simultaneously arguing on the other that it is so abnormal and dangerous that the same degree of transparency around donors cannot apply here as elsewhere."

The Alliance leader paid tribute to her predecessor, saying Mr Ford left the party "in good health and good spirits".

"It speaks volumes of David's commitment to Alliance that unlike many politicians when their time as leader ends, he has neither disappeared nor become a critic or even a passenger, but has continued to play an active and valuable role, not just as an MLA but within the leadership of Alliance and for his continued support and guidance, I am hugely grateful," she said.

Commenting on Martin McGuinness's passing, Mrs Long said she was "under no illusions" about the impact of the IRA's campaign but she said she recognised that he moved away from violence and sought to bring others with him.

"People like Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and David Ervine contributed in word and deed to the Troubles and to the painful legacy which we have inherited but I acknowledge and appreciate that they also contributed to the peace when they moved from very entrenched positions towards the relative peace that we now enjoy," she said.

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