Northern Ireland

Naomi Long says rivals are retaining a Stormont veto to ‘control the executive’

Naomi Long says Sinn Fein and the DUP’s ability to withdraw Executive ministers is a “form of ransom politics”

Alliance Party Conference 2024
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long addresses her party's conference. PICTURE: JONATHAN PORTER/PRESS EYE

Naomi Long has accused her party’s larger Stormont rivals of retaining the power to collapse the institutions in order to “control the executive”.

The Alliance leader said Sinn Féin and the DUP’s ability to scupper power-sharing by withdrawing ministers from the executive was a “form of ransom politics”.

She was speaking to an audience of around 400 Alliance members at the party’s conference in Belfast on Saturday.

Mrs Long dedicated much of her leader’s speech to calling for reform of the Stormont institutions, including changes to the designation system and ending mandatory coalition.

She said she was happy to see power-sharing restored after a two-year hiatus but that she was “always conscious of another collapse”.

The East Belfast MLA said Alliance had been the “only consistent and unequivocal champion of reform of the institutions”.

“Whilst other parties were happy to bemoan the damage to our public services, public finances and public confidence in the institutions themselves by repeated cycles of crisis and collapse, none have as yet been willing to commit to the kind of reform which is essential to prevent it happening again,” Mrs Long said.

Alliance Party Conference 2024
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long. PICTURE: JONATHAN PORTER/PRESS EYE

She said some parties had indicated a willingness to “tinker around the fringes” but that amounted to a “sticking plaster on the broken limb”.

The Alliance leader countered the notion that her party should boycott the executive to encourage reform by claiming “it would almost certainly accelerate further crisis and collapse”.

“Our job is to work to make the institutions as stable and functional as they can be from within, whilst continuing to make the case for reform to those who have the power to deliver it,” she said.

Mrs Long said her party’s proposals for reform were not just consistent with the power-sharing principles of the Good Friday Agreement but they also “acknowledge and address the inherent instability and inequalities of the structures created to implement it”.

“They enshrine the right of parties to be in government based on the strength of their electoral mandate, however, they remove the right of any one party to deny the people of Northern Ireland a government,” she said.

“They allow those who wish to get on with the work of government to do so and those who don’t to sit it out if they choose: no-one would or should be excluded, but no-one party would or should be able to exclude everyone else.”

The Alliance leader said the reform proposals would end the “reliance on parallel consent votes to measure cross-community consent”, which she described as “ironically, the least cross-community votes of any in the assembly”. She said parallel consent would be replaced by weighted majority voting, which would “incentivise cooperation in a way that mutually reinforced vetoes have not”.

“We recognise that there are issues which remain both highly contested and sensitive in this community and it is right that on those issues there should be added protections,” she said.

Mrs Long welcomed Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s support for Stormont reform and urged Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris “do some seriously heavy lifting” on the issue or risk sharing the blame for a future collapse. She said the first and deputy first minister had not given a firm commitment not to collapse the institutions.

“The only possible reason for those parties to argue that they should retain the power to collapse the institution is if they intend to either use that power or use the threat of using it to control the executive,” she said.

“Both are a form of ransom politics. Neither is democratic or acceptable.”

The justice minister said “huge damage” had been done to the economy and public services during the five of the past seven years which Stormont had been suspended. She said her own department had suffered as a consequence of “stop-start government”.

Mrs Long said there was a need for public services to be transformed and she accused other executive parties of refusing to take decisions that “were clearly in the public interest”.

The Alliance leader said North Down was not the “ceiling” on her party’s Westminster ambitions.

“Think just how much more we could achieve with an increased Alliance Westminster team, working hard for their constituents,” she said.

“And we have real opportunities to deliver just that.”