Alliance leader urges Brexiteers in Northern Ireland to change their minds over ‘unicorn’ Brexit

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland leader Naomi Long. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland leader Naomi Long. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long is challenging voters in Northern Ireland to change their minds over the 'unicorn' EU exit they were promised.

The Alliance Party has made gains in recent elections with its non-sectarian and cross-community message.

Despite Northern Ireland voting to Remain, 44% still voted to Leave, and she wants to win over those voters.

Long will try and reclaim the East Belfast Westminster seat from a pro-Brexit MP, claiming pledges made before the 2016 referendum do not stand up to scrutiny.

She said: "People were promised back in 2016 that we were going to get unicorn Brexit, that everything was going to be wonderful.

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"What we are now getting is lame donkey Brexit and I think people have a right to say, in the context of seeing all of that, that they have changed their minds."

She held mainly unionist East Belfast between 2010 and 2015, when she lost it to Gavin Robinson, a former special adviser to ex-Stormont first minister Peter Robinson.

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Robinson successfully retained a constituency which includes many working class loyalists as well as middle-class professionals in 2017.

Long said the prime minster's proposed EU exit deal was a poor shadow of Theresa May's offering, which failed to make it through parliament.

She said: "The offer that they are making people in Northern Ireland is not for a prosperous future, it is not for opportunities ahead, it is literally a no-deal catastrophic Brexit or a bad-deal Brexit.

"I don't think that is an acceptable choice for people to be faced with."

East Belfast retains much of Northern Ireland's dwindling heavy industry employment, recent deals were sealed to protect jobs in the aerospace and former shipbuilding sectors.

The Alliance leader claimed the DUP's 10 MPs elected to parliament in 2017 had shown an "abject failure" to prioritise Northern Ireland.

The DUP's pact with the Tories to support it on key legislation including Brexit produced an agreed funding windfall intended to boost roads infrastructure and health in Northern Ireland.

Long said: "A party with 10 MPs had the ear of two successive prime ministers yet we have ended up with a deal which they are the rest of the community find unacceptable.

"What we need are people who are willing to go to parliament and make the case of the majority of people in Northern Ireland."

Long is now an MEP in Brussels, having won the seat for Alliance for the first time in May.

Her party characterised its performance in the Euro poll and local council elections last spring as a surge.

She is standing in a constituency which once built the Titanic, but has suffered from the decline in heavy industry.

The shipyard which constructed the Titanic was saved from closure, but the number of employees has dwindled dramatically - and it last built a ship in 2003.

Neighbouring Bombardier Aerospace's wings construction operation was recently sold in a deal welcomed by workers.

Long said: "If we are going to have serious impact in terms of manufacturing and our business development generally what we don't want to do is undermine our economy further with the kind of shock that Brexit and particularly a no-deal Brexit would deliver.

"In order for industry to be able to prosper, in order for us to be able to provide some kind of certainty on the way forward for manufacturing and for other business we need stability, continuity and access to markets globally.

"Our best access globally at this time is through Europe and there is nothing to indicate that us exiting the EU will provide us with better market access."

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