UK government should ‘step up’ and reform Stormont, Naomi Long tells Alliance Party conference

Alliance Party leader says Northern Secretary would be largely to blame if Assembly were to collapse again

The UK government must “step up and do some seriously heavy lifting” to reform the Northern institutions, the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has said.

Speaking at her party conference in Belfast on Saturday, Ms Long warned that this must happen “sooner rather than later” or the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, would be “permanently burdened with a large share of the blame” for any future collapse of the Assembly.

Calling for “action to implement real and tangible progress towards actual reform”, Ms Long contrasted London’s approach with that of Dublin, and said she was “encouraged by the thoughtful and considered manner” in which the Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, addressed the issue in a speech to the conference on Friday night.

Mr Martin said it was now time to “begin a meaningful conversation about reform” and “look now at what we can do to make the institutions more stable and effective while, of course, retaining the [Belfast] Agreement’s foundational commitment to meaningful powersharing and inclusiveness.”


He said there were “serious questions” to be answered over the power of a single party to block the functioning of the Assembly and Executive and, he added, discussions on reform must involve “all the parties, civic voices and both governments ... we cannot have any more one-sided negotiations only involving one party or one perspective”.

Alliance is the first of the main Northern parties to gather for its annual conference since the restoration of the powersharing institutions following a two-year suspension due to the DUP’s boycott.

The party has long called for the reform of the Northern institutions to make them more sustainable and prevent future collapse.

However, last month the UK government ruled this out, saying in response to a Westminster report recommending an overhaul of the rules governing powersharing, that reform of the Agreement was not being considered “at this time” and “voices from the UK or Irish governments should not be at the forefront of any calls for reform”.

Criticising this stance, Ms Long said that despite the “open door” on this issue offered by Alliance, the Northern Secretary had not only declined to take it, “but seemed keen to lock it up again and throw away the key”.

She said she wanted to “approach this new mandate with optimism, to have confidence that the last collapse was the last collapse” but it was a “warning against complacency” that neither the First Minister or Deputy First Minister would give a firm commitment, when called up on to do so by the SDLP, that they would not use their power to collapse the Executive again.

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

In her speech Ms Long also called for a UK general election “the sooner the better” as “the only thing this morally bankrupt [UK] government can do protect democracy” and spoke of the party’s ambitions to add to its tally of a single Westminster seat, currently held by the party’s deputy leader, the North Down MP Stephen Farry.

In East Belfast, Lagan Valley and the new constituency of South Belfast and mid-Down, Ms Long said there were “significant opportunities for us not only to maintain Alliance representation at Westminster but to grow it further still”.

There was also vocal support in a number of conference speeches for the newly-appointed Minister for Agriculture and the Environment, Andrew Muir.

Ms Long said she was “proud” he was “the first openly gay minister in the Northern Ireland Executive” and said “some of the criticism has been rather churlish and some of it bordering on homophobic.

“I hope that for the many young LGBTQ+ people living in rural communities, you will serve as a very visible and positive reminder that they are not alone, that they can make a difference and that they are valued,” she said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times