THE LEADER of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party has warned the SNP and Conservatives against using divisions around the constitution to secure votes in the election, arguing the issue is a "disruptive force" which has not served her country well.

Naomi Long, who is the Northern Ireland justice minister, spoke to the Herald ahead of the elections this week about her concerns over the country’s raging constitutional debate, urging caution on all sides.

Ms Long also said she was backing Willie Rennie and the Scottish Lib Dems, as she sees them as the only party willing to put aside the debate around Scottish independence and move forward to tackle issues which affect people’s ordinary lives and their communities.

HeraldScotland: Willie RennieWillie Rennie

Having been a member of the Northern Irish legislative assembly since 2016, Ms Long has also been an MP, defeating then First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson in 2010 to become the first Alliance party MP in the Commons. She has been involved in politics for two decades, first sitting as a councillor in Belfast in 2001.

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She said the issue of the constitution has become a “cleavage issue” in her country, and it has not resulted in the best outcomes for its citizens.

She said: “In the context of Northern Ireland, we're very familiar with the constitutional question becoming, if you like, the main cleavage in politics and it hasn't served Northern Ireland well.

"We haven't had the kind of stability that we might otherwise have had in terms for politics.

"It's been incredibly disruptive as a force. Obviously we have had that extra layer of violence that has attended our constitutional disagreement, which takes us to a different level.

“However just the constant division… every issue and Northern Ireland can be divided along constitutional lines. We have that extra layer of sectarian division which overlays that as well.

“When you bring all that together, you fragment the energy and the vision that you have for a place and the ability to just deliver real progressive change becomes diminished.

“Instead of us focused on what we can do for the whole community, people's focus is very much on how they serve their own section of the community. There's a real risk around that, when, when the constitutional issue becomes a major cleavage.”

HeraldScotland: Naomi Long Naomi Long

Ms Long said that while Northern Ireland may be relatively unique in its strong ties between religion and constitutional beliefs, this is not a prerequisite for disruption when it comes to debating independence. She also added that the violent backdrop to northern Irish politics, while not always replicated elsewhere, should be treated as a warning for those seeking to exploit the constitutional divide for their own political gain.

Ms Long herself has been subject to death threats, and in 2012 a petrol bomb was thrown inside an unmarked police car guarding her constituency office.

She explained: “It doesn't need to be an embedded division like we have in Northern Ireland, it doesn't need to be a sectarian division in order for it to cause real damage to community relations and cohesion.

“I think Brexit is a classic example of that.

“Instead of seeing people as your colleagues and your friends and the people that you have to work with, people immediately became ‘Remoaners’ and ‘Brexiteers’. We put these labels on people and then we can't really engage with them in any constructive way.

“Its really concerning because for me the whole purpose of politics is about problem solving, and problem solving is about building consensus around solutions. Actually when it comes to these kind of very polarising questions, it does the opposite.”

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The MLA for Belfast East also said the ‘Trumpian’ era in UK politics will not last forever, and any permanent decisions about the constitution should not be in reaction to temporary situations.

She said: “As awful as I think Boris Johnson is as prime minister, as awful as I think Brexit is, when you're making decisions that are permanent you shouldn't be influenced by the temporary.

"Whatever Boris might be, he is temporary. Whatever the phase is we're going through, at the moment in politics, it is temporary. It's that Trumpian phase that we're having.

“If you're predisposed to independence or in our case Irish unity, Boris is the walking embodiment of why people would want that because he is dismissive of devolution. He's not a respecter of the devolved settlement.

“But I think it's much deeper than that. I'm not sure Boris really cares about England either, this is not just about his disregard for Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales, I think this is about his disregard for the UK as a whole because it's ultimately all about Boris.

“When you look at it in that context, I wouldn't allow the way he behaves to define the choices that I would want to make for the country that are permanent.”

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Despite the Alliance party being affiliated with the Liberal Democrats, Ms Long was never part of the coalition government in 2010 and never held the LibDem whip. Nevertheless, she still sees the party as an ally and has backed Willie Rennie in the upcoming Holyrood elections.

She explained: “From my point of view as a liberal politician, you know, I want to see a liberal democracy but I want to see one that is open, that is internationalist, that has a vision for the future, that is about devolution and actually giving power back to people at the local level.

“That's the kind of future that I want to promote and I know that's one of the key things from the Lib Dems. They are passionate about devolution, about putting power in the hands of local people and about actually wanting people to feel connected.”

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Asked about the similarities between her own party and the Liberal Democrats, Ms Long said they were like a “family, that had its differences.”

She explained: “We're sister parties but like any family we have our differences. We're not identical copies because we're very much focussed on shaping our policies to suit our constituents.

“Those are the things that I see in the Lib Dems that I also see in Alliance, but I also know from our  experience here in Northern Ireland that if you allow the constitutional issue to divide and affect every single conversation, then every conversation moves very slowly and very little actually gets done.”

Ms Long said that in Northern Ireland, parties which offer “liberal, progressive politics” are gaining ground as more people move away from fighting along constitutional lines.

She said: “We're seeing a growth over the last couple of years because increasingly when challenges arise, whether it's Brexit, Covid, or climate change, people are saying those are the issues that are going to mark my future, the future for my children and we need to focus on those and try to get it right.

“To me that's what we should be looking for now, how to lead for the country as a whole rather than splitting it up into sections for and against.”