Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The lives of people in the North are being made harder by not having a functioning powersharing Executive at Stormont, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has said.
She delivered a sharp criticism of DUP tactics as she accused the party of having no solutions to longstanding issues and instead using Stormont as leverage to force the UK government to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol, which she said “no-one is losing sleep over”.
In an interview with the PA news agency ahead of Thursday’s Assembly elections, Mrs Long also spoke about the need to reform Stormont, saying it is not representative of many people who no longer see themselves solely as unionist or nationalist.
The post-Brexit protocol has angered unionists, who view the additional checks on goods arriving into the North from Britain as 'Irish Sea border'.
Earlier this year, the DUP pulled out of the Stormont Executive in protest at the protocol, and party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said during the election campaign that he will not re-enter government after the election until his concerns are addressed.
A number of opinion polls have indicated that the cross-community Alliance Party could see a surge in support in the election, and its leader said the DUP should commit to re-entering government as Stormont has no power to change the protocol.
Mrs Long said: “I don’t think the DUP should take it for granted that people will vote for them in the numbers that it will matter if they go back into government.
“I think that is a very presumptuous position to take as a politician.
“The public might decide to vote for other parties and the DUP’s role in this will not be as significant as it might currently be.”
She added: “The other thing to consider is this: what is the alternative to having devolved government because we can’t change the protocol as local parties?
“We can certainly talk to the European Union, we can talk to the UK government, we can try to find solutions. But we can’t change it, we don’t have that power.
“This is simply using our institutions, our government as leverage in order to be able to force the UK government to do something.
“But I think that does a disservice to what local government can actually achieve.”
Mrs Long said local parties should instead be focusing on how to solve bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living and health service waiting lists.
“We know that people are hurting, people have issues in terms of the cost-of-living crisis, people are really struggling.
“We also know that we haven’t been able to use money which is currently sitting with the Department of Finance. We haven’t been able to distribute that to the public in any shape or form or to spend it on public services because we haven’t been able to have a government.
“If the DUP want to continue down that road, people need to recognise the consequences of that.
“It means we won’t have a budget so we won’t be able to do things like prioritise the health service as we had planned, it means that we won’t be able to put money in people’s pockets so they can actually start to tackle some of those cost-of-living pressures.
“I think if you ask most people those are the things that they want to see fixed.”
Mrs Long continued: “I don’t think the DUP have solutions to those problems if their only solution to anything is not to have a government. Whatever our challenges, whatever the challenges of the protocol, it cannot be made better by not having a government here; all that does is make people’s lives harder.
“I think that is the last message that people want to hear from local politicians.
“No-one is going to be losing sleep over the protocol but people are genuinely losing sleep because they don’t know how they are going to pay their bills, they don’t know how they are going to feed their families.”
The Alliance leader said it is not sustainable to maintain a situation in the Assembly where MLAs are designated as unionist, nationalist or other.
“We would like to see the designations gone,” she said.
“I believe that fundamentally what it does is disenfranchises those of us who choose not to designate as unionist or nationalist.
“But it also creates mutual vetoes in the Assembly and the result of that is that, instead of being able to be encouraged to co-operate, it is actually in people’s interests to form these kind of vetoes and just refuse to do things.
“I think that by taking away the designations system you create an impetus for people to actually work across the chamber, to moderate their proposals but also to be more likely to work together to deliver things.
“I also think that it would deal with the fundamental inequality that some people’s votes count for less than others in the Assembly, which isn’t something that I think is sustainable and never really has been.”
She added: “More than that, it would allow us to deal with issues like the First and Deputy First Minister’s office. We know it’s a co-equal office, we know that they both hold the same amount of power, so let’s just be honest and call it the joint first ministers’ office.
“Many people in our community no longer view themselves simply through the lens of unionist or nationalist, people have all sorts of things which drive them to vote, that shape their politics.
“I think this idea that everyone sees it through the paradigm of unionist and nationalist is a pretty dated outlook. It isn’t one that reflects the population of Northern Ireland as it is.
“Even those who are unionist or nationalist are often driven by other issues.”