I got involved in local politics just after the General Election in 2010. I watched as the political landscape changed dramatically with the Lib Dems walking into Downing Street with David Cameron and the Conservatives. I also watched with astonishment as Alliance Party deputy leader Cllr Naomi Long MLA bounced from coming in third place to unseating DUP leader Peter Robinson in Belfast East. The idea that one person could defy the odds, against every possible prediction, poll, pundit and probability and make a difference inspired me to want to do the same.
It made me want to do better for my city, for my community and for my country. At the time I was so inspired but also so intimidated by the sheer size of mainstream party politics that I did not join the Alliance Party and in June 2010 I submitted my membership form to the Green Party and for two years I cut my teeth devloping policy and campaigning for social justice within the small yet nimble environmentalist party. I had the pleasure of working with some incredibly passionate activists like Ross Brown, Claire Bailey and Steven Agnew but as time went on I knew that my heart and my head lay elsewhere.
I could not ignore the positive impact that Naomi was having in my own constituency as my MP. Standing up for the vulnerable, opposing draconian Lib/Con cuts to public spending, welfare and a strong track record on human rights, religious freedom, LGBT advocacy, carers, young people and a charismatic and warm character that was unlike any of the dull, grey men that I had met before. Sometime around late 2011, possibly early 2012 I became a volunteer with Belfast YMCA and became close friends and colleagues with a young woman by the name of Sian O’Neill. Through the dedication and passion that Sian exuded in her work with young people and by seeing the impact that working with people like Chris Lyttle and Naomi Long was having on her I knew I was missing out on something amazing. Naomi agreed to host our youth group on a visit to Westminster and it was around the same time that I took the plunge and joined the Alliance Party.
I immediately became involved with the local association and I can still remember how nervous I was as I spoke in front of Naomi and the local East Belfast Alliance team for the first time. A lot has changed since then and I am confident that Naomi can attest to just how hard it has become to shut me up. But when you feel passionately about something how can you keep quiet? I learned that from her.
I had the honour of being selected as one of two candidates for the DEA of Castlereagh East on the new Lisburn/Castlereagh super council along with Alliance stalwart Cllr Tim Morrow. I knew that if I wanted to make things better then it was time to pony up the dough and take a chance, put my neck on the line and #StepForward (see what I did there?). The campaign was exhausting, tiring and at times it felt as though it would be easier to throw in the towel and give into defeat weeks before polling day but I knew that if Naomi could keep working through the intimidation and threats of the flag protests, Loyalist paramilitaries and the nasty, bully boy tactics of Unionist politicians then who the hell was I to give up?
We have had our disagreements, we have had our victories and we have had laughter over the last three years but I can’t thank Naomi, her husband Michael and the Alliance family in East Belfast for the support, be that emotional, personal, professional or political, during some of the toughest days I have faced as a human being. I can’t thank Naomi enough for her good wishes, her kind words and for coming out in the pissing rain on a cold day in April to knock doors for me in Ballybeen estate whilst I was handling a full time job, a full time election campaign and looking after my father who was gravely ill. I want to thank her on behalf of my family and my community for the work she has done for us since 2010, standing up for us when we needed someone to stand up for us. Resolute, dignified, brave.
Yes, that’s the word I would use to describe Naomi if anyone would ask – brave.
I have had the pleasure and the privilege of being involved with perhaps the most ambitious and well oiled campaign this country has ever seen. I am immensely proud of the team of staff – Sian, Sam, Nuala, Sharon, Ben – all of the office staff at HQ, that of Chris Lyttle and Judith Cochrane and the dozens of volunteers who day after day spurred each other on to knock each door, walk every street and shake every hand to deliver on a future that the people of East Belfast deserved but did not hold. A special thanks should also be given to David and his wife Anne for their leadership, support and courage. We can hold our heads high for a dignified, honest and heartfelt campaign the likes of which has never been seen before.
Naomi you are my mentor and colleague, a constant inspiration to myself and many thousands of others both in East Belfast and far beyond. I have never met a woman of such character, grace and strength even when faced with impossible odds, a sustained campaign of harassment, abuse and political misrepresentation. There are so many things I want to thank Naomi for, but most importantly I want to thank you for being my friend. I look forward to seeing how you will continue to propel us forwards and I am confident that whilst this is only a temporary setback for Northern Ireland, the brightest days are yet to come.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead