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Naomi Long: Restored Stormont institutions require ‘significant reform'

Alliance leader Naomi Long addresses her party's conference at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Picture by Arthur Allison

GOVERNANCE and the workings of the Stormont institutions require “significant reform” if and when devolution is restored, Alliance leader Naomi Long has said.

Addressing her party’s 49th annual conference in Belfast on Saturday, the East Belfast MLA said her long-held belief that the DUP/Sinn Féin-led executive was dysfunctional had been confirmed by a “tide of evidence” unearthed during the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

Mrs Long told around 300 delegates that her party had previously highlighted problems with the power-sharing institutions and had refused the offer of the justice minister’s post in 2016 because a demand for “significant reform and a change of attitude” had not been met.

She said concerns about a lack of collective decision making and the role of special advisers had been dismissed by the executive’s dominant parties as “whingeing”.

“That our concerns were based in fact has been exposed by the forensic questioning of Sir Patrick Coghlin and his inquiry panel whose incredulity at the lax approach to record keeping and the contempt of those parties for proper procedure was visible throughout the public hearings of the inquiry."

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Mrs Long said during her recent bilateral discussions with Stormont’s other parties, they had all agreed that the institutions and governance arrangements required significant reform.

She said it was important to “learn lessons” from the forthcoming RHI inquiry report and “not simply to rake over the past”.

“Not least among those lessons is the danger to good governance and threat to government itself posed by a culture which presumes that the only thing which matters is appeasing the demands of the two main parties, and in which even civil servants felt pressure to protect them from criticism and scrutiny rather than upholding due process,” she said.

For the assembly, Alliance advocates reform of the petition of concern, replacing the parallel consent mechanism with weighted majority voting.

Mrs Long also outlined how the executive should be restructured to “enhance and incentivise cooperation”.

The Alliance leader said talks on restoring devolution overseen by an independent chair need to begin straight away.

She argued that parties who failed to engage seriously should be sanctioned and that if the negotiations fail, Stormont should be suspended indefinitely.

“If it becomes clear that there is no will to restore the assembly, then it needs to be shelved and alternative arrangements put in place to make decisions as we cannot continue in a state of suspended animation forever."

Mrs Long was scathing in her criticism of Secretary of State Karen Bradley, who she claimed had made “no concerted effort to end this interminable drift”.

“I haven’t seen Karen Bradley’s to do list, but if restoration of the devolved institutions is indeed her number one issue, heaven help those who find their concerns further down the list,” she said.

The East Belfast MLA also said Brexit had placed additional strain on the devolved institutions and made their restoration “more difficult than would have otherwise been the case”.

She likened EU membership to a “racehorse” which was being traded for “the promise of a unicorn and whatever donkey Theresa May brings home from Brussels”.

Mrs Long added that while the courts concluded that leaving the EU does not breach the legal terms of the Good Friday Agreement, “common sense” showed that the “collaboration and interdependence” on which the accord was based were being jeopardised by an “act of gratuitous self-harm”.

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