The last conflict generation?

©Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland 11th January 2013 - Mandatory Credit - Picture by Brian Thompson /presseye.com

Naomi Long MP picturds in East Belfast Naomi Long believes that dealing with the past comprehensively will reduce sectarian tension.

The Alliance MP discusses a potential way forward with Peter Cheney and reviews her time in Parliament to date.

“I want it to end with me,” Naomi Long states. “I don’t want another young person in 20 or 30 years’ time to have the memories that I have or the experiences that I have.”

Born in 1971, the Alliance MP is adamant that comprehensively resolving the legacy of the conflict is essential for continued progress in Northern Ireland. The legacy of the Troubles is one of the subjects to be considered by this autumn’s cross-party talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass.

Alliance believes that the Eames-Bradley report (January 2009) provides the best starting point for this debate and regrets that the report was effectively dismissed because of one proposal: the £12,000 recognition payments.

Eames-Bradley’s other proposals included an independent ‘legacy commission’ for reconciliation and historical case reviews, a moratorium on new public inquiries and an annual day of reflection and reconciliation.

When a person loses a relative to violence, there is a “gap in their life” and an “empty seat in their home that will never be filled.” In Long’s view, the right approach is “forward-looking” rather than retrospective: “How do we deal with it in a way that allows us to make progress and allows us to build reconciliation and to build a shared future going forward?” A solution on the past would “start to diffuse” tensions at interfaces and help to resolve disputes over flags and parades.

Such a deal, it is put to her, is very idealistic given the intensity of the Troubles and the sharply different interpretations of that conflict. “I think if you don’t have aspiration and vision, then you’re lost,” she firmly responds, “so you’ve got to aspire to something positive and good if you’re going to be driven in the right direction.”

Instead, Long sees this as realism: “We would be naïve, which is worse than idealistic, if we thought we could continue as a society to build progress without dealing with those [issues].”

The MP wants to see an objective factual narrative of the Troubles, on which people can base their interpretations. Alliance believes that the current definition of victim is “appropriate” for the work of the Victims and Survivors Service.

“I don’t believe that there is a hierarchy of suffering,” she clarifies, “so I don’t think that one person’s pain and another person’s pain can be weighed against each other on the basis of how that pain came to be.”

From talking with victims, she thinks that a “piecemeal” approach is compounding hurt and pain. Some families will receive a public inquiry or a satisfactory report from Historical Enquiries Team, and others will not. Long continues: “Paramilitaries might get let out on licence, as they did during the Good Friday Agreement, but some people are still in exile and can’t return.”

Naomi Long Oliver Napier Westminster

Long found the size of Parliament “a bit overwhelming” when she arrived after her election in 2010. “Obviously, you become more familiar with the location,” she continues, “and I suppose the point of familiarity for me really was when I went into the chamber itself because it actually feels remarkably like the chamber in the City Hall.”

The House of Commons served as the model for Belfast City Hall and, while it appears large on television, it’s “actually quite intimate when you’re in a debate.” Most standing orders in the council and the Assembly are also based on parliamentary procedures.

Westminster’s culture, though, is very different. She is sometimes frustrated, and sometimes amused, when other MPs view it as an “old boys’ club” rather than a place of work. That said, Long continues to be impressed with the speed at which business is carried out. A Queen’s speech announcement will be debated within weeks, compared to “what at times felt like really glacial progress at the Assembly.”

As a party, Alliance has worked hard behind the scenes to link progress on a shared future and the economy, a connection which is now seen “very visibly” in UK Government policy. Long and party leader David Ford insisted to David Cameron: “You can’t have one without the other. You need the economic development but you’ve got to have stability.”

It is put to her that the Government understood that beforehand. “Well, I think there was a reluctance sometimes to articulate it,” Long replies, “because there was a resistance in the Assembly to acknowledge that that was the case.” The stated priority at Stormont is “the economy, the economy, the economy” whereas the shared future policy was delayed. She senses a “change of direction” in the Assembly now that the Government has made this a priority.

International development is a strong personal interest for Long e.g. by successfully lobbying for ministers to attend a high level summit on water and sanitation in Washington last year. Long “cannot claim credit for that solely” but ministers have acknowledged that she has taken a lead on the issue and also on religious freedom in developing countries. Her status as a sole MP, in her view, gives her a greater ability to bring MPs together on a cross-party basis.

Alliance aims to “engage constructively” with Parliament and Long focuses her energy on non-devolved issues, which have direct or indirect consequences for the province, or issues which set “broad principles” for the UK as a whole.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee includes MPs “with a genuine interest” in the province. The Secretary of State “and I would have to say particularly the Shadow Secretary of State” are very interested in Northern Ireland.

As for Parliament’s local relevance, the regional consequences of welfare reform are “stark but yet the debate in Northern Ireland happened quite late” after the main decisions had been taken in Parliament. Long voted against the Bill at its second reading.

Aviation policy has a direct impact on Belfast City Airport. She has reservations about extending its runway but wants to see better management of airport-related noise. Many of her constituency cases involve banking or broadband; some businesses in the harbour estate have found themselves in “not spots” and have had to move office as a result.

Northern Ireland, Long points out, can also bring a “fresh and different” perspective which can inform wider debates e.g. on justice, human rights and the role of women in conflict resolution.

Flags

“We still have a very long road to travel before we have a completely transformed society,” she says, reflecting on the flags dispute last winter. A political process has delivered the institutions of the Assembly but has “under-delivered” on reconciliation and building a more integrated society.

Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Long believes that Northern Ireland has achieved “a veneer of stability and normality” but “when you then try to change something and the underlying problem [of division] erupts, it can be seen as a very destabilising thing.”

Belfast is a “transformed place” compared to city of her childhood or even of her student days in the 1990s. However, the underlying “disconnect between communities” is still there and runs like a fault-line through society: “We rub together and effectively we rub along okay and then suddenly something sticks, and everything is shaken to its core.”

To use another analogy, one taken up by Terence O’Neill in December 1968, she remarks that Northern Ireland is at a crossroads. “We can either go on poking each other in the eye intermittently and hoping that the reaction isn’t too strong,” Long adds, “or we can take a decision that, actually, we are willing to sit around the table and make some very painful and difficult decisions on all sides, to actually further the cause of reconciliation and start to deliver change.”

During the protests, the MP received three death threats, all of which are still being investigated by the police. “I have an obligation to stand up against bullying of that kind,” Long states. “If not for me and for the people I represent, for all of the people who can’t because it’s happening in their street, in their neighbourhood, and they’re living in fear.

“Somebody needs to speak out and say that it’s wrong and somebody needs to show that you won’t give into it because if you give into it today, then someone else will experience it tomorrow. It just incentivises issuing those threats against people.”

Related Posts