Hard-hitting investigations on the stories that matter in Northern Ireland. Mandy McAuley talks to Naomi Long about the challenges facing her as the leader of the Alliance Party.
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I am delighted to declare Naomi Long MLA elected as party leader.
APPLAUSE AND CHEERING
Alliance have a new leader.
What unites us and what makes us strong are our shared beliefs
and our common values,
a shared belief that our society can thrive...
Naomi Long promises to renew the Alliance Party.
But can she transform the fortunes of a small party
that's outside the Executive and outside the official opposition?
I followed Naomi Long in the run-up to her election,
unopposed, as leader.
Alliance normally attracts your middle of the road, do-gooder types,
maybe a wee bit dull, and there's one thing about Naomi Long -
she isn't wishy-washy.
Four years ago, she was under death threat from Loyalist paramilitaries,
targeted after Alliance backed a vote
to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Tonight, Naomi Long lays the blame for the violence
that engulfed her and her party over the flag protests
firmly with the DUP and the UUP.
They whipped it up to a point
where it was then beyond their control to stop it.
She unveils her alternative vision to Unionism.
You've said you're not a Unionist, but do you care about the union?
Would it make life easier for me if I pretended I was a Unionist?
Maybe it would, but it's not who I am.
And she talks for the first time
about a major health scare she suffered
while under death threat from the UVF.
Whatever threats people can make,
there's nothing quite as frightening
as when your own body is working against you.
The new Alliance leader was born 44 years ago
into the Mersey Street area of East Belfast.
Home was a two-up two-down house
in a traditional working-class Unionist community
in the shadow of the Harland & Wolff cranes.
She was the only child of Emily and James Johnston.
Emily was a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher.
James was an engineer in the shipyard.
The school that I went to and indeed that my parents went to behind me,
kind of diagonally opposite, is Mersey Street Presbyterian Church.
That's where I went to Guides and Rangers
and that's where I went to youth fellowship.
What is now Oval Court, but you can see those two houses,
there was a row of about... Well, there was a street there,
Downpatrick Street and I grew up in number 17.
It was all in this area, kind of right in the shadow
of Samson and Goliath and right beside the Oval.
Young Naomi was surrounded by flags and emblems.
Her dad was in the Orange Order and the Royal Black Preceptory.
He was master of the local lodge, and she remembers bands
marching off from the front of their home on the 12th of July.
We had the 12th left our house, I think, twice,
while I was growing up.
They used to head up to Templemore Avenue
and to District Six to join with the rest of the parade up there.
-So this is where you went to school?
It is, Mersey Street Primary School.
These were some of our primary photographs.
Our class photos. That was me in P3.
Mrs Little, one of my favourite teachers.
This is where the headmaster's office kind of was,
in this corridor. There was a school office. Headmaster's office.
So you were only here if there was kind of bad news
-or you were really bad.
-Were you ever bad?
I was never sent here for anything bad.
The only time I was sent to the headmaster's office,
it was bad news. And it was that my dad had taken ill
and was taken into hospital. He had a stroke.
James Johnston never worked again.
Two years later, he died of a heart attack
on the street outside their home.
After her dad's death, she says an incident happened
that affected her deeply,
a defining moment that would help shape her political beliefs.
Her mum, Emily, an outspoken woman,
stood up to Loyalists who she believed were trying bully her.
When workers from the Irish Republic arrived in Mersey Street
to build Housing Executive flats, she disagreed with Loyalist plans
to paint the kerbs red, white and blue
and she refused to help pay for it.
They came round to do a collection to get money
to paint the kerbs and my mum said no.
She also wasn't happy because she knew it was being done
because of the workmen.
And the next morning when she got up and lifted the blind,
there was a massive Union flag painted outside the house
with "No surrender, remember 1690" on it, you know.
And that was the message, I guess to her, you know,
that you don't express your opinions unless they're in agreement
with everyone else. It did shake her.
You know, internally, she was nervous about what had happened,
but she was determined to stand up for herself.
It wasn't that she minded the flag, it wasn't that she was anti-flag,
it wasn't anything like that.
It was just she didn't like it being abused to try and exert control
and that has, I guess...
That has been something that's very deep in me, too.
Emily Johnston's stand would lay the groundwork
for her daughter's political vision,
and challenge her to seek out an alternative to mainstream Unionism.
Naomi Long joined the Alliance Party while studying engineering
as a student at Queen's University.
She became MLA for her home constituency in 2003.
Thank you very much. It was lovely.
But her most significant, show-stopping moment came in 2010,
when she sensationally defeated Peter Robinson
in the Westminster election, becoming the first non-Unionist MP
to represent East Belfast.
And I declare that Naomi Long has been elected to serve in Parliament,
-for the East Belfast constituency.
-CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
It was an extraordinary victory for her
and a massive defeat for Unionism.
Peter Robinson had held the safe seat for over 30 years.
From that moment, Naomi Long was the target of Unionists
determined to win it back.
That scared Unionism, which had spent the past 50 years
telling people you must vote for this person.
This person is a Unionist,
this person believes in the flag and suddenly, out of nowhere,
in 2010, an Alliance candidate,
someone like Naomi Long,
a woman, for goodness' sake!
Instead of these parties going, "Why did we lose?"
which is the real thing you do when you lose an election,
it was a, "Well, it's her fault,
"she's part of a bigger conspiracy, we must get together to stop this."
The opportunity to stop Naomi Long arose two years later,
when a dispute over a proposal to restrict the flying
of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall to designated days,
enabled the DUP and UUP to portray her and the Alliance Party
as enemies of the union.
Weeks before the crucial vote,
thousands of leaflets were distributed across the city.
They were produced by the DUP and UUP.
DUP counsellors helped to pay for and distribute them.
A perfectly legitimate factual leaflet was put out
by the Unionist representatives in Belfast City Council.
The leaflet was about awareness raising
in the hope that people would go to those
who had the casting votes, the Alliance Party,
and persuade them to support the flying of the flag.
The leaflet, printed in yellow - Alliance's colours -
listed contact details for the party headquarters and Naomi Long.
She believes it was a clear attempt to lay political blame
over the flag issue at her feet,
even though she was not on Belfast City Council
and didn't have a vote.
I think the leaflet was about making me a figure of hate
for Unionists in East Belfast
in order that I would lose the seat in Westminster,
or leave the seat in Westminster,
and I don't think they cared too much either way which it was.
But I think it was completely politically motivated.
I don't think it was about the flag.
The DUP have denied
that they produced the leaflet to damage her.
They dismiss suggestions that the campaign was focused
on East Belfast as nonsense.
Contact details for all Alliance offices in Belfast
were given out, they say.
But in 2012, there were only two Alliance offices in the city.
Party HQ in South Belfast
and Naomi Long's East Belfast constituency office.
The DUP say they provided publicly available details for both offices,
not for individual representatives.
But they did single out Naomi Long, who was the only Alliance member
named in the leaflet.
While it urges respect, it also accuses her and her party
of wanting to rip and tear down the Union flag
on all but a few days.
When the motion was passed at City Hall,
violence erupted within minutes.
SIRENS AND YELLING
It continued to escalate.
Naomi Long was one of those who bore the brunt of Loyalist anger.
She received her first death threat days after the vote.
I had just gone to bed and we got a rap on the door
from the police.
And they told me that... Very bluntly, that a threat
had been issued, that if I returned to my office or stayed at my home,
I would be shot.
And that it had come from a paramilitary organisation
with recognised codewords.
Between 2012 and 2013,
the MP for East Belfast received five death threats.
Police confirmed some of them were from the UVF.
Alliance offices were picketed and petrol bombed
and staff assaulted.
It was almost impossible for them at times to function
because of protesters outside and yet she didn't back down.
A PSNI officer on duty outside Naomi Long's office
was almost killed when a bomb was thrown through the window
of a police car.
Did you, at any time,
think, "Something might happen, I could get shot here?"
Yes, I did. I don't think I'm invincible.
At the end of the day, I have a strong faith.
If something's going to happen, it's going to happen.
There isn't anything that I can do to change that, by a day or an hour,
it's not in my gift.
She says she recognised faces in the mob.
She was being attacked by some of her old neighbours
and people she went to school with.
That was an odd experience.
Because they weren't just faceless people,
they were people that I knew.
-How do you deal with that?
-I didn't feel afraid of them,
because they weren't scary people - they were angry people.
And I don't entirely blame the people in the protest
for that anger, but I do blame those who whipped it up.
The DUP and UUP leaders appealed for the protest to stop.
Anyone who attacks a police officer,
anyone who attacks an elected politician,
anyone who attacks any individual,
fails to understand the values that encapsulate the Union flag.
There is no rationale. How do you call yourself a Loyalist
and then throw a petrol bomb into the back of a police car?
I mean, it is absurd.
But Naomi Long says those appeals came too late for her and her party.
Do you think they anticipated the violence that happened?
Erm... Probably... Probably not.
But I don't know that they really cared one way or the other
when they delivered the leaflets.
I mean, the leaflets were written in such a way
that they were designed to wind people up.
Both the UUP and DUP have categorically denied any attempt
to whip up hatred.
No-one was out on the streets after that leaflet was put out.
No-one was out on the streets.
It wasn't until the vote was taken
and parties decided that they wanted to alter the status quo
that people came on the streets.
The leaflet campaign, the awareness campaign, failed,
but it didn't provoke the violence.
It was the result of the vote that provoked the violence.
There are those who accuse Naomi Long of being a hypocrite.
She condemned Loyalist demonstrations,
but had been happy to reap the benefits of a Loyalist protest vote
against Peter Robinson in 2010.
Today, it's widely accepted that the PUP, historically linked to the UVF,
then led by Dawn Purvis, encouraged members to support her,
rather than the DUP.
Well, I mean, it is levelled constantly, and it's a lie.
If individual members of those organisations vote for me,
I can't do anything about that.
If they think that I'm providing representation
that's good for them and their community,
there's nothing I can or would want to change about that,
but I have never sought their support,
I have never had any kind of arrangements with them.
Did you canvas with Dawn Purvis in 2010 in East Belfast?
No! I didn't canvas with Dawn Purvis in any election anywhere.
This is another piece of the "UVF supporting Alliance" myth.
Today, Naomi Long's home is still ringed with security sensors
and has bombproof windows and doors.
She shares her home with her husband, Michael, a dentist.
They've been together since they were 14.
You're both in the Alliance Party.
Obviously, you're a councillor. Is there ever any friction there?
Not really. We both got elected at the same time about 15 years ago
and my trajectory has kind of gone like that
and Naomi's has kind of gone like that!
So... Yeah, I mean, you know,
Naomi has a lot of talents as a politician and, erm...
I know my place, don't I?
Not at all! Everybody assumes that I'm the feisty one
but anybody who has seen him in the chamber,
I can tell you, he's feisty enough when it suits him.
Do you ever get a word in edgeways?
Oh, yeah! Sometimes, when she's sleeping.
The couple were deeply affected by the flag protests.
But Naomi Long says she would take the same stand again.
Do you understand why people would say,
"Representative for East Belfast, how could you not have known
"that people would have been genuinely distressed, offended,
"by any attempt to remove the flag?"
Because it wasn't an attempt to remove the flag
and that's the fundamental lie in all of this.
The attempt to remove the flag was Sinn Fein's proposal,
that the flag should not fly.
Alliance didn't support that proposal.
Alliance supported a proposal to fly the flag in the same way
as it's flown at the majority of council buildings
across the rest of the UK.
But four years on, the deep hurt and anger of those people
who felt betrayed by her stance has not diminished.
The Alliance leader grew up yards from Glentoran football ground.
Today, many fans bristle at the very mention of her name,
including those who were not involved in the flag protests.
I think she's a traitor to this area, to East Belfast.
And why do you think she's a traitor to this area?
Well, people elected her and she didn't do
-what she said she was going to do.
-What did you want her to do?
I wanted her to support the people of East Belfast.
I just think she's following the Sinn Fein agenda.
She's not pro-Unionist at all.
Do you think a non-Unionist
can represent the people of East Belfast?
-Some people in Alliance could do, but not Naomi.
-Why not Naomi?
Because - just her views. She's just anti-Unionist.
Do you agree with her politics?
-No, I do not.
-She's all one-sided.
Others believe Naomi Long does represent Unionists
in East Belfast.
She's hard-working, she comes from this area
and she's the right type of person.
And what did you make of her stance on the flag protests?
Well... what's the difference? Was that not the policy in Stormont?
Why isn't it designated days for everywhere in this country?
At the very height of the violence around the flag protests,
Naomi Long had to deal with another threat, a major health scare.
A mole on her wrist was skin cancer.
Can you remember where you were when they said,
"Look, you've got cancer?"
I was in my living room, because the person who had looked at my wrist
was a friend as well as my doctor and had come to tell me at home...
Erm... What it was. But I knew.
I guess a cancer diagnosis
kind of puts a bullet in the post in perspective.
Because, you know, whatever politics can do to you,
whatever threats people can make, there's nothing quite as frightening
as when your own body is working against you.
It was just...pure devastation to find out that this is what it was.
It was malignant melanoma and...
Just that it wasn't...
It had been there for a wee while,
and obviously that was of real concern. And...
..really, I think, at that stage, you're just wondering
what was coming next, to be honest with you,
between the flag stuff and everything else.
I had to go back for further surgery
where I had an additional part of my skin
on my wrist removed around it, a sort of safe zone.
And my arm then had to be reflected back and put in a cast
to avoid me having a skin graft.
Once the cancer was cut out,
there was no need for further treatment,
but there would be more health scares in the coming months.
I think it was within about six months
that there was another kind of lesion was found. And...
I think that just really knocked us for six at that point,
because we kind of thought you were getting over it a bit,
and then this happened again.
Where are you now with your diagnosis?
Three and a half years clear. And feeling good.
I've had two other moles removed which were fine,
but I'm obviously really cautious now,
so anything at all that gives me any trouble,
I get it looked at immediately and preferably removed.
She says she's talking about it now
to help raise awareness about skin cancer.
If I had talked about it then,
it would have been portrayed as me wishing to be a victim.
And I'm nobody's victim.
I didn't want anyone to think I was seeking sympathy.
She was determined, she says, to keep going,
but Unionists were determined that she wouldn't be back at Westminster.
In 2015, they joined forces, forming a pact
to ensure Gavin Robinson of the DUP
could win back the East Belfast seat for Unionism.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists unveiled an electoral pact
covering four general election constituencies.
The DUP did not field candidates
in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh.
The UUP gave the DUP a clear run at Westminster
in North and East Belfast.
East Belfast, once one of the electoral
jewels of Unionism's crown.
She had made it an unsafe seat for Unionism.
They had to do a pact to make sure they could win the seat back.
The strength of the animosity that existed
between the DUP and Naomi Long
was evident in Gavin Robinson's acceptance speech.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted the last five long years are over.
With the Unionist vote united around one candidate,
Naomi Long was defeated, even though she increased her vote by 4,000.
After her defeat, Naomi Long and her husband took six months out
to travel the world.
She considered leaving politics for good.
I didn't go to any meetings, any political meetings,
I didn't watch political television. I switched off completely.
But, she says, in the end she realised her future lay in politics.
I just felt that for me, it was the right thing to be doing,
it was something that I really enjoy.
As Alliance Leader, Naomi Long's biggest challenge
will be to carve out a significant role,
a relevant voice for a small party that's not in government,
not in opposition, and that still struggles to be heard
outside its power base of greater Belfast.
If we're talking about our strength as a society being diversity...
But Naomi Long is confident that she can attract new voters.
We have a challenge in terms of integrating communities.
People with different sexualities who feel excluded from society.
We have people who come here from other places
and from ethnic minority backgrounds,
who often keep their head down in politics.
My vision for the Alliance Party is to build on the diversity
that we have as a party.
But how much appeal will that vision have
with voters across Northern Ireland?
She did attract votes from all across the political spectrum
in East Belfast, but they were very specific circumstances
and there was a lot of sympathy towards Naomi Long.
Can she do it across Northern Ireland? That remains to be seen.
I think she's in for a very tough time in terms of attracting voters
to Alliance west of the Bann.
I don't think Alliance's agenda necessarily appeals there.
And in working-class Catholic areas,
I really can't see Alliance breaking through.
Naomi Long has a strong Christian faith
but she says that doesn't constrain her vision
of a progressive, liberal society.
But her liberal views have already caused tension
with more conservative Christians within her church.
I think if she was an atheist, if she was agnostic,
she would be easier to deal with,
because this woman does go to church on a Sunday
and yet holds these liberal views.
So it's very, very hard to put her down as being anti-God
or some kind of dangerous radical.
The new Alliance leader has made legalisation of same-sex marriage
and abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality
her priorities, but her liberal social agenda
does not appeal to everyone.
I think she needs to be careful,
first of all in assuming that all her party back her.
There is probably quite a sizeable section of the Alliance vote
which would be uncomfortable with same-sex marriage.
Many of them would also be uncomfortable
with the abortion changes.
I'm simply saying because you take a position
on the socio-moral ground, again that may not necessarily translate
into votes at a later stage.
Same-sex marriage has already caused a public disagreement
between the Presbyterian Church and the Alliance party.
Justice Minister David Ford has been removed from his role as an elder
in his local Presbyterian church.
Naomi Long is a member of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church
in East Belfast.
Her minister, Dr Frank Sellar, is the Presbyterian Moderator.
He agreed to talk to me as her minister and says he admires
her public expression of faith.
Simply because somebody is a Christian doesn't mean to say
they have to hide that under a bush.
So it is right that politicians should express their Christian faith
in whatever way they can.
But he says they have repeatedly clashed
on the issue of same-sex marriage.
Well, Naomi and I have had robust conversations.
They really have been quite upfront.
She knows the position, the historic position
of the Christian church,
that marriage is between one man and one woman.
And just because this, as it were, is the flavour of the month,
doesn't mean to say that the historic position of the church
is going to change on that matter.
People may or may not accept it.
We don't... We're are not in the business of being popular.
Naomi Long says her minister's views
won't deter her from promoting same-sex marriage.
He is entitled to a view, he is entitled to express it, as am I.
But for many, however successful her liberal vision may or may not be,
as leader, it's her attitude to the union that really matters.
It always comes back to the issue, where do you stand on the union?
And it doesn't matter what other vision you have,
an economic vision, moral vision, social vision,
none of that really matters
if people say, "Well, actually, I'm with you on that,
"but my priority is you making sure that Northern Ireland
"either stays in the UK or we pave a path to a united Ireland."
Because the voters care one way or the other.
But the union simply isn't a priority for Naomi Long.
You've said you're not a Unionist but do you care about the union?
Well, I care about Northern Ireland and its future
and I care about the people who live here.
-And the end of the day...
-Do you care about the union?
Does it get me out of bed in the morning?
Would it drive me to stay in politics when I was deciding last...
December, what I was going to do with my future,
was the union at the forefront of my decision making? No, it wasn't.
It was society in Northern Ireland and what it could be like.
I'm not going to say that I am something that I'm not.
I'm going to be the person that I am and be honest about it.
So, yes, would it make life easier for me
if I pretended I was a Unionist?
Maybe it would. But it's not who I am. It wouldn't be honest.
Her position on the union is in stark contrast
to that of the First Minister, who, like Naomi Long,
is the first woman to lead her party.
She says she is surprised by Arlene Foster's leadership style.
Take the stuff around the All-Ireland Brexit Forum.
You know, you'd expect the First Minister,
if they weren't going to participate,
to simply decline politely, you know,
not to call it a sort of a forum for "Remoaners".
I find that approach probably in some ways less pragmatic
and at times slightly less finessed than her predecessor,
and I never thought I would be in a position where I thought that.
Observers say their contrasting approaches
will make the next five years at Stormont particularly interesting.
In some ways Naomi Long and Arlene Foster are very, very alike.
They're both strong women, they both have a bit of a temper.
And they're both head and shoulders above the men in their own parties.
Now, their politics are very different.
Naomi is liberal and progressive
and Arlene, even though she isn't a traditional woman,
has traditional politics.
Are they going to clash? I think so.
Will there be ding-dong battles in Stormont? Yes.
But the most formidable challenge for Naomi Long
will be outside Stormont -
to win more votes for a vision of politics
not dominated by flags and the Constitution.
And in Northern Ireland, that continues to be an uphill battle.